Grafting Citrus Trees – Cleft Grafting a Citrus Cocktail Tree

This step-by-step tutorial on grafting citrus trees shows how to graft citrus successfully using the cleft graft. The grafting of a multi-variety citrus cocktail tree is shown. A scion of a Sarawak Pummelo is grafted onto a mature Oroblanco tree.

This step-by-step tutorial shows how to graft citrus trees using the cleft graft.

The cleft graft is useful for grafting citrus trees of any kind including: oranges, mandarins, lemons, limes, grapefruit, pummelos, and kumquats. In addition to citrus trees, the cleft graft is also useful for grafting fruit trees of many other types. Although this tutorial shows the use of the cleft graft to add a new variety to a multi-grafted citrus cocktail tree, the cleft graft is also useful for grafting new citrus trees. Although this tutorial shows the use of the cleft graft to graft a new variety to a mature citrus tree to make a multi-grafted citrus cocktail tree, the cleft graft is also useful for grafting new citrus trees.


Grafting Citrus Trees with the Cleft Graft – YouTube Video

In addition to this step-by-step guide, I have also made a YouTube video (see below) showing the cleft grafting of citrus trees.

Citrus Budwood from a Disease-free Source

Citrus cuttings have the potential to spread tree-killing diseases. It is often not apparent when a tree is infected with a fatal disease. This makes the source of citrus budwood for grafting very important.

In California we now have both exotic diseases that kill citrus trees and also the insects that spread the diseases. The situation is so severe that it now against the law in California to graft with cuttings taken from backyard citrus trees. To save our trees from deadly diseases, hobbyists in California no longer swap citrus cuttings with friends. We now instead order our budwood at a nominal cost from the Citrus Clonal Protection Program (CCPP), a program that exists to provide disease-free budwood for the grafting of citrus trees.

The CCPP will ship budwood anywhere in the world where the local government allows it. Many citrus growing regions where CCPP budwood is not allowed have their own disease-free citrus budwood programs. Here I have created a web page that lists some other programs: Citrus Budwood Programs.

The below YouTube video goes through in detail the process of setting up an account and placing a budwood order with CCPP.

Disinfecting Grafting Tools

disinfecting grafting tools
Disinfecting grafting tools.

In order to both maximize the probability that the graft lives and also to prevent the spread of disease from tree to tree, it is important to disinfect grafting tools between grafts. To learn more about disinfecting grafting tools, please see the following link: Disinfecting Grafting Tools.

 

 

 

Choosing the Grafting Technique based upon the Scion Size

There is no single best grafting method for citrus, but when grafting multiple varieties to a mature citrus tree I often prefer to use a scion graft rather than a bud graft. I have found that chip bud grafts and T-bud grafts of additional citrus varieties tend to be very slow to grow or they do not grow at all. Scion grafts on the other hand are more likely to grow and they grow more quickly. For this particular graft, the scions that I received from the CCPP were slightly smaller in diameter than my target branch, so I decided to use the cleft graft and I selected the scion closest in size to my target branch. Had the scions been significantly smaller than my target branch, I would have chosen the bark graft instead. For cases where the diameter of the scion is bigger than the diameter of the rootstock, I like to use the Z graft.

cleft graft scion size check
For citrus scions of the same or slightly smaller diameter than the target branch, the cleft graft is a useful grafting technique.

Cutting off the end of the Branch

The first step is to cut the end off of the target branch. I prefer to use a saw because the clean cut causes the least amount of damage to the target branch.

Citrus Cleft Graft Sawing the end off of the target branch
Sawing the end off of the target branch.

Splitting the Target Branch

The next step is to split the end of the target branch to create the cleft into which the scion will be inserted. I begin the cut at the middle of the end of the branch and slowly rock the knife back and forth until the cut is the desired length. This cut is about 1.5 inches (4 centimeters).

Splitting the target branch.
Splitting the target branch.

Examining the Scion

The next step is to examine the scion to determine where to cut it. In this graft I will focus on matching a single side of the scion to the cleft in the target branch. I choose the flattest side of the scion. I will cut the flattest side to a tapered point for easy insertion into the target branch.

Examining the scion to determine where to cut it for the cleft graft
Examining the scion to determine where to cut it.

Cutting the Scion

Here I cut the scion to a tapered point. I focus on a single side of the scion. The opposite side of the scion does not need to line up with the target branch. For easy insertion, the opposite side of the scion can be cut thinner than the side that will be lined up.

Cutting the scion
Cutting the scion.

Secret to Success: Aligning the Cambium Layers

citrus cambium layer is shown by arrow
Cambium layer shown by arrow.

The goal with any type of citrus grafting is to connect the cambium layer of the scion to that of the rootstock or target branch. The cambium is a very thin layer of tissue between the bark and the wood. The distance of the cambium layer to the outside of the bark tends to vary depending upon the diameter of the wood. I have seen many grafting tutorials that give the impression that the grafter must make an exact match between the cambium layers all along the length of the graft. Such a match would be quite difficult since the bark obscures the cambium layer and since the cambium layer is so thin.

Outside of Bark Aligned

The below illustration shows an example where the scion and target branch are aligned at the outside of the bark.

Illustration of cleft graft with the bark aligned.
Illustration of cleft graft with the bark aligned.

Cambium Layers Not Aligned

The below illustration shows the same graft as above, but with the bark removed and the cambium layers revealed. Although the bark was aligned, there is no contact between the cambium of the scion and the cambium of the target branch; this graft would fail.

