Propagation of Trees, Shrubs, and Vines from Hardwood Cuttings

Many trees, shrubs, and vines in the home landscape may be propagated by hardwood cuttings. 

Trees propagated from hardwood cuttings include many conifers, poplar, and willow.  Shrubs propagated from hardwood cuttings include blueberry, dogwood, elderberry, forsythia, hydrangea, rhododendrons, and viburnum.  Vines propagated from hardwood cuttings include bittersweet, Boston ivy, grapevines, trumpet vine, and Virginia creeper.

Propagation is a great way to produce more of a wanted plant or to preserve a variety or cultivar with a specific form, color, or size.  Some plants are patented, and vegetative propagation on some of these cultivars is prohibited.

Time of Year to Take Hardwood Cuttings

Figure 2 Juvenile Zone
Figure 2: The juvenile zone of a tree (highlighted within the green triangle) is a good source for cuttings.  Note that for grafted trees, suckers at the base of the plant are typically from the rootstock and should not be propagated.
Figure 1 live vs dead tissue
Figure 1: Many vine-like woody plants do not harden off entire shoots for the winter.  For example, dieback on a grapevine cane can be determined by the exterior color change (A) and by cutting through and looking at a cross-section (B).

Hardwood cuttings are taken during dormancy, generally from previous season shoots that hardened off.   In Iowa, hardwood stem cutting material is best collected in late February or early March. 

Cutting materials can also be taken in late fall or early winter after they have gone fully dormant.  This cutting material should be stored in moist media in a cool area (~32-40F) to ensure the materials receive sufficient chilling.  Cuttings should not be stored near fruit since the ethylene produced from fruit can have a negative effect.  Cuttings taken in the late winter or early spring can be stuck immediately.

Selecting Materials for Hardwood Cuttings

Generally, cutting materials should come from growth that was a shoot in the summer and has hardened off.  This is often referred to as one-year-old wood.  Several vine-like plants do not harden off all their shoots, so on plants like grapevines, be sure to cut through them to determine if the material is alive or look for subtle color changes on the exterior (Figure 1).

Cuttings from trees should be selected from specific locations on the plant.  The interior cone of the tree is called the juvenile zone (Figure 2).  While this area is not the youngest part of the tree, it is juvenile in the sense that it generally does not produce flowers.  Cuttings from this area are more likely to root.  Use caution when selecting suckers from below ground or at the base of a tree as propagation materials.  While these tissues are juvenile, many trees in the landscape are grafted, and the suckers from grafted trees are likely from the rootstock and are not the desired cultivar.  Epicormic shoots (water sprouts) that grow in response to heavy pruning are also juvenile tissues that are more likely to root (Figure 3) and less likely to have flower buds on them.

Figure 4 Good Shoots
Figure 4: Twigs from the previous year's growth will generally have narrow buds that are less likely to be flower buds.
Figure 3 Epicormic Shoots
Figure 3: Epicormic shoots that grow in response to pruning, also called water sprouts, are good candidates for propagation materials.

When taking cuttings from flowering and fruiting plants, select materials that had vigorous growth the previous season and have thin buds (Figure 4).  Materials that had limited growth the previous year and have thick buds are less likely to root and likely have flower buds (Figure 5).  In most cases, cuttings with a terminal bud are preferred, but many plants, such as elderberry, grapevines, hydrangea, etc., will root from one-year-old stems without a terminal bud as well (Figure 6)

Some woody plants will root better from two-year-old tissues (willow).  These cuttings are often directly stuck into the soil in a process called ‘live staking.’  Since they will be stuck directly into the ground, the thicker two-year-old tissues are less likely to dry out before rooting.

The Rooting Process

Figure 6 Terminal vs Non Terminal Shoots
Figure 6: In most cases, cuttings with terminal buds are preferred (A), but many easy-to-root plants will also root well from cuttings farther down the stem (B).
Figure 5 Shoot Selection
Figure 5: Twigs that had very little growth in the growing season or with plump buds (which are more likely to be flower buds) are poor choices for propagation materials.

Variable results can be had from rooting cuttings of different plant species.  Some plants, such as willows, poplars, hydrangeas, currants, etc., have preformed root initials that root quickly once they are in a dark and moist environment (Figure 7).  However, most plants will only form roots in response to the wound made when the cutting was taken. 

