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Where to get plant cuttings on campus

Growing your own forest isn’t hard when you know where to start

Image adapted from art by Vivienne Guo.

In the five years that I’ve spent at uni, I’ve quietly noted down all the plantiest spots that I’ve found. Some are plain to see if you care to look, while others are a not-so-closely kept secret. Many of the plants commonly used in outdoor landscaping are actually common houseplants; so, why not try your hand at propagating yourself a small jungle at home? From experience, it’s certainly possible. If you’re worried about how this may affect the plant, fear not! When plants are pruned, it encourages them to sprout new growths from nodes below the cut, so the plant should grow back happier and bushier than ever.

It’s easy to take a cutting as long as you can find the node on a plant’s stem. Nodes look like little notches in the stem of the plant, and they are where the plant’s leaves sprout from. Cut below a node (not too closely) and you have a cutting! I’d also advise that any cuttings you bring home are kept apart from other houseplants, just in case some hidden nasties or bugs make themselves known.

While just about any plant can be propagated from a cutting, some have a penchant for special mediums like sphagnum moss or LECA clay balls, while others need a little extra help with rooting powder. In the interest of ease, the plants that I’ll describe will be particularly forgiving, and in my experience seem happy to grow roots in nothing but plain tap water.

BEHIND THE SUSAN WAKIL BUILDING

Where the Susan Wakil Building meets the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, campus adventurers might encounter a great variety of common houseplants growing happily in the undergrowth. In this strange in-between space, you’ll spot colossal birds of paradise and lady palm trees that tower over the clivias growing quietly in the shady loam.

I came across this spot in first year with my friend Ellie, who diligently watched as I sawed at a tightly-clustered bush of common green syngoniums with my house keys. Thankfully, the rough cutting eventually took root in water and flourished. 

Syngoniums, otherwise known as arrowhead plants for their arrow-shaped adolescent leaves, should generally not be planted in the ground because they grow like weeds and can push out other flora in the area. Syngoniums are common houseplants because they’re easy to propagate and are quite resilient to neglect. They thrive when given a totem to climb, and their arrow-shaped leaves morph into their large three-pronged mature form.

THE MADSEN BUILDING

The looming facade of the Madsen Building disguises a green haven hiding right under our noses, exposed to the thoroughfare of Eastern Avenue. The Madsen Building faces east, meaning that these plants get the most light in the morning and are shaded from harsh afternoon light. In the shade of the benched rest area live a variety of pink cordylines, parlor palms, cane begonia and prayer plants. Of the bunch, I’d encourage you to take cuttings from the cane begonia or the prayer plants.

I was thrilled to find two types of prayer plants: tricolour stromanthe sanguina and calathea zebrina. Stromanthes and calatheas belong to the vast and wonderful Marantaceae genus, known as prayer plants for their adorable habit of folding up (like hands in prayer) at nighttime. A few years ago, tricolour stromanthe were pretty hard to come by, but they are far more common now. Their elegantly long and pointed leaves are punctuated with gorgeous rosy variegation, making for a really beautiful houseplant. Calathea zebrina are also pretty common, but the velvety texture of their rounded leaves is not to be overlooked. 

Prayer plants generally like humidity, and the edges of their leaves can become curled and crispy if they’re unhappy. Try to keep them out of direct sunlight, because these beauties can burn pretty easily.

Begonias are a stunning family of plants, with an incredibly diverse range of foliage, from furry textures to polka dots to spirals. Regardless of their leaves, begonias can be identified by their unmistakable clusters of bright pink, orange or yellow blooms that appear year-round. Some types are pretty common, and spread like weeds through the Inner West. The one in front of the Madsen Building is a bit of a plain Jane in comparison to some of its flashier colours, but the bright pink florescence is unmistakable.

While some begonia varieties are quite fussy, the Madsen cane begonia seems perfectly happy to thrive in a variety of conditions, given its exposed environment. It’s quite a large plant, so I’m sure it wouldn’t mind getting the odd chop every now and then.

THE WENTWORTH BUILDING

Standing in the outdoor area near Hermann’s Bar and the food court, you’ll spot a small set of stairs that leads you down to a hidden alcove near the bottom of the Wentworth Building. Here, you’ll find a variety of common syngonium, punctuated by white at the centre of its leaf, climbing next to the handrail. If you walk further in, you’ll be greeted by the majestic sight of huge monsteras that you can see peeking over the brick wall when you’re walking along City Road. 

The monstera deliciosa is the plant that you think of whenever you envision basic jungle prints sold on Kmart furniture. Its popularity is a no-brainer: its huge holey leaves make it really easy to create a relaxing jungle vibe at home, leading the plant to be affectionately nicknamed the ‘swiss cheese plant’.

Now, full disclaimer: I’ve tried to take cuttings from these plants before and scissors literally won’t cut it. The monstera is so mature that the stems of the plant have grown thick. Short of coming back with a small axe, I don’t know how you’d manage to take a cutting. But if you do ever manage to snap off a tip, I’ve always wanted to chuck a large cutting into a vase of water, and just let it sit and grow roots in a quiet corner of my house. Difficulty of pruning aside, I thought that this one was worth a mention. This spot has often brought me peace between classes and on late nights at uni; you forget you’re on campus, hidden from prying eyes by the towering brick wall.

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If you couldn’t already tell, I love plants. There’s just something about walking along the streets that border the main campus, or walking down Science Road to class, and being able to spot and identify certain plants that fills me with great satisfaction. It’s like being able to see new colours, like shades have just been lifted from my eyes and I can see the world. Plants hold memories for me, and I hope that years after I’ve graduated, I’ll be able to look at a plant on my windowsill and its life will remind me of my days at uni and long walks on campus.

There’s every chance that I’ve missed some plants in my writing, but perhaps you, dear reader, can fill in the gaps.