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A Complete Guide to Plant Reproduction

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 4 min read

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Ron Finley Teaches Gardening

Every plant you see is the result of botanical reproduction. And while it may seem mysterious, botanical reproduction is not rocket science—you can easily master the basic techniques, and it will help buy fewer plants and save a little money. The key is knowing the best way to propagate the plants you want.

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What Is Plant Reproduction?

Plant reproduction is the process by which any plant species—from trees to flowers to vegetables—produces offspring. There are two ways that plants can reproduce, depending on the species: Sexual reproduction and asexual reproduction.

When plants reproduce sexually, they form seeds that can then be planted in order to form new plants. When plants produce asexually, they grow new stems and roots from small cuttings or divisions of the original plant.

How Do Plants Reproduce Sexually?

While the sexual reproduction process varies from species to species, most sexually reproducing garden plants are angiosperms (flowering plants, as opposed to gymnosperms like conifers), and they follow a similar process:

  1. Meiosis: In order to get ready to reproduce, plant cells must undergo a special type of cell division called meiosis. During meiosis, the plant splits up its chromosomes into single-chromosome cells called haploid cells. These haploid cells are the gametes—or the reproductive cells like sperm cells and egg cells.
  2. Pollination: Most garden plants are flowering plants, which means that fertilization occurs through pollination of flowers on the plant. In cross-pollination, two separate plants trade reproductive cells. In self-pollination, a flower is fertilized by itself or by another flower on the same plant. Flowering plants contain parts that are vital to pollination. These plants produce male parts called stamens—which include anthers that hold pollen grains—and female parts called carpels or pistils—which include the stigma and the ovules. Whether the pollen is transferred by bees, butterflies, bats, or an attentive gardener, the process is similar: pollinators transfer the pollen from the anther to the stigma, where it travels through the pollen tube and fertilizes the female gametophyte.
  3. Fertilization: Once pollination occurs, the male and female gamete cells—the sperm and the egg cells—reunite and combine to form two-chromosome diploid cells: a zygote. In angiosperms, this is called double fertilization, and it will trigger the plant to begin growing fruit.
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How Do Plants Reproduce Asexually?

Asexual reproduction in plants is a much more straightforward process than sexual reproduction. For asexual reproduction, a plant can create a new plant in a number of ways, but the two most common in the garden are budding and runners.

Some plants, like ginger and onion, reproduce asexually by producing additional buds on their stems that create entirely new plants. Many plants, like strawberries, have specialized stems called stolons, which run along the ground and after it finds a suitable spot, can develop roots and produce a new plant.

Why Is Understanding Plant Reproduction Important for Gardening?

Plant reproduction plays a very important role in the garden. With a basic understanding of plant reproduction, you’ll know how to keep your crop going year-to-year without having to go back to the store for more seeds or plants. By researching how each of your plants reproduces, you’ll know which tactic to use to propagate them:

  • Seeds: For plants that perform best through sexual reproduction, the most basic propagation method is collecting the seeds that your plants produce and saving them to sow the following year. For leafy vegetables, this means allowing some of the crop to go to seed (if you want lettuce seed, for example, leave a few heads in the ground until they produce a flower stalk, then place a paper bag over the end of the stalk and shake out the seeds into the bag). To save the seeds of fruiting vegetables (like eggplants), allow the vegetable to ripen on the plant slightly past the point when you would normally harvest it, then slice open the vegetable, remove the seeds, dry them, and store them in jars to begin the life cycle over again next season.
  • Division: To produce new plants asexually, simply separate a small portion of your parent plant that has its own roots attached, and replant it somewhere else. The roots allow the new plant to begin absorbing water and nutrients immediately. Division only works with plants that grow in clumps. You cannot divide the trunk of a pecan tree, for example, or the single stalk of a sunflower. Clump-forming plants, which include many perennial flowers and bulbs, produce numerous stems from a broad mass of roots.
  • Cuttings: Cuttings are a method of asexual reproduction that allows you to reproduce plants from which a stem with intact roots cannot be separated. In a miracle on par with that of a germinating seed, it is possible to cut off a stem or branch of a mature plant, stick it in the ground, and watch it grow roots and new shoots. While this is theoretically possible with any plant, some species grow roots more readily from their stems than others. Succulents and tubers are among the easiest plants to propagate by cuttings.

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Grow your own food with Ron Finley, the self-described "Gangster Gardener." Get the MasterClass Annual Membership and learn how to cultivate fresh herbs and vegetables, keep your house plants alive, and use compost to make your community - and the world - a better place.

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