Properly maintained cuttings will develop a whiteish tissue called callus around the wound (Figure 8).  Once callus has formed, successful cuttings can develop roots from the callous tissue and/or other parts of the stem (Figure 9).   Some difficult to root plants will be more likely to root from a larger wounding response.  Ways to increase the wounding response are to score the bark, remove some bark, or vertically split the base of the cutting (Figure 10).  This increase in wounding can lead to an increase in callus formation and impact of rooting hormones, increasing the likelihood of success for these species.

Figure 8 Callus Tissue Formation
Figure 8: For most woody plants, the formation of callus is required to develop roots.  Once callous is formed, the plants are very likely to produce roots.  Photo by Kevin Duerfeldt.
Figure 7 Preformed Root Initials
Figure 7: Willows and many other plants have preformed (latent) root initials that root very quickly once those initials are exposed to soil and moisture.  These plants can be stuck directly into the ground in early spring. They do not require callous formation to root.

When possible, warming the rooting media at a 5-to-10-degree F warmer temperature than air temperature can increase the speed of rooting.  Having a cooler air temperature than media temperature can also assist in slowing bud break until the cuttings have rooted.

Rooting Media & Containers

A proper rooting media is needed to root hardwood cuttings successfully.  The rooting media must retain moisture, but also drain well, and provide physical support.  A coir or peat moss-based mix with coarse perlite is a good rooting material.  Sand can provide ballast for tall cuttings, but it does not enhance container drainage due to its lower porosity than other common media components.

The container that holds the rooting media should have drainage holes in the bottom.  A large clay or plastic pot would be adequate if only a few cuttings are desired.  A plastic flat may be used when rooting larger quantities.  Once the container has been filled, the media should be watered and allowed to drain before the cuttings are inserted.  Since hardwood cuttings tend to be longer than herbaceous cuttings, taller containers provide more area for rooting.

Reducing Water Loss is Important for Successful Rooting 

Figure 10 Wounding
Figure 10: Scoring (A), removing some bark (B), or splitting of stems (C) are several ways to wound plants to promote better rooting.
Figure 9 Rooting Locations
Figure 9: Rooting can occur in several locations.  Some plants root from the callus area, some root at the nodes, and others will root in the area that was wounded or has had rooting hormone applied.

Water is critical to the survival of the cuttings; however, hardwood cuttings are more durable than cuttings taken during the growing season.  A cutting has no root system to absorb water in the initial stages of the rooting process yet continues to lose water.  The media should remain moist during the rooting process, but not saturated.  While generally not needed with hardwood cuttings, water loss can be reduced by covering the cuttings and containers with a floating row cover or similar material.

Rooting Hormones are Beneficial

While cuttings from some trees, shrubs, and vines root easily, others are more difficult to root.  Root-promoting substances can be applied to increase rooting.  Root-promoting substances can increase the percentage of cuttings that root, shorten the period needed for rooting, and increase the number of roots per cutting.  Root-promoting materials are often available in garden centers.  Most products are in powder form.  When applying a powder rooting hormone, only a light dusting is needed on the portion of the cutting that will be in the rooting media (Figure 11).  Excess rooting hormone can have a negative impact on rooting success

Figure 12 Distal vs Proximal
Figure 12: Traditionally, when using cuttings without a terminal bud, the distal or apical side is cut at an angle over an inch from the bud. Proximal or basal ends are cut flat and closer to the bud.
Figure 11 Rooting Hormone
Figure 11: Rooting hormone should not be over applied (A). Tap the cutting to remove any excess (B).

