How to Propagate Orchids

how to propagate orchids

Orchids are one of the most rewarding plants to grow. But they do require some special know-how, patience, and handling to propate.

Most orchids have only one or two ways they can be propagated: the most common ways are cuttings and division. The main requirements are some patience and a clean area to propagate in.  Still, orchids are more challenging to propagate than other plants.

how to propagate orchids

Orchids have a complex micro-bacterial system in their roots that other plants don't. So, balancing their needs when propagating can be a challenge. But don't worry! It's doable for most home growers.

Ways to propagate orchids

First, I'm going to do a quick overview of all the ways you can propagate an orchid, then I'll go into depth for each method. Here's the list of ways to propagate orchids:

  • cuttings
  • division
  • pseudo bulbs
  • keikis
  • seeds

Cuttings are one of the easiest ways to propagate orchids. Usually this entails cutting a leaf, root, or section of a stem off of a mother plant and placing it in a growth media that promotes its survival.

Being one of the easiest ways to propagate does not make it risk free though, you still need to be clean about the way you do the process. Too, there are a few orchids that don't take well to cuttings so educating yourself on which species are compatible is a good idea.

Another easy way to propagate orchids, and probably the safest, is division. 'Division' is taking advantage of a plant's natural inclination to multiply itself by offshoots and separating these offshoots from its parent.

Division in orchids can include cutting away the offshoot from its source plant, rather than just pulling them apart like you can do with other plants, so again, cleanliness is highly recommended to see good results.

A type of division which is different enough from other kinds of division to deserve its own section in this article, and which is almost entirely exclusive to orchids, is pseudo bulb division.

Pseudo bulbs are like the hump on a camel's back, storing extra water and nutrients for a time of hardship or future multiplication opportunities. Separating a pseudo bulb from the orchid that made it will trigger it to start its own growth and give you another plant.

Something else that is almost entirely exclusive to orchids is the creation of keikis.

Keikis form on a flowering stem as fully developed but tiny plants, complete with leaves, stems, and roots. As you may be able to guess, these little tikes are very fragile and need to be given special care.

The last way to propagate orchids, and the one that is shared with any species of orchid and any plant, is seeds. Orchid seeds are like dust, and need extremely specific conditions to grow, this separates their germination difficulty from that of other plants.

Which propagation method to use?

But don't get too squirmy, orchid seeds seem intimidating at first, and can be quite a challenge, but if you take the time to learn how they are different, and what they need to thrive, you will soon be enthralled with the method of growing them and either immerse yourself in the process, or find it's way too finicky for your tastes.

propagation Method

pros & cons

cuttings

  • Relatively easy
  • doesn't work with all orchids

Division

  • Easiest
  • Works with many orchids

pseudo bulbs

  • Relatively easy
  • Only works with some types of orchids

keikis

  • Relatively easy
  • exclusive to phalaenopsis orchids

seeds

  • Most difficult method
  • requires special equipment

Propagating orchids from cuttings

A few types of orchid that take to cuttings include- Ascocentrum, Dendrobium, Vanda and Ludisia.

There are three major types of cuttings; stem cuttings, leaf and root cuttings.

Stem cuttings are the most prevalent within the ranks of orchids, as all the species mentioned above can be propagated with this method. Dendrobiums are probably the easiest orchid to grow from cuttings.

Meristem propagation

Commercial orchid growers almost always propagate orchids by cutting the apical meristem (http://flor.hrt.msu.edu/assets/Uploads/Propagatingorchids.pdf). The apical meristem is basically, the tip of any new growth, which can grow into any part of the plant--sort of like stem cells. The meristem is then grown in a sterile environment in a solution of agar which provides nutrients to the fledgling plant.

The downsides to meristem propagation are that:

  • It can take up to 5 years for new plants to flower.
  • It requires special lab equipment and a carefully controlled sterile environment.

To take a stem cutting first identify a healthy section of stem on your orchid of choice; in other words, one that is plump and has plenty of aerial roots growing out of it. Cut just below each node of aerial roots, leaving a stem above the roots for a new orchid to grow, or cut between the nodes so that there is a node in the middle of the stem.

Grow these stem sections in a closed tray full of damp sphagnum moss. In a couple of weeks, they should begin to root and can be potted out in their own pots and mix. You can either lay the stem sections on their sides or plant them upright in the moss, the important thing is that you keep their conditions humid.

Leaf cuttings

As a genus, orchids cannot be propagated by leaf cuttings, however, there have been a few successful attempts at growing Vandas from leaf cuttings. Usually this is done with a newer leaf attached to a small section of the parent stem. If all is done in the cleanest way possible and the conditions are just right, the stem section will sometimes sprout new roots and continue growing.

