Friday, May 8, 2015

Rooting Pear Cuttings

We were back home in Wisconsin for the week before Easter visiting family.  That meant we had a chance to steal some cuttings off Jake's parents' awesome red d'Anjou pear tree.  It's the only non-cherry tree in their orchard that produces generally blemish-free fruit without babying.  'No babying of plants' is an important house rule for us.  With cuttings in hand, we had to decide how to try to propagate this magnificent specimen.  Our two primary options are to graft the cuttings onto another rootstock or to root the cuttings and grow them from there.  Of the two, rooting the cuttings is slightly less expensive, and slightly more risky adventurous, in terms of whether the cutting will take.  Guess which one we're going with!

There are at least three ways to root the cuttings.  There's the standard method of dipping the cuttings in commercial rooting hormone, the less conventional method of dipping the cuttings in a homemade rooting hormone, and finally, dipping the cuttings in honey, which isn't a hormone, but is antifungal, which can allow the cuttings to start making their own roots before infection takes over and kills the cutting.  The internets seem to contain more tales of folks who have had success with the first two, so given that Jake's mom also had an old jar of rooting hormone and that we know where to find some willows, we're going to do a side-by-side comparison of those two.  Some sources (also here and here) say to root the cuttings in peat, compost, and/or perlite, but others (admittedly not pear-specific) suggest that roots should start to form in water containing the rooting hormone.  The best time of year to propagate pears by this method is evidently when they're dormant, with some sources recommending late fall, and others having success in early spring.  Happily, that schedule works well for us.

First we needed to collect some willow branches for the natural rooting hormone.

Then we lopped them up into small pieces and made some willow sun tea.  We thought it would only take a couple days, but it was over a week before the water was dark-colored like in this video.

We put the cuttings in the hormone-containing water and set them in a place out of direct sunlight and somewhere they wouldn't be in our way (i.e., in front of the TV).  They need to stay there, at ~65 °F, for 3-4 weeks to allow the cuttings to take up the hormone solution, then get transferred to a suitable growing medium (which we interpreted as 'compost-rich dirt.')

While we were waiting, we started to wonder, 'what sort of chemistry is going on here?'  Apparently, the rooting hormone (1-naphthaleneacetamide in the case of RooTone and indole-3-butyric acid in the case of the willow extract) signals plant cells at the growth nodes in our cuttings to turn into roots instead of leaves.  The RooTone also contains Thiram as an antifungal agent to prevent wood-eating fungi from killing our cuttings; the willow tea contains salicylic acid, which does the same thing.)

Here are the cuttings after a few weeks, rooting hormone batch on the left, willow tea on the right.  When we put them in the pots, we poured the rest of the hormone solutions in after as their first watering.  A few are starting to leaf out.  A few showed some semblance of root buds on the bottom.  Only time will tell if the cuttings will be successful, but apparently d'Anjou pears specifically are quite difficult to propagate this way, even for experts (which we discovered after deciding not to spring for grafting rootstock).  But even though the cuttings' chances of success are low, we'll be rooting for them!

UPDATE 11/8/2015: As it turned out, our cuttings put up an unblemished record of 0-for-15, and examining the cutting ends post mortem didn't reveal any roots starting.  So, unfortunately, this experiment proved to be inconclusive.  Hopefully next time we'll have better luck!

Have you propagated pear trees?  How did it work out?  Let us know in the comments section below!


  1. Good luck! We have two pear trees that we bought as tiny pear sticks. They are slow to bear, but we've had a few the past couple years. We're hoping the bees bring us a bumper crop this year. My trouble with pears is the harvesting and ripening--we haven't yet mastered the timing.

    1. Good luck to you, too! I was just a wee lad when my parents planted the one we took cuttings from, so I only ever remember it giving bumper crops. :-)

      I think one nice thing about pears (and apples, for that matter) is that they're good for different end uses at different stages of ripeness. I like them for hand eating when they're still pretty hard, then you can can them, put them in crisps, make sauce, or dry them as they get riper and riper. (Actually, now that I think about it, I haven't tried drying an overripe pear, but it works well for mealy apples.)