Illustration of cleft graft with bark aligned showing that the cambium layers are not aligned.
Illustration of cleft graft with bark aligned showing that the cambium layers are not aligned.

Aligning the Cambium Layers at Two Points

In the below illustration, the angle of the scion has been slightly adjusted in an attempt to create contact between the cambium of the scion and that of the target branch.

Illustration of cleft graft showing the scion at an angle.
Illustration of cleft graft showing the scion at an angle.

Cambium Layers Now in Contact

The below illustration shows the same scion angle as above, but with the bark removed and the cambium layers revealed. The cambium layer of the scion is now in contact with the cambium layer of the target branch in two places. The cambium does not need to be lined up all along. These two points of contact are sufficient for a successful graft. When the graft heals, callus tissue will grow and connect more of the cambium layers.

Illustration of cleft graft showing two points at which the cambium layers are in contact.
Illustration of cleft graft showing two points at which the cambium layers are in contact.

Inserting the Scion

Here I insert the scion at a slight angle to ensure that the cambium layers are in contact. The angle is opposite of the above illustration. The above illustration showed the top of the scion angled outward, but in my example below the top of the scion is angled inward. Either way will work.

Inserting the scion.
Inserting the scion.

Wrapping the Graft with Parafilm

Here I wrap the graft with an initial layer of parafilm to seal the graft and hold it in place. To get a good seal, I gently pull on the parafilm as I wrap it. This makes it stick to itself. I used half inch parafilm to wrap the scion. The following link shows where parafilm can be ordered: Grafting Supplies.

Wrapping the cleft graft with parafilm.
Wrapping the cleft graft with parafilm.

Wrapping with a Rubber Band

In order to ensure close contact between the cambium layers and to strengthen the graft while it is healing, I wrap it with a rubber band.

Wrapping the graft with a rubber band.
Wrapping the graft with a rubber band.

Pruning the Scion to Three or Four Buds

Here I prune the scion to leave three or four buds. In this particular example the scion has three buds remaining.

Cutting the scion down to three buds.
Cutting the scion down to three buds.

Adding a Second Layer of Parafilm

The next step is to wrap the scion with a second layer of parafilm. I wrap starting from the bottom, overlapping as I go up and gently pulling on the parafilm to make it stick. Overlapping the layers keeps the graft from drying out and will also keep out rainwater. Keeping out rainwater will help the graft survive in climates that are rainy during grafting season. Other than the buds I completely wrap the scion, including the cut end. Some people cover the buds with parafilm, but when I tried that, I noticed that buds of some citrus varieties struggle to break through the parafilm.

Wrapping the graft with a second layer of parafilm.
Wrapping the graft with a second layer of parafilm.

Protecting the Graft from the Sun

At the time of year that I performed this graft, the temperatures were getting into the upper part of the optimum range (70°F to 85°F ; 21°C to 29°C) for healing of citrus grafts. In order to keep the graft from absorbing sunlight and getting even hotter, I gently wrapped it with aluminum foil to reflect the sunlight.

Wrapping the grafted scion with aluminum foil to protect it from the sun.
Wrapping the grafted scion with aluminum foil to protect it from the sun.

Removing the Aluminum Foil after Three Weeks

Citrus grafts typically heal within three weeks, so I removed the foil after three weeks. The scion was still green which is a good sign. Many failed grafts would be brown after three weeks.

Removing the aluminum foil after three weeks.
Removing the aluminum foil after three weeks.

Citrus Cleft Graft Growing

After removing the aluminum foil, the next step is to be patient and wait for the graft to start growing. Sometimes the buds on the scion will start growing within a couple of weeks. Other times I have seen it take months. Patience is the key. The below photos show about four months of growth.

Four months growth of the citrus cocktail tree.
Four months growth of the citrus cocktail tree.

Healing of the Citrus Cleft Graft

The below photos show the graft union after many months of growth. The rubber band and parafilm had deteriorated and were no longer needed, so I removed them. The graft had healed well on the front and on the back.

healed graft before and after rubber band removed
Upper left: view of front of graft with deteriorated rubber band and parafilm. Upper middle: view of front of graft with rubber band and parafilm removed. Upper right: view of back of graft. Bottom: side view of graft.

Citrus Cocktail Tree with Four Varieties

The below photo shows the tree with the Sarawak branch extending from the lower middle of the photo to the upper left of the photo. It also shows two other pummelo varieties that have been grafted to the Oroblanco tree.

citrus cocktail tree with four varieties
Multi-grafted citrus cocktail tree with four varieties. The Sarawak Pummelo branch extends from the lower middle of the photo to the upper left. Mato Buntan pummelo has been patch budded and is shown magnified. A cleft grafted Hirado Buntan pummelo branch can be seen in the lower right corner.

Save Citrus Trees by Spreading the Word

In places where huanglongbing has spread, citrus trees now have very short life spans. Parts of the world that do not have the disease are highly vulnerable. There is no cure for the disease, but education can slow the spread. Please help stop the spread to new parts of the world by sharing this article and the importance of grafting with registered disease-free budwood. Thank you!

Resources for Californians

Please visit CaliforniaCitrusThreat.org for more information on how to stop the spread of huanglongbing.

California Law Regarding Citrus Propagation

In California, the collection of any citrus propagative materials, including budwood and seeds, from non-registered sources is illegal. Any citrus trees grown or grafted in California must come from source trees registered with either:

Funding

This article was funded by a grant from California's Citrus Research Board.

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