To prevent the parent Vanda from suffering, rap the cut section of the stem with sphagnum moss and a piece of plastic bag until the wound has callused.

What's true of leaf cuttings is also true of root cuttings, orchids normally do not take to root cuttings by themselves. However, if a bit of leaf or stem is attached to the root the chances of it growing into a new plant dramatically increase.

For example, say you have a large orchid that is several years old and you would like another one in your collection. Let's say this particular orchid hasn't formed any aerial roots and doesn't have a stem with extra leaf nodes either. If you can carefully use a sterilized knife to cut away a leaf, a small part of the stem and a root or two there's a chance the separated section of plant may grow on its own.

Remember, with this experiment and any other cuttings, your goal is to cut the plant, not yourself, you can't grow a new you!

Once you have separated this section of plant from the original, cover both open parts on both plants with clean sphagnum moss and duct tape until a callus forms.

epidendrum orchids

Divisions

A few types of orchid that can be divided include: Cattleya, Paphiopedilium, Epidendrum and Lycaste.

Three kinds of division exist;

  • rhizome division,
  • plantlet offshoot division, and
  • pseudo bulb division, which will be covered in the next section.

Rhizome division is easily done with an orchid that has grown a new plant from its root system. This is much like the way in which grass multiplies itself by spreading out its roots and then sprouting new growth from the root tips.

All you need to do is sever the offshoot from its parent and pot it by itself. You may wish to dust the cut areas with a fungicide to keep the plants from getting an infection.

You can induce the creation of an offshoot in some orchids by cutting the tip of an active root off and using rooting hormone powder or other growth powders. Only use this method on orchids that produce offshoots by rhizomes naturally as it won't work on one which doesn't.

The other method of division is plantlets. Some orchids form these on the ends of special stems like spider plants do. You can sever the plantlet from its parent and pot it on its own. If the plantlet doesn't have any roots you can scratch the basal area to open the callus and initiate root development, just be careful you don't harm the plant.

With each of these division methods it's important that you keep the newly separated plantlet's media moist at all times. Consider placing them in an enclosed container, under a jar, or in a glass front cabinet. Don't give them too light at this stage as they are easily burnt. Once good roots have been established, they should be ready to join the other orchids in the house.

Pseudo bulb offsets

A few types of orchid that produce pseudo bulbs include- Brassavola, Cybidium, Laelia and Odontoglossum.

There are a couple different types of pseudo bulbs; active pseudo bulbs, which have leaves and other growth, dormant pseudo bulbs, or back bulbs, which function as reserve food supply, and dead pseudo bulbs (kidding, if the pseudo bulb is dead discard it).

Active pseudo bulbs can be divided from the parent plant similar to the way rhizome offshoots can, as long as you leave sufficient root material to sustain its growth. These pseudo bulbs should grow into nice plants and start developing their own pseudo bulbs in a year or so.

Dormant pseudo bulbs don't have leaves or stems and simply sit sleeping. If you carefully separate them from the rest of the orchid and pot them by themselves, they should begin growing on their own again and develop another colony. It may take them awhile to wake up after being repotted, but if you're patient you'll see them do well.

Note here, if the pseudo bulb doesn't have any eyes on it, meaning growth buds that are dormant, like potato eyes, you probably won't get it to grow and hence can leave it on the orchid or dispose of it.

Since pseudo bulbs are formed naturally, they are a good way to multiply your orchid numbers without doing any damage to the orchid itself.

Keikis

A few orchids that form keikis include: Phalaenopsis and dendrobium.

What are keikis?

Keikis are considered exclusive to phalaenopsis orchids, but on rare occasion dendrobium orchids have been known to make keikis.

The word "keiki" is Hawaiian, and means "baby" or "little one". 

Keikis form on the flowering stem of an orchid, one of the things that make orchid keikis unique, unlike keikis of other plants such as the mother of thousands. Keikis are very delicate and only form on a plant that is in perfect health and feels it has some nutrition to spare.

Propagating using keikis

If your phalaenopsis orchid or dendrobium should grow keikis you can wait until the plant finishes flowering, at which point the keikis are nearly as developed as they'll get on the stem, and carefully separate them from it. They have to be kept moist at all times, like cuttings and divisions, and should be planted in small plugs of sphagnum moss until they establish themselves.

Once they do establish themselves you can plant them and their plug of sphagnum moss into regular bark mix and care for them as you do their parents.

If you want to eliminate every chance of the keikis failing to grow on their own, you can bend the flower stem over and peg the segments holding keikis into separate pots until the plantlets establish themselves, at which point they are ready to be on their own.

