It may seem strange to think that a whole plant can grow from a single leaf. This seems the stuff of science fiction, the equivalent of growing an entire human being from a severed pinky finger! Still, it’s possible… at least for a limited number of plants. Some succulents (Echeveria, Crassula, Sedum, etc.) will even produce a plantlet from a leaf that simply falls on your window ledge! In general, however, the cutting needs to be in contact with some sort of growing medium to sprout successfully.
Let’s use the African violet (Saintpaulia) as an example of how to produce a plant from a leaf cutting:
Take a healthy leaf and cut the base of the petiole (leaf stem) neatly at about a 45˚ to 90˚ angle. Insert the petiole into a pot of moist substrate (potting mix, perlite, vermiculite, etc.) about 3/4 to 1 inch (2 to 3 cm) deep, setting it at an angle so that the blade of the leaf is directed upwardly where it can better capture the sunlight it needs for growth. No rooting hormone is necessary, but it is helpful to cover the cutting with a “mini-greenhouse” (a clear plastic dome or bag) to maintain high humidity. Place the cutting in a warm spot, over 65˚F/18˚C at night, with good light but out of direct sun. After a few weeks to a few months, small leaves will appear at the base of the original leaf: these are the beginnings of new African violet plants.
When the plantlets are about 1/3 the height of the mother leaf, separate them (there is almost always more than one baby and sometimes up to 5 or 6!), planting each in its own little pot. Afterward, move them into larger pots as they grow. It is quite likely they’ll be in bloom within 6 or 7 months.
The same method will work on gloxinias, butterworts, begonias (especially rhizomatous begonias) and snake plants.
With some succulents (Echeveria, Crassula, Sedum, Cotyledon, Kalanchoe, Aeonium, etc.) it’s even easier. Just drop a intact leaf on a pot of barely moist substrate and, without even any further watering, small roots and a baby plant will form at the end. As the baby grows, begin watering and within a few months you’ll have a nice new plant.
You can even make cuttings of sections of leaves of some plants (African violets, gloxinias, streptocarpus, several begonias and others). Just cut the leaf into wedge-shaped sections, each with a bit of a main leaf vein, and insert the wedges into a growing medium. It’s best to grow them in a mini-greenouse. After a few weeks or a few months, a baby plant will appear at the base of the mother leaf.
In the case of the snake plant (Sansevieria), leaf section cuttings are also possible, but the technique is slightly different. Cut the long leaf into sections 2 to 6 inches long (5 to 15 cm) and press the lower part of each section into a slightly moist substrate. (Warning: if you accidentally plant the cuttings upside down, they won’t root!) Over time, a small plant will grow from each cutting. This technique works well for streptocarpus too. A mini-greenhouse is not necessary or even desirable for a sansevieria, but is very helpful for streptocarpus.
Note that, curiously, if you take leaf cuttings from certain variegated plants, such as Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Laurentii’ (photo above), S. trifasciata ‘Bantel’s Sensation’ or Episcia ‘Cleopatra’, the plants produced will be entirely green, with no variegation. That’s because the mother plants are chimeras, plants that combine two different kinds of tissues in the same plant, but only the green tissue (the part with chlorophyll) has the ability to produce a plantlet.
One final oddity: there are many plants whose leafs will root and even live for months if not years as independent plants, yet that will never produce any sign of a baby plant, like a stem or new leaves. This is commonly seen in hoyas, begonias, and many other plants.
House Plants to Propagate from Leaf Cuttings
African violet (Saintpaulia spp.)
Begonia (certain species) (Begonia spp.)
Butterwort (Pinguicula spp.)
Cotyledon (Cotyledon spp.)
Echeveria (Echeveria spp.)
Episcia (Episcia spp.)
Gloxinia (Sinningia speciosa)
Jade plant (Crassula spp.)
Kalanchoe (Kalanchoe spp.)
Mother spleewort (Asplenium bulbiferum)
Peperomia (Peperomia spp.)
Piggyback plant (Tolmiea menziesii)
Rex begonia (Begonia rex)
Snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata)
Streptocarpus (Streptocarpus spp.)
Umbrella plant (Cyperus alternifolius)
ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia)