You’ve probably come across the term tissue culture or TC at some point in your houseplant journey. It seems like an odd term to describe plants, and some plant owners have strong opinions about the topic. Find out what exactly tissue culture plants are and how they differ from other plants.
Tissue culture is a form of propagation. To explain what tissue culture is, it helps to understand the traditional process. Commercial greenhouses create their inventory by propagating plants. This process can mean growing plants from seed, dividing mature plants, or taking cuttings of existing plants. Non-tissue culture refers to plants grown from seeds or traditional propagation methods.
Those new plants are nurtured in a greenhouse for at least 6 to 12 months, but sometimes longer until they are shipped out to a plant store, grocery store, or any business interested in selling houseplants.
Tissue Culture History
Tissue culture first came about in the 1830s, but it wasn’t used for plants until the turn of the last century. TC plants have been used in the agriculture industry for decades. It sounds like science fiction, but tissue culture plants are clones. This is a greatly simplified explanation, but plant cells, or tissue, are placed in a sterile growing medium (usually in a culture dish) and processed until seedlings can be planted in the soil.
Advantages of Tissue Culture
Tissue culture plants offer various advantages, depending on your viewpoint. Most notably, the tissue culture process allows more plants to be created more quickly.
Better Use of Materials
Traditional propagation methods require seeds or an established plant that can be divided or has growth nodes. Not all plants are easy to grow from seeds or propagate, so greenhouse staff has to pick and choose how to propagate different types of plants.
The tissue culture process can use just about any part of a plant. Lab staff can create new plants from stems or leaves, essentially plant parts that do not aid in traditional propagation methods.
The process of creating tissue culture plants is fast and supports high volumes. The timeline from no plant to a viable plant that can ship to a retailer is much quicker. TC plants typically need about 1.5 to 2 months before they are ready to go. One lab can quickly turn around a lot of plants so that inventory can be replenished much faster than other propagation methods.
The speed of the tissue culture process is an even more significant benefit when growing plants with a slow germination rate. If you’ve noticed how quickly a new showy plant goes from first introduction to inundating your social media feed and every store shelf, it’s probably a TC plant.
Tissue culture makes it possible to pick and choose the traits that end up in the final plant. It’s also possible to create designer plants that don’t naturally exist. For instance, the Monstera Thai Constellation is the product of tissue culture. This lovely variegated plant does not exist in nature, but it’s possible to own it thanks to tissue culture.
Disadvantages of Tissue Culture
Tissue culture can be an expensive process, and it requires skilled individuals. It’s just not worth it when it comes to propagating plants like Pothos which are very easy to propagate using traditional methods.
Furthermore, human error is always a possibility. The plants are only as good as the lab and the individuals who create them, so while the concept of new designer plants is exciting, that may not always be the end result.
Tissue culture plants are not always exactly the same as their non-TC counterparts. Often, the differences are slight and only noticeable to extremely knowledgeable individuals or when you have examples of each for a side-by-side comparison. Not all plant owners like tissue culture plants because it can be disappointing if you want one thing and you get another.
Are TC Better Than Non-TC Plants?
Whether tissue culture is better than non-tissue culture is a matter of opinion. It’s always important to check the plants’ quality when purchasing. An inept lab or poorly trained staff could produce defective TC plants, but traditionally propagated plants are also at the mercy of the greenhouse staff. Mistakes can happen in any work setting.
Tissue culture makes it possible to enjoy plants that would not be as readily available or exist at all. There may be some visual differences, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The Rhaphidophora tetrasperma is one of the most prevalent tissue culture plants. Some experts report that the TC Rhaphidophora tetrasperma has narrower leaves and thinner stems, but the plants also grow faster. This is not always the case, but those are some of the differences that can exist.
Can You Propagate Tissue Culture Plants?
Yes, tissue culture plants can be propagated using the same methods as non-tissue culture plants. If you have a TC plant, you can expand your plant collection or create new plants to gift to friends. Depending on the plant, it can be divided, or you can take cuttings. Follow the same process as if you were propagating a non-TC plant.
What’s the Verdict?
The tissue culture process is a marvel of modern science, and it makes it possible to enjoy so many houseplants that would be unavailable otherwise. Most plant sellers know if their stock is TC or not, so ask if you want to know. TC plants are not better or worse than non-TC plants — they’re just different.