If you've grown jade for ages but never noticed its self-pruning ability, you may not have known it was happening. Jades aren't like wet dogs that shake themselves, sending cuttings flying. It's a glacially slow process. Here I show it, and how to harvest cuttings specially selected by the parent plant itself.
Jades---Crassula ovata and its cultivars---are trouble-free, easy to come by, and form good-looking, mounded shrubs with open branching structures. Remarkably, the plants keep themselves thinned out, sometimes to the point they resemble bonsais: canopies of oval leaves atop thick, branching trunks.
Why grow jades?
Their ability to groom themselves makes jades arguably the most easy-care of succulents They're also a wonderfully low-water, visual asset to any garden. Colorful jades when small are good flowerbed-fillers; larger specimens serve well as hedges and backdrop plants.
These near-perfect succulents receive "no respect" because they're so common. Yet (ironically) they're ubiquitous because they're nearly perfect!
My only problem with jades is they can't handle temps below 32 degrees F. My garden gets frost every winter, but I do grow a half-dozen varieties in a linear microclimate along an east-facing wall that absorbs heat from the sun and is sheltered by eaves and lacy trees.
Why do jades self-prune?
All shrubs benefit from air circulation that keeps leaves clean and hinders pests from settling in. (If there's a pest that bothers jade, I'm unaware of it.) Moreover, sunlight entering the plant's center enables otherwise-shaded leaves to photosynthesize.
Fallen cuttings that result from self-pruning take root, thereby propagating the plant. When you see these, grab them; their prospects for successful growth are excellent.
What to watch for --
1. A stem pointing downward
The self-pruning process starts with a pencil-thick stem that begins to wither where it's attached to the trunk. As it shrinks and dries, leaves at the cutting's tip get smaller because they're no longer nourished by the mother ship. They're feeding off their own reserves...which BTW, is the very definition of a succulent: A plant that lives off moisture in its tissues in order to survive periods of drought.
2. The cutting falls off
When the cutting drops to the ground, it may take its umbilicus with it, or leave it behind still attached to Mom. When I first noticed withered stems on my jades, I wondered if they were diseased. After a while, I realized the plants had the ability to self-prune! They weren't sick but smart!
3. Roots form
Once on the ground, the cutting curls. Tip leaves and stem end point upward. Where the rest of the C-shaped cutting sits on the soil, it produces roots. (I show the cutting in the photo upside-down so you can see them.)
To avoid sun-scorch and desiccation, new plants need roots ASAP to pump moisture and nutrients back into them. This takes awhile---a week or more---during which the cutting lives off its lowest leaves. It often happens in late winter and early spring, when little jades will benefit from rain-soaked soil and cool weather.
4. Lots of baby plants
Fresh cuttings are green. Older ones---due to stress---turn red. They also shrivel. Before cuttings anchor themselves is a good time to reposition them in the garden or to give them their own pot. Rather than let them crowd the parent plant, I tuck (or if lazy, toss) fallen offspring into garden gaps.
Btw, I don't especially want a pot filled with one large jade with lots of itty-bitties at its base. It's an aesthetic decision, but I prefer my jades to be solo stars in their pots.
What's going on here?
In this photo, the stem at upper left (red circle) is starting to wither. The blue circle shows a scar from where a stem previously fell off. The pink circle is where I took a cutting a year or so earlier. Doing so caused the stem to branch at the cut end ("bifurcate").
Note bands of tissue along the trunk and stems; they're where new roots will form should the plant be cut apart and planted as cuttings.
Maybe they simply broke off?
Here I've circled stem scars that resulted either from self-pruning or breakage. Jade is easy to take cuttings from---simply cut or snap off. Breakage also can result from impact, as when a child or wheelbarrow plows into the plant. That said, jades are not brittle and stems do have some flexibility.
Can you help?
I'm mystified as to why jades in pots tend to prune themselves more than those in the ground. Possibly a pot offers too little soil, so the plant dwarfs itself like a goldfish confined to a small bowl. But that doesn't explain why jades eventually get so large in pots they may become top-heavy and fall over.
If you have an observation or question, do share it in a comment below. Thanks!