Propagate Magnolia Trees: Step-by-Step Guide for 5 Methods

If your objective is to create beautiful and unique magnolia plants, there are various techniques you can use to accomplish this, including propagating from cut branches, growing from seeds, or bending existing branches to the ground!

Tree propagation isn’t always smooth sailing though, so we’ve broken each method down step-by-step to give you the best chance of success.

Be sure you’re giving your magnolia tree the best possible start. Master the basics, and your tree will reward you for years to come. Learn what you need to know in my detailed guide, Magnolia Care and Maintenance.

Method #1 Propagating Magnolias From Cuttings

Propagating magnolia trees from cuttings involves taking a stem cutting and growing it in potting mix before planting outside.

It’s easy to get hold of healthy cuttings during a yearly prune of this dense-canopy tree, but it can be difficult to root a magnolia cutting successfully when conditions are not quite right.

Here’s how to go about it:

1. Take Cuttings in Early Summer Below a Leaf Node

Using clean pruning shears, make a 6- to 8-inch cutting from green newly developed shoots (semi-hardwood cuttings are harder to root), cutting just below a leaf node on the shoot as this is where the roots will grow from.

Cuttings are best taken in early summer after flowering but before next year’s growth.

TIP: The best time to take cuttings is early in the morning so they are less likely to dry out.

2. Thin Stem Cutting to 2 Leaves & Put Cutting in Water ASAP

Prepare your cutting for planting by removing the bottom sets of leaves so that only two remain on the stem.

Temporarily place the cutting in a jar or glass of clean water while you prepare the following step.

3. Fill a 10-inch Pot With Soil Mix & Create Planting Hole

Fill a 10- or 12-inch deep plastic pot (with drainage holes) with 1 part general-purpose potting soil and 1 part horticultural grit (this improves drainage and provides the slightly acidic medium magnolias prefer).

Leave an inch of space at the brim of the pot, and make a hole in the soil with the end of a pencil or your finger.

4. Wound the Cutting End With a Knife & Dip in Rooting Powder

To help it take up water more easily, scrape a thin layer off the bottom of the cutting using a sharp, clean knife.

Next, roll the end of your cutting in rooting hormone powder or gel to stimulate growth.

5. Water, Cover in Plastic Mist & Regularly

Take the cutting, and plant it in the soil mix. Keep it out of direct sunlight. Water the soil once, and cover the pot with a clear plastic bag to keep in humidity (or use a humidity dome), misting the cutting every 3 days.

Strong roots may develop within a few weeks at which point the new plant needs to be transplanted into a larger container.

Method #2 Propagating Magnolias From Seed

Growing new magnolia trees from seed is a great way to propagate several plants at once!

They need a prolonged period of cold or “stratification” to germinate, however, success rates can be quite low, and you may be waiting several years before a seed-sown magnolia blooms.

1. Collect Bright Red Berries & Peel Off Fleshy Coating

In early autumn, harvest the fully ripe bright-red berries from the cone-like seed pods.

After gathering as many as you wish to propagate, remove the fleshy red outer coating of the berries to reveal the dark magnolia seeds inside.

2. Soak Seeds Overnight & Exfoliate Black Outer Coating

Soak all seeds in a closed jar of lukewarm water overnight to soften and loosen the outer black coating.

The next day, strain the seeds on a wire mesh strainer, and gently exfoliate the seeds by rubbing them against the coarse wire surface. This helps to ready them better for nutrient absorption!

3. Prepare Tray of Seed Mix & Overwinter Seeds in Fridge

Fill a seed starter tray with seed starting medium (1 part peat moss/compost and 1 part horticultural sand can work well).

Moisten the seed mix but not so much that water leaks from your hand upon squeezing. Sow seeds in the mix with an even spacing, and cover them with the medium.

Place the tray in your fridge, and leave it undisturbed for at least 3 months or over the entire winter.

4. Plant Seeds in Pots/Ground in Spring

After a suitable cold stratification period, the seeds should have sprouted, signaling they are ready for spring planting.

