This Is Why We Tissue Culture Houseplants

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I should really stop writing articles on tissue culture. I have a video queued up on YouTube all about setting up your own home lab for $200. I can feel myself standing on the edge of a rabbit hole. Still, all in the name of house plant research!

Today I’m just going to cover why tissue culture is so widely used – pretty much just its advantages over more traditional methods of growing plants.

1. It’s faster than growing plants the usual way

You only need a little bit of plant tissue to grow a LOT of clones. There’s no waiting around for seeds, no pollinating, no two-year waiting period for the plant to mature before you can harvest the seeds.

Not only is tissue culturing faster because you don’t need to wait for the plant to reproduce itself, but growing the plants on is also faster because we can keep the plantlets in perfect conditions.

There’s little risk of rain, frost, sunburn or any other exposure-related issues.

Humidity, light and moisture levels are kept at optimal levels, so plants can grow even faster than they would in the wild. The environment is also sterile, so there’s a lower risk of pests and diseases.

One of the biggest risks to plantlets in the wild is being stepped on or eaten (why not both?!) which is less of a risk in a lab.

2. Some plants are difficult/slow to propagate the usual way

Many plants grow and bloom and set seed and do their whole thing with no effort from anyone. Things like foxgloves don’t need any input from us (though we do still tissue culture them because we love a bit of control) but there are some plants that reproduce much slower.

There are plants that only bloom every few years, and if you’re not there to collect seeds, you have to wait until it does it again. Some plants, like Epipremnum aureum, are shy flowerers, so if we want large numbers of them, we have to either propagate them ourselves from cuttings or tissue culture them.

Remember when Philodendron Spiritus Sancti was extremely rare (and therefore expensive) because it’s notoriously difficult to propagate? Well, now it’s WAY cheaper (though not actually, you know, cheap) because it’s been tissue cultured. Once demand wanes they’ll create one that roots more readily and make a fortune all over again.

3. Plants can be modified to be disease resistant

Different plants are subject to different diseases, and tissue culture can be used to alter the plant on a genetic level to make it more resistant.

One of the common issues with house plants is mosaic disease, especially orchids.

A lot of tissue-cultured orchids nowadays have been bred using tissue culture to be resistant to the orchid mosaic virus.

Crops can be bred to be less attractive to destructive pests so farmers can get a higher yield.

4. Seasonal plants can be grown year round

Plants follow a seasonal pattern, but we grow plants all over the world. Just because I can’t grow tomatoes in December in the UK doesn’t mean people in Florida can’t. Tissue culture allows us to create new plantlets whenever we like, regardless of whether the plant is technically in season.

5. Plants can be grown in more compact spaces

Crops nowadays aren’t just grown out in a field. There are vast swathes of land under London that are used to grow crops hydroponically. Tissue culture can be used to breed plants that are more compact in nature but still provide a high yield of fruit, so we can use the space as efficiently as possible.

6. New cultivars can be developed quickly

The plant market is subject to trends just like everything else, so if growers come up with a new hybrid, they need to be able to duplicate it as quickly as they can.

Plants take time to grow but trends rise and fall week on week. If a grower has new cultivars ready to display at, for example, Chelsea Flower Show, they also need to have specimens ready to sell. If the consumer has to wait until the following season for the specimens to be ready, they’ll move on to something else.

Growers tend to see predictions early on and develop new cultivars to fit the trends. Without tissue culture, they wouldn’t be able to create in a timely enough manner.

7. It’s quicker and easier to produce hybrid species

Hybrid plants are popular, especially Philodendrons and Anthurium. Tissue culture allows labs to create loads of different hybrids quickly, and see which ones capture the heart of the consumers.

This is pretty efficient you use tissue culture, but is a long and difficult process if you’re having to b out there with a brush and a bag moving pollen around your plants.

8. All the plants are clones of the parent

Imagine you’re growing tomatoes in your garden. You collected all the seeds from the same tomato, and plant three tomato plants. All produce delicious tomatoes, but there’s just something about this one plant. Tissue culture will allow you to clone that plant, so it will be genetically identical to its parent. Now you can have as many particularly delicious tomatoes are you like.

This technique is used in house plants – the most famous example is the Thai Constellation Monstera. It was created in a lab and had its genetics tinkered with so the variegation would no longer revert. It was then tissue cultured (cloned) so the non-reverting variegated Monstera could be sold en masse.

9. Tissue culture is cheaper (overall) than growing traditionally

There are a few reasons that tissue culture is cheaper. Obviously, the cost of setting up the labs ain’t cheap, so unless you’re doing this on an industrial scale I don’t think you’ll be saving much.

  • Time is money, and tissue culture is quicker than reproducing plants naturally
  • Less losses due to environmental factors
  • Quicker response to customer demands so it’s easier to hop on trends
  • Plants that were once rare can be easily tissue cultured, but if supply is controlled by the supplier, demand (and therefore prices) stay high.

10. It’s easier to preserve endangered plants

Once upon a time, if we found an endangered plant, we’d have to protect it as best we could and hope it reproduces fast enough to not go extinct. Now we have tissue culture, we can just clone the plant and be done with it.

Now, tissue culture isn’t perfect (yet). Sometimes the plant clones aren’t quite identical to their parents (like with Aglaonema pictum tricolor) BUT at least it’s easier to preserve their DNA.

Can you imagine if we could tissue culture animals? Just grow a couple of thousand white rhinos in a lab and repopulate the world with them?

Don’t get me wrong, you definitely can culture animal tissue in a lab, but it’s a lot trickier than it is for plants. It’s being worked on (imagine if you could grow your own donor organ?), but for now, we just have to be careful with the rhinos we have.

Caroline Cocker

Caroline is the founder and writer (and plant keeper) of Planet Houseplant

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