Phalaenopsis orchids can be teased into making keikis using the following method.

Taking a sterilized scalpel or knife, slice away the bract that is at each node on a flowering stem. There will be a tiny bud underneath this bract. Do this to only three or four bracts, as that is the optimal number per plant. Smear a little keiki paste (a growth hormone) over the bud, making sure to cover the bud and the surrounding tissue you have exposed.

If all goes well, keikis should develop in a couple of weeks. From this stage proceed as already explained, as long as the keikis are showing healthy signs of growth and are not too small.

sprouting orchid seeds

Sprouting seeds

Of all the ways to propagate orchids, seeds are the most challenging.

As I've already noted, all orchids produce seed and therefore can be propagated by sprouting them.

Obtaining orchid seed however, is more difficult than getting seed for other plants. First of all, orchid seed is not sold in very many places, although a few websites offer them for retail, so you may have to collaborate with friends to get seed, or do a lot of online searching.

If none of that sounds very appealing, you can produce your own seed if you're willing to take some time to do so.

Pollinating your orchid

Orchids are unique in their pollen and stigma placements, so accessing them can be a challenge. If you are willing to sacrifice a flower to get seed, removing the petals and sepals will make it much easier to find the pollen and stigma.

Generally, two pollen sacs exist, right on the tip of a flower's 'nose'. You'll see a tiny flap of tissue below the nose. This tissue is sticky and you can pull the pollen off of the flower by sticking a toothpick behind the flap and gently pulling the sacs out.

This is how bees get the pollen on their backs to pollinate other orchid flowers.

Now, if you look on the underside of the nose of another orchid, you'll see a depression there, behind the pollen sacs. That is where the pollen should be inserted.

If you think about the process, it makes perfect sense. After a bee manages to extract the flower's nectar, it backs out of the flower, brushing its back on the pollen sac and getting stuck with it. Then, when it lands on another flower, as it's getting to the nectar it rubs that pollen sac into the stigma, leaving it behind and completing pollination. If you keep this in mind while finding the pollen and stigma, it should make the effort much easier.

Several months after you have pollinated an orchid, a seed pod should hopefully have formed and filled out, and you should have some seed. Before you go any further, don't let that seed pod ripen completely.

It's much simpler to wash the seed pod when you reach the germination stage rather than washing a handful of dust-like seeds.

A lab for germinating seeds

Orchid seeds are minuscule, consisting only of an embryo. There is no stored food to support growth and the formation of the first leaves, and there is no protective coating to lock out bacteria and parasites.

Because of this, orchid seeds need to be raised in a tightly controlled area, like a lab. You can section off a part of the garage to serve as a lab, or part of the basement or other room, or you can shut up the kitchen on the day you want to sprout your seeds and sterilize everything.

When I say sterilize everything, I mean everything, or get it out of the kitchen for the day. Sterile conditions are an absolute must for sprouting orchid seeds. You need to give the seeds every chance to germinate without mold or fungus growing in their substrate and killing them.

Equipment needed

Some equipment you'll need to sprout the seeds includes but is not limited to (feel free to be creative when figuring ways to do what I outline in the next couple of minutes, the important thing is to keep everything clean):

  • a fish tank (glass)
  • a plastic sheet
  • rubber or latex gloves (if you're allergic to rubber)
  • paper towels
  • tinfoil
  • two large pots
  • a pressure canner
  • stove top and oven
  • fifty or more vials or small jars, preferably with clear tops
  • growth media (I'll tell you how to make this in a bit)
  • bleach (diluted to one third strength)
  • distilled water
  • rubbing alcohol (diluted to three quarters strength)
  • tweezers or forceps
  • a mister bottle
  • tongs
  • a knife
  • and a few containers

Whew--that's a lot of stuff! (But hey, I told you that seeds were the most difficult way to propagate orchids).

Once you've collected all your equipment, you're ready to make some growth media.

Growth media: orchids don't grow in soil

This is the recipe I have used multiple times and it works nicely.

  • half of a banana
  • half of a medium-sized potato
  • 900ml of distilled water
  • 20 gr of table sugar
  • 10 gr of table salt
  • and 10 gr of agar powder (a gelling agent)

Boil the water and dissolve the sugar and salt in it. While you're waiting for that to dissolve blend the banana and potato in a blender until smooth. Add the banana and potato puree to the water after the sugar and salt have dissolved and finally add the agar powder, giving it some time to dissolve as well.