Carefully transplant seeds into fresh new potting soil in pots or directly in the ground (well after your last local frost date has passed).

Cover the seeds with a 1/4-inch of soil, and remember that you need to keep the surface moist as you did with their tray medium.

Adding a light layer of mulch over the soil (compost, shredded bark, lawn clippings, etc.) can help with moisture retention and help protect the seeds from direct sunlight until they’re ready to emerge as seedlings!

Method #3 Propagating Magnolias by Air Layering

Air layering involves propagating new magnolia growth while it’s still attached to the mother plant in mid-air by wounding the shoot and wrapping it in moss.

Since the moss needs to remain moist at all times, this method can be pretty demanding.

Here’s how it works:

1. Cut a ½-Inch Wound Into a Branch Near the Base

In either early spring or late summer, select a branch that is at least 1 year old near the base of your tree (the branch should be at least 1-2 cm thick).

Using a clean, sharp knife, carefully make a parallel cut into the bark, scraping a 1/2-inch strip of the bark off around the branch.

2. Apply Rooting Hormone & Wrap in Moist Moss

Sprinkle/brush a small amount of hormone-rooting powder over the exposed branch wound.

Next, dampen a handful of sphagnum peat moss (about 2 inches thick), and wrap the moss around the wound.

To preserve moisture, secure the moss in place by wrapping a sheet of polyethylene film over it, tying off each end with twine or insulating tape.

3. Monitor Moss Moisture & Cut Branch Once Roots Emerge

Check the wrapped moss regularly to make sure it hasn’t dried out as roots will not develop or will dry out once they do.

If successful, roots should begin to protrude within 3-5 months. Once roots appear around all sides of the moss, you can separate the branch from the parent tree using clean, sharp pruning shears.

You can then plant the branch cutting in a pot of soil or directly in the ground.

Method #4 Propagating Magnolias by Ground Layering

Ground or soil layering works by bending lower branches of the tree to the ground, pinning them in place, and covering them with soil to essentially trick new roots into forming.

This method often has a decent rate of success since it avoids the water stress and nutrient shortage that make conditions so hard for cuttings to take root.

1. Select Young Branch That Can Bend to the Ground

Find a branch low to the ground that is vigorous and flexible enough to create a U shape, and bend it to the ground without snapping.

The point where the branch can comfortably meet the ground without breaking (the base of the “U”) will be where the new magnolia plant can take root!

2. Cut Angled Scores Around Rooting Point & Make Planting Hole

Taking a sharp, clean knife, scratch a series of cuts at an angle at the rooting point, and create a small, shallow planting hole (a few centimeters deep) for the rooting point.

3. Cover Bent Branch & Securing With a Stone

Place the wounded section into the planting hole, and cover with soil. Keep the bent branch in place by putting a heavy stone/brick on top close to the wounded section, leaving 6-12 inches of the stem tip exposed.

It can take up to a year for the pinned branch to take root. Once established, you can sever the rooted stem from the mother tree using clean pruning shears and transplant the cutting into another area of the garden.

Method #5 Grafting Magnolias

Grafting involves taking a cutting or “scion” from a desired magnolia variety and attaching it to the rootstock of a different magnolia variety (at least 3-4 years old).

This is a cool way to grow an exciting new variety onto a different magnolia plant, but it takes a lot of forward prep to go right.

Here’s how it works:

1. Take Cutting in Fall & Store in Damp Medium in Fridge

Using sharp clean shears, take cutting from your desired magnolia variety in late fall during the tree’s dormancy. Make sure the cutting is between ½ and 1 inch thick.

Store the cutting in a ziplock freezer bag with the end wrapped in damp peat moss to prevent dryness. Keep this in the fridge until spring before blooming begins.

2. Make Slanted Cut on Rootstock & Matching Cut on Scion

In spring, prepare the graft on the rootstock by making a 45-degree angle cut directly into the trunk or branch bark using a sharp, clean grafting knife.

