The spider plant produces numerous plantlets that can be used for propagation. Photo: Lena Viridis, depositphotos
By Larry Hodgson
The spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) is quite an original hanging houseplant thanks to its long trailing stolons that produce a multitude of “babies” that hang in the air, creating an effect much like a curtain. And that’s been enough to make it tremendously popular for over 200 years.
Spider plant stolons are in fact modified flower stalks. As proof, you’ll see small white star-shaped flowers with 6 tepals appearing here and there among the plantlets.
In nature, this plant, widely distributed throughout sub-Saharan Africa, is not at all aerial, but rather terrestrial. It is, in fact, a groundcover. It forms a dense carpet of arching lanceolate leaves, often covering large areas. That’s because the babies take root when they touch the ground, then produce their own babies, which take root even further afield, producing more babies … and so on. In some African forests, there is a carpet of spider plants as far as the eye can see!
This method of multiplication is called layering. Here is a definition:
Layering—a method of propagating plants by causing their shoots to take root while still attached to the parent plant.
The spider plant takes care of layering all on its own—this is called self-layering—or at least it does in the wild. Many garden plants also self-layer. Strawberries (Fragaria spp.) and hen and chicks or houseleek (Sempervivum spp.), for example, both do the same thing, creeping and rooting as they expand.
And there are a few other houseplants that produce creeping runners that allow them to self-layer when growing in their natural environment. That’s the case for such plants as strawberry begonia (Saxifraga stolonifera, syn. S. sarmentosa), Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata), episcia or flame violet (Episcia spp.), chain of hearts (Ceropegia woodii), rabbit foot fern (Davallia spp. and others) and walking iris (Neomarica spp.), also called apostle plant. All of these plants are mostly grown in hanging baskets in our homes, but they’re groundcovers in the wild.
Cuttings and Beyond
In the average home, though, the spider plant (and other houseplants that self-layer in the wild) is usually propagated by cuttings. A baby that has already formed is cut free of the parent plant and the plantlet’s base is pressed into a pot of moist potting soil. Then roots slowly form. But that’s more stressful for the young plant than layering, which allows it to receive water and nutrients from the parent plant while it forms its own root system, with the stolon acting a bit like an umbilical cord. Propagating a spider plant by layering would be more “what Mother Nature does.”
To that end, just place a small pot filled with potting soil near the mother plant and fix it one of the babies onto it with a hairpin or twist tie bent into a “V”. And there you go: you’ve just practiced layering! (Yes, it’s that simple!)
Whenever the soil in the small pot is almost dry, water it carefully. In a few weeks, when you can see a few roots through the drainage hole, you’ll know the baby is well rooted and you can cut it free of the stolon. It’s then an independent plant that you can place as you please in your indoor decor.
There is also another layering technique—air layering—which is often practiced on houseplants. Not on low-growing plants with creeping stolons, though, but rather on indoor trees and shrubs. You can read more about that technique here: Air Layering: Taking Big Houseplants Down a Notch.