I've found it easiest to fill the vials with the media while it's still warm. As long as you keep the vials in a clean area with their lids screwed on tight, you should be able to ovoid contamination. Storing the vials with media in them for more than a few weeks is not recommended though, so know beforehand when you'd like to sprout your seeds.

Sprouting orchid seeds

OK, so you've made your media and gotten all the equipment you need to sprout the orchid seeds, now it's time to start the process.

Sterilize

You'll need to start by sterilizing your entire work area, be it the kitchen or your own homemade lab; even clean the stove down, not too drastic, but at least the surface. Use bleach, alcohol, whatever you need to, just so long as everything is as spotless as feasible.

Next, boil some water in the pressure canner and sterilize the growth media while it is in its flasks. A higher pressure causes the boiling temp to be higher and kills more bacteria, if not all the bacteria. Using about the same pressure you would use for pressure canning food is good. Remove the vials with the tongs when you're done.

Once the flasks are cooled down (a day later or two) sterilize the inside and outside of your fish tank and both sides of the plastic sheet. Duct tape that plastic sheet onto the front of the tank, making it as air tight as possible, and cut two plus sign shaped slits with a knife in the sheet to allow your hands entrance.

Spray a copious amount of alcohol into the tank with the mister bottle. What happens here is the alcohol evaporates, filling the chamber and pushing out any contaminated air. Throughout the process of transferring seed, you will have to periodically spray more alcohol into the tank.

Wrap the rubber or latex gloves, the tweezers or forceps and a bunch of paper towels in some tin foil. Set the oven at 425 degrees and bake the tin foil package for fifteen minutes.

Transferring seed

Now take your third strength bleach solution and soak the seed pod in it for ten minutes. Do not soak it any longer than ten or you will risk killing the seeds inside. After the pod is sterilized, put it quickly into the tank chamber on a piece of sterilized paper towel that you cooked in the oven.

Put on your gloves and spritz your hands with alcohol, rubbing well to spread it around. Put the tweezers, knife or scalpel, and the rest of the paper towel into the tank, spreading the paper towel out on the floor. Save some paper towel for drying your hands after you spray alcohol on them.

You will likely want to spray the inside of the tank again with alcohol before you get to the next step.

Now dip the knife in the bleach and dry it off with a paper towel. Split the seed pod open carefully and use the tweezers to carry pinches of seed into each flask, opening and closing the vials one at a time as you go so you minimize the chances of contamination.

If it is pretty dry inside the flasks, mist them with sterile distilled water. Make certain the water isn't hot when you mist it on the seeds.

Screw the lids on tightly as you fill the flasks, you are done with the flask after you have placed seeds inside of it.

growing orchids

Growing and replating

After you are done transferring all the seed and have the flasks moist and screwed shut, place the tank in a warm area under a blanket. The seeds should sprout in a day to a week, if they don't the sprouting failed and the seeds were either not viable or they were in the bleach too long.

Once the seeds sprout move them under a florescent tube and grow for a few months. At some point, likely three months after sprouting, you will need to replate the orchid seedlings.

What is replating? It's simply repotting them into bigger flasks with fresh growth media, further apart from each other if you can.

When the seedlings are about a year old you can start to leave the tops of the flasks off to acclimate them to the lower humidity levels outside of the vials. Start with an hour a day, then two a day a week later, five a day the next week, while you're awake each day the next week, and finally off for good.

Now the seedlings are ready to be planted in their own individual pots and grown from there.

Hopefully you got some good information out of that jabber. I know it is a lot to take in, but read it over several times, and you should get the hang of it after doing it a time or two.


Related questions

What is a mycorrhizal fungus?

A mycorrhizal fungus lives in the roots of an orchid and supplies it with nutrients like nitrogen and salts. This symbiotic relationship is the reason orchid seeds are nearly impossible to sprout using traditional means.

Can you root orchids in water?

Orchids generally don't like a lot of water, but when you are rooting a stem cutting it is possible to watch it grow in a glass filled with water. Once the roots have developed fully the orchid will have to be pulled out of the water and planted or it may drown.

Can you replant a broken orchid stem?

If a stem on one of your orchids breaks off, you will probably not get it to grow on its own, unless it happens to be a dendrobium orchid stem. If the stem has not broken off all the way you may have success fusing it back together by scratching both exposed breaks and applying a bit of growth hormone. Rap the stem up tight after you have treated it and hopefully it will grow back together.

About the author

Greg Volente

Greg Volente holds a Naturalist Certificate from the Morton Arboretum, and worked for The Nature Conservancy leading environmental education programs and doing natural areas restoration. Besides gardening, he's an avid wildflower enthusiast, and loves botanizing, hiking, and backpacking.