What Does Grafting Mean When It Comes to Plants?

Beginner Gardening Tips to Combine Two Plants

Plant stem with grafting held by hand with black gloves

The Spruce / Randi Rhoades

Instead of cross-pollinating two plants and producing a hybrid seed, grafted plants use the roots and the bottom portion of one plant (rootstock) and attach it to a tender shoot (scion) from the top portion of another plant. This is often done with trees and shrubs to combine the best characteristics of the two plants. Grafting heirloom tomatoes has become popular over the past several years, allowing gardeners to enjoy old-world tomato flavor while increasing disease resistance and productivity.

What Is Grafting?

Grafting is a technique that joins two plants into one. In general, a wound is created on one of the plants, and the other is inserted into that wound so each plant's tissues can grow together. The wound needs to be protected until it heals to avoid pests and diseases entering the graft.

Most fruit trees today are grafted onto rootstock. Besides imparting specific characteristics to the resulting plant, it is a quick and reliable means of reproducing plants that do not grow true to type from seed. Unfortunately for the backyard gardener, that means we cannot save seeds and grow more plants. In fact, many grafted plants are patented. Plus to make it a bit more complicated, there are several methods and types of grafting including cut grafting, cleft grafting, crown grafting, splice grafting, tongue grafting, and approach grafting.

illustration about grafting plants

Illustration: The Spruce / Melissa Ling

Reasons to Graft Plants

  • Hardy and reliable plants: grafting and combining the rootstock and scion can help with disease resistance and the production of fruit and flowers in a shorter period of time.
  • Develop new varieties: grafting plants and trees brings the opportunity to develop new varieties that can bring in more fruit per tree for example, or create a higher insect and disease resistance specimen.
  • Create dwarf specimen: A shorter and smaller version of a tree makes it easier for harvesting its fruit and a better option for planting in a home garden.

What Plants Can Be Grafted?

There are many types of plants and trees that can be grafted including fruit trees such as apple, cherry, and citrus, and other trees like birch, beech, ash, spruce, and cedar varieties. Flowering and vegetable plants can be grafted also, specifically, roses and tomatoes are commonly grafted plants.

Not all plants can be grafted though. They have to be compatible in both rootstock and scion for it to work properly. The same plant species and genus are more successful than plants from a different genus.

What Is a Rootstock?

The lower plant portion used in grafting is called the rootstock. This is usually a healthy root system and some portion of the stem. You've probably seen a nubby bump at the base of rose bushes or fruit trees, like the one in the photo. This is where the graft was made; the graft union. Everything below the bump is rootstock.

The characteristics of rootstocks can make it possible to grow plants faster and in less than desirable conditions. One of the most common uses for rootstocks is creating dwarf fruit trees. Most fruit trees are not only too large for the average backyard; they also take years to mature to a size that is capable of bearing fruit. By grafting a favorite fruit tree onto a rootstock that produces dwarf trees, we are able to create a tree as short as only 6 ft. tall. This is an easy height for a gardener to maintain and pick from and it helps the commercial orchards get up and producing sooner.

Besides dwarfing, rootstocks can contribute traits to improve yield, cold or drought hardiness, and even disease resistance. Many European wine grapes are grown on a North American rootstock that was discovered to have a resistance to phylloxera, an insect that was threatening the vines in the 19th century.

Rootstock nub at bottom of tree trunk

The Spruce / Randi Rhoades

What Is a Scion?

The portion above the graft is called the scion. It is a young shoot or bud from a plant with beneficial characteristics like great flavor, color, or disease resistance. All of the top growth of a grafted plant, leaves, flowers, fruits, etc., comes from the scion. By combining the rootstock and the Scion you can be reasonably assured you will wind up with a reliably hardy and productive plant.

The rootstock and scion do not have to be from the same species, but they should be closely related, for instance grafting a plum tree onto a peach rootstock. It is also possible to graft several scions onto one rootstock, as they do for apple trees that produce multiple varieties on different branches.

Scion buds around plant stem with planters tape with gloves

The Spruce / Randi Rhoades

Special Growing Considerations for Grafted Plants

You have to be careful when planting grafted plants. If the graft joint is buried underground, the rootstock can sprout its own top growth or the scion can send down its own roots. When that happens, you lose the characteristics selected for when the plant was grafted. A Granny Smith apple tree may start producing unrecognizable red apples, from rootstock shoots.

There are also times when the rootstock needs some winter protection, as with many grafted roses. That's why it is recommended that cold climate gardeners cover the graft in late fall, but remember to uncover it in the spring, so the rootstock does not sprout.

Want to Try Your Hand at Grafting?

Grafting is an ancient practice, but most of the grafted plants available today are the result of research done within the last century. Current trials continually push the limits of where plants will grow, such as the USDA Zone 4 cold hardy 'Reliance' peach. If you are interested in trying your hand at grafting, it takes dexterity and patience, but it can certainly be done by home gardeners. Standard rootstocks are available from many mail-order nurseries. They describe the attributes of each, so you can do your own experimenting. 

Article Sources
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  1. Grafting. University of Missouri Extension.