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In my many, many propagation experiments, I haven’t found any evidence that top cuttings root any faster than mid-cuttings.
There are some properties of top cuttings that can help them root faster, but if you have a mid-cutting that has those same properties, it’ll root just as quickly.
What’s the difference between a top-cutting and a mid-cutting?
A top cutting is the newest node on the plant. The growth point on a top-cutting is the one that’s currently growing on the plant. Plants can have multiple top cutting options available, especially if the plant is made up of several cutting in one pot.
This rhaphidophora decursiva has two potential top cuttings (I’m not going to propagate it for this article, so you’ll just have to pretend I’ve snipped it) plus multiple opportunities for mid-cuttings:
If you look, there’s exactly the same situation happening on the other side – a new leaf, and several nodes.
(I love a decursiva – their growth pattern is so neat.)
So why might a top-cutting root faster than a mid-cutting?
Every time I’ve had a top-cutting root faster, it’s been for reasons that are more common in top cuttings, but not exclusive.
You know that the plant is actively growing
Plants root a LOT faster if they’re actively growing, rather than being dormant. Plants that naturally grow quickly, root quickly.
This sounds obvious, but if you’ve bought a top-cutting and it’s refusing to root, it may have come from a plant that maybe wasn’t kept in the best environment and will take a little while to adjust.
The aerial root is actively growing
If you look at this picture of my rhaphidophora decursiva’s newest aerial root, you can see it’s green and healthy:
If the plant isn’t using it’s aerial roots, it won’t bother keeping them active, and they’ll start to look like this:
They’re not dead when they’re brown – stick them in water and watch them grow – but they’re not actively growing.
Aerial roots do help cuttings root faster, but those green, active ones are faster still.
However, active aerial roots aren’t limited to top-cuttings – they’re just more common. If you keep your plant in high humidity, you’ll end up with furry aerial roots on all the nodes.
Top-cuttings do put out new growth faster than mid-cuttings
If you’ve read my articles on propagation you’ll know that having a plant root super quickly doesn’t mean that it’s going to put out growth faster. In fact, the plant that was quickest to put out new growth (the one I kept in the terrarium) was one of the slowest to produce roots.
The main reason people preach that top-cuttings are superior to mid-cuttings doesn’t have much to do with rooting capabilities – any plant with a node should be able to root, regardless of the location.
The issue is the axillary bud.
With a top-cutting the growth point is already activated. It knows where the new leaf is coming from. It may lose that leaf during the rooting process, but the plant knows where the next one is coming from.
With mid-cuttings, the plant has to activate the axillary bud to get a new growth point growing, and that’s what takes time. You can speed this up with humidity, light, and general good care (check out my wet-stick propagation article for the steps).
There are a few factors that influence how quickly the axillary bud will be activated, such as the conditions and the speed at which the plant naturally grows (aroids tend to grow faster than hoya, for example) but some plants are seemingly always ready to go when it comes to axillary buds.
My Philodendron Florida green has a prominent bud on every node:
My Philodendron golden dragon’s axillary buds freak me out:
On other aroids, you often can’t even see an axillary bud. There might be a little circle, like on a Monstera but on Rhapidophora there’s barely even a mark (especially decursiva – tetrasperma often have a white circle).
Usually, plants with a prominent axillary bud will produce new growth just as quickly as a top-cutting BUT (and this is just my observations) plants with prominent axillary buds take a freaking AGE to root.
What about spent nodes?
A spent node is when the cutting has been rooted and chopped repeatedly, until the cutting can’t produce any more axillary buds. I have an article dedicated to spent nodes here, but it’s not common enough of an issue to worry about.
Cuttings can look like spent nodes but still be able to produce an axillary bud because every other time they were cut they were still attached to the mother plant.
My Philodendron golden dragon has nodes with multiple growth points and axillary buds. I don’t have a picture and have since cut it back, but you can see it in my spent nodes video.
I don’t condone the growth pattern of a Golden Dragon. They are a law unto themselves.
So are top cuttings better than mid-cuttings
I don’t think so.
When buying cuttings online, I would be happier buying top cuttings over mid cuttings. You get a better overall sense of the health of the plant. You can also be more sure that the cutting has been, er, freshly made, rather than chopped weeks ago and left to shrivel up somewhere.
But when it comes to my own plants, it doesn’t make that much of a difference when it comes to the end result. Sure, mid-cuttings might be a bit slower to get going, but the time’s going to pass anyway. If I know I’m in a rush to propagate (not that that is something that concerns me) there are loads of things I can do to get my plants to root faster.
Whilst I do think there is a difference between mid and top cuttings when it comes to propagating, I don’t think it’s worth concerning yourself with, especially if you’re propagating your own plants and you know it’s a healthy cutting.
When buying plants online, especially from a seller new to you, there can be a bit more security in buying a top cutting over a mid cutting.