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Then, create a matching angled cut on the scion, ensuring your knife is cleaned beforehand to prevent disease spread.

3. Bind Scion & Rootstock Together

Line the scion wound up with the rootstock wound so that the green inner cambium layers are touching, and use grafting tape to bind them together.

Cover the grafting point in grafting wax to protect it from drying out, and place the newly grafted plant in a greenhouse or similar warm, humid conditions.

If all goes well, the graft wound should heal after a few weeks and can then be transplanted elsewhere.

Caring for Propagated Magnolia Trees

After all your efforts and patience with the above methods, help your propagated magnolias stay in a healthy condition by remembering to…

  • Keep the soil or growing medium nice and moist (but not soggy enough to risk rot and other diseases).
  • Protect new transplants from direct sunlight and moisture loss by making use of mulch and planting in semi-shady spots.
  • Protect them from heavy wind. Cold frames or greenhouses work great for newly potted magnolia plants.

Common Reasons for Failure

As we’ve learned, most methods can take a few months up to a year to show signs of success, and in that time it’s all too easy for cuttings or air-layered wounds to dry up and fail to root.

It’s also easy to forget that cuttings need to be thinned to 2 leaves per stem. Crowded conditions can lead to excessive shading and eventual leaf drop, not to mention too few nutrients to go around!

Seed propagation can also be temperamental as they require several months in cold temperatures to reliably mimic winter dormancy before they can be coaxed to “break” in spring.

As for grafting, several things need to go right for the best chance of success, including the health and age of the rootstock, keeping the scion from drying out before attachment, and allowing the graft to fully heal before transplanting.

Frequently Asked Questions

When Is the Best Time of Year To Propagate Magnolia Plants?

Spring and summer are typically the best time for most propagation methods as this takes place during the tree’s growing season so that wounds can heal faster and growth is more pliable (in the case of ground layering).

Berries are also harvested at this time of year for seed propagation.

Can You Root Magnolia Cuttings in Water?

Cuttings can be rooted in water, but soil is preferable as it provides a more sterile environment that is conducive to healthy roots.

Rooting in water requires containers to be placed in the shade to prevent algae growth and the water to be changed often to prevent rot.

How Long Do Magnolia Cuttings Take To Root?

Magnolia cuttings may take a few weeks up to 3 months and beyond to take root.

Rooting rates depend on various factors including the size and thickness of the cutting (i.e., stem or branch), the warmth and moisture of its growing environment, and the specific variety of magnolia.

Can You Plant a Magnolia Tree Branch?

Yes, magnolia tree branches can be planted, but the larger size of hardwood cuttings compared to softwood stem cuttings mean it can take several months to take root.

Branch cuttings can have greater success when dipped in root-stimulating hormone and grown in a high-humidity environment.

Can You Plant the Red Seeds From a Magnolia Tree?

No. The glossy, leathery red “seeds” are actually the outer layer, and the real dark brownish-black magnolia seeds are housed within.

To plant magnolia trees from seed, the bright red outer coating needs to be soaked and removed; otherwise, germination will likely not occur.

Can You Transplant Magnolia in the Fall?

Yes, magnolia can be transplanted anytime from autumn to early spring as this is when the young tree will be in its dormancy, reducing the stress that can come with transplant shock and potential injury during its growing season.

If transplanting in winter, ensure the ground is neither frozen nor waterlogged.

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot to remember when propagating a magnolia tree, but when done correctly, you should see wounds heal within weeks and healthy roots establish within weeks or up to a year if using ground layering.

The longest and trickiest propagation process is via seed as this takes several months for germination and several years after that (up to 10!) before the resulting saplings produce blooms.

Using the recommended growing mediums and hormone-stimulating powders in addition to minimizing infection with good-quality, clean tools can all help in aiding your success rate.

Now that you’re familiar with the propagation process, learn how to prune and fertilize like a pro by reading these guides next: