Propagating Citrus

I’m a little bit chuffed this morning.

Okay, I’m a lot chuffed. Because today I finally have tangible evidence that my citrus cuttings have rooted, and they’ve done so without using any special equipment or even rooting hormone. Result!

The citrus in question is a Calamondin Orange, which produces, if grown well, a year-round succession of highly fragrant white flowers and very ornamental (but exceedingly bitter!) miniature oranges.

The plant from which I was attempting to propagate is one I actually succeeded in reproducing by grafting about 15 years ago. I grew a rootstock from a supermarket orange pip, waited a year, then grafted a bud from my parents’ original plant onto it, but the only reason I went to that trouble was because previous attempts to propagate from said original plant had failed: it never seemed to set viable seed, and cuttings just turned yellow and rotted no matter how they were treated.

But I’ve been doing some research this spring – chiefly browsing around on youtube – and I decided that 2013 was going to be the year to have another crack at it, armed as I now was with some new information…

So, firstly, seed.

I gleaned from various videos that the best way to get citrus germinating is to peel the outer, waxy coating off the seed before sowing it, which is exactly what I did with the only viable-looking seed I could find in the mature fruit I had available (all the seeds were flat and shrivelled bar this one, plump one). I didn’t much like the odds of success with only one seed, but I stuck it in a small glass jar of compost, down the side so I could see if any roots formed, put a foil lid on it and placed it on the hood of my tropical fish tank (very gentle bottom heat round the clock with a boost when the lights are on during the day…cunning, huh?!)

This was at the end of April, and within two weeks, to my delight, roots were starting to form. I didn’t celebrate just yet because nothing is guaranteed at such an early stage, but it was great to see! I waited until a shoot had emerged from the compost before taking the lid off and moving the jar to a windowsill with bright but diffuse light to grow it on. When it was an inch or so tall I removed it from the jar and potted it on into a normal 3″ plastic pot of multipurpose compost and put it back on the same windowsill, where it still resides happily, if slowly, growing away:

calamondin-seedling-in-situ

and here’s a clearer pic of it taken outside:

calamondin-seedling-close

Oh, and the reason for using a glass jar with no drainage? With only one seed, I didn’t want to mess around forever wondering if it was germinating, so it was nice to have it in a clear container which would allow me to inspect it every day for signs of life. It’s also easy to control the moisture just for the short time the seedling is in there because obviously the glass allows you to see how much water is present. Pretty nifty!

At the same time I started the seed, I also took cuttings.

Now this was going to be the real challenge as far as I was concerned because I wasn’t intending to do anything fussy with them, just stick ’em in a pot and cover them, basically!

From my youtube viewing, it seemed that, more than anything else, the key to getting them to root is to wound the base of the cutting. Citrus stems have a hard, waxy outer coating which inhibits callusing and thereby root production, so the way to get around that is to take a sharp blade and pare away small slivers of the outer surface at the base of the cutting to expose the cambium layer beneath, which then starts to heal itself and in the act of healing produces the cells that make roots.

So that is exactly what I did. I chose cutting material from growth that was made in the last year, nicely bendy without being too hard or soft, trimmed each piece to about 3-4″ long, cutting below a leaf node and nipping off the tip and all but two or three leaves (I cut some of the larger leaves in half too) , wounded them for about a half inch at the base then stuck them in a couple of small pots of proprietary seed and cuttings compost mixed 50:50 with perlite.

I then decided to hedge my bets and try to root them in two slightly different locations with different  means of covering them. One pot was placed in a clear plastic bag with 3 flower sticks inserted into the pot to keep the bag off the leaves, then sealed with a wire tie and placed on an east-facing windowsill:

cuttings-on-sill

The other I put under a “propagator” made of the bottom half of a cut-down clear plastic 5 litre bottle and placed it by a north-facing patio door (decent light, all indirect):

calamondin-cuttings-bottle

And that was it. No rooting hormone, no bottom heat, no mist, no nothin’.

I confess that I wasn’t very hopeful of success in the beginning, but as all 7 cuttings had remained resolutely green and perky-looking for the past 3 months, it seemed there was a chance, so I wasn’t completely shocked when, on opening the bag this morning and peering at the underside of the pot, I saw a root tip poking out! That was all the encouragement I needed to give each cutting a gentle, experimental tweak, and, lo and behold, not one of them moved, so dare I hope they’ve all taken??

Here they are pictured outside for a clearer view. First the cuttings from the bag:

calamondin-cuttings-from-bag

then the cuttings from the plastic bottle:

calamondin-cuttings-bottle-outside

I think the cuttings from the bag possibly look a little healthier when seen in real life, but there’s not a lot in it. Both methods appear to have done the trick!

And if they have, I’ll consider I’ve been rather lucky. The July heatwave has probably helped (the whole house feels like a propagator!): in a cold summer like last year’s, they may not have fared as well. I think I accidentally timed it well too – the cutting material was at just the right stage of ripeness, and spring/early summer is probably the best season to attempt this in the UK because of the warmer ambient temps and long daylight hours.

But the biggest piece of luck was finding that video which talked about wounding – gotta love the internet!

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Posted on July 28, 2013, in Techniques and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the notes. Very helpful. My cirus mitis died back from spider mite problem. Ive discarded the soil, sterilised a few cuttings and have started mine but only in diatilled water ans with rooting hormone. I see you are using a rooting medium to start them off. Anything you read that suggests not starting curtings in water and starting them in rooting medium? There is good green cambium in the cuttings and i am hoping to get a start in water, something easy to observe, before putting them in a citrus starting soil.

    • Hi!

      Thanks for your comment – glad my ramblings could be of use.

      That’s a pity about your citrus mitis – they are sadly very prone to red spider mite when kept in dry conditions. My plants have suffered a few attacks over the years when they’ve been overwintering indoors, and one was bad enough to have to cut the plant right back to a small framework, virtually leafless, just to get rid of the pests. The good news is that they can recover from a very hard pruning, so all wasn’t lost!

      Re: citrus cuttings in water, the short answer to your question is that I haven’t come across anyone propagating in that way. That certainly doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but I haven’t found any success stories myself.

      If you have enough cuttings to experiment with, why not give it a go, though? Try some in water and the rest in a nice, free-draining compost and see what happens. I would be interested to hear your results!

      • Hello,

        Ok thanks! I will let you know how things turn out. By the way it was likely the dry air blowing from the wood stove fan about 3 meters away. … It was also the second winter i did this but the first winter it recovered. … I learned my lesson the hard way. Too bad because i harvested many crops (15 years) for an awesome marmalade. I have 4 cuttings and will put two in starting mix as you suggest.

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