Steps for Hardwood Cuttings

  1. Remove plant material with a bypass pruner. 
  2. In some plants, taking cuttings with terminal buds is important, but for most easy-to-root plants, one long stem can be cut into several shorter cuttings
  3. Hardwood cuttings can vary a lot in size, with some rooting best from 3 to 12” cuttings. 
  4. Traditionally, plant materials that do not have terminal buds are cut with the proximal end (base) with a flat cut around ½-1” from the first node.  The distal cut (tip, apical) is made at an angle farther out from the distal node so as not to damage the bud (Figure 12). 
  5. If you are unsure about the proper orientation, the buds are always distal (apical) to the leaf scar underneath them (Figure 13)
  6. When using root-promoting substances, dip the base (proximal end) of the cutting into the root-promoting substance. 
  7. Insert the cutting into the rooting media with the proximal end down. Ensure that at least one bud/node is below the media and at least one bud/node is above the media. The ideal depth of insertion will vary based on the cutting size.  The bottom 1/3 of the media in a container is usually the wettest. Avoid having the basal end of the cutting in this area of potential saturation.
  8. Lightly firm the material around the base of each cutting. 
  9. After all the cuttings are inserted, water the rooting media and let it drain for a few minutes. If using a saucer or tray to collect the leachate from the container, pour off the drained water to avoid saturating the media.
  10. Covering the cuttings is generally not needed since they are dormant.
  11. Place the cuttings in bright light, but not direct sunlight. 
  12. Inspect the cuttings daily. 
  13. Remoisten the rooting media should it begin to dry out.  Be sure not to saturate the media.  Overwatering will reduce the amount of oxygen in the soil, which can limit root growth.  Overwatering also increases the chances of pathogens rotting the cuttings and young roots.
  14. If the cuttings root, it will likely occur within 6 to 8 weeks. 
Figure 14 2 year vs 1 year shoots
Figure 14: Two-year-old wood (left) is more likely to stay hydrated than one-year-old wood (right) when live staking cuttings directly into the ground
Figure 13 Leaf Scar to Identify Base
Figure 13: Since cuttings must be stuck proximal side down, the proper polarity can be verified since the leaf scar (solid arrows) is always proximal to the bud (white arrows).

Steps for Direct Stuck Hardwood Cuttings (Live Stakes)

  1. Remove plant material with a bypass pruners or loppers.  Hardwood cuttings for live stakes should be ½” to 1.5” in diameter and 18 to 30” long.  Thinner cuttings dry out quickly and are difficult to stick into the soil.
  2. In many cases, one-year-old wood is best, but two-year-old wood can work better for some plants like willows (Figure 14).
  3. Hardwood cuttings directly stuck into the soil (live stakes) are often cut differently than traditional hardwood cuttings.  Since these cuttings are directly stuck into the soil, they are instead sharpened on the proximal end to facilitate the ease of pushing them into the soil (Figure 15).
  4. Cuttings should be taken in the winter and stored in a cool, moist media.  They can be stuck once the soil has thawed in the early to mid-spring.  Planting too late will cause the rooting process to occur when temperatures are warmer, which increases the stress on the young plant.
  5. Cuttings should be oriented with the proximal end down and at least 1/3 of the cutting should be inserted below ground.  A narrow metal rod can be used to make a pilot hole if needed.

Figure 16 Cutting with Roots Forming
Figure 16: You can determine if cuttings have developed roots by giving the cutting a gentle tug and feeling for signs of resistance.
Figure 15 Distal vs Proximal for Live Staking
Figure 15: When using live stakes, the basal end is often cut at an angle to increase the ease of sticking them in the soil

Care After Rooting

Examine a few cuttings after 4 to 5 weeks.  Carefully dig up the cuttings to check on root development.  Another way to check on rooting is to give a slight pull on the cutting and feel for signs of resistance, indicating roots have formed (Figure 16).  If rooting is poor, place the cuttings back in the medium for additional root growth.  Hardwood cuttings can take longer to root than non-dormant cuttings,  such as softwood cuttings.  Be patient; if the stem cross-section is still green, the cutting is still viable and could eventually form roots.

When the cuttings have roots that reach the edge of the container, they generally have a well-developed root system (Figure 17).  At that point they should be hardened off in preparation for transplanting.  Hardening off involves gradually reducing water usage to avoid root rot and exposing the new foliage gradually to the intensity of outdoor light, temperature and wind.  After a few days, carefully remove the cuttings and transplant them into individual pots using a commercial potting mix.  The young plants can be planted in the ground in early fall.  Gardeners may want to plant them in a nursery or grow-out bed for 1 or 2 years before moving them to their permanent site in the landscape. 

A rooted cutting will take several years to become a nice-sized plant.  However, many gardeners find the rooting of cuttings and growing of young plants fun and rewarding. 

Figure 17 Roots in Media
Figure 17: Generally, plants can be transplanted when roots are seen at the interface between the potting media and the edge of the container.

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Last reviewed:
January 2024