Rotting roots… or how to escape destiny ;-)

January 27, 2017 at 4:53 pm

wilted houseplant due to excess watering, rotting of the rootsIf you grow plants, sooner or later (usually sooner) you’ll have to learn how to cope with the diseases that plague them. Most often, diseases afflict those flowers which are living in unfavourable conditions i.e. ones that significantly differ from those in their natural habitat. Of all the infections that may occur in your plants, the most dangerous one is the rotting of the roots.

Causes and symptoms

As I have written a few times before, in the vast majority of cases, the rotting of the roots is caused by overwatering. Too frequent watering makes the soil in the pot permanently soaked, which impedes oxygen permeating into its deeper layers. In a situation like this, anaerobic rotting processes can appear in the roots. The plants that are particularly exposed to this risk are those that grow in dry soil in their natural environment.

Very often it is not we who are to blame. It sometimes happens that we bring a plant home from a store with its roots already rotting. In some stores, especially those “non-gardening” ones, inexperienced staff may pour too much water into the pots, which in the absence of strong natural light causes the rotting processes to start even in species comparatively resistant to excess watering.

How can you tell that a plant’s roots are rotting? The easiest way is just to look at them. If a plant starts to wither or lose its leaves, and you can’t see any pests on it, take it out of the pot and see what its leaves look like. You’ll easily recognize if they’re rotting – decaying roots will be soft and disintegrating, and they can also be giving off a bad smell.

Very often, however, you can infer that a plant’s roots are sick even without taking the plant out of the pot, just by observing the symptoms of the disease. Usually, the flower will be wilting from the bottom upwards and its leaves drying out, whether the substratum is moist or dry (rotting roots are not able to take up water), and whether the plant has plenty of light or not.  And all this without any signs of infestation.

What you can do

Rotting roots are really a hopeless case. In practice an afflicted plant can’t be helped. In such a scenario, most of the authors of books on house plants advise… throwing the plant away.

And yet, there is something you can do. And here goes the description of a great discovery I made several years ago, which I still sometimes use up to this day 😉

I discovered the method of saving a rotting plant by accident when the problem started to affect my first Dracaena Compacta. I had taken it from my parents’ home. I didn’t know then that this nice pineapple-like flower is called Dracaena and that it doesn’t like, as is the case with most house plants, excess water.

Anyway. After some time and to my great surprise I noticed that my plant started to wither. ‘Strange’, I thought, ‘Although I lavish it with water, the flower is looking worse and worse’. I understood that it was really bad when the bottom half of the plant, both the stem and the leaves, turned brown and soft. Only its top, some ⅓ of the plant’s height, still seemed to be green and sound. ‘What if’, I thought, ‘One cuts off the healthy part of the plant, plants it in a separate pot and waters it more moderately?’ (I had already read about this and was aware that the plant had decayed due to overwatering). I did so. I planted the severed tip in a separate pot. The plant took root and… it’s been in my home to this day.

Since then I’ve saved plants of mine with dying roots on several occasions. Recently, I rescued a Golden Pothos (Epipremnum) which I had bought in a supermarket where they were overly generous on the watering 😉


golden pothos - tip cutting - rotting of the roots

A tip of Golden Pothos that has been cut off the mother plant whose roots had started to rot. A young new leaf in the middle is proof that the cutting has taken root.

And that’s it: by finding, cutting off and planting in a separate pot a healthy part of a plant whose roots are rotting, you can save it from a practically inevitable death. Here I’d just like to mention that the the sound part of the flower doesn’t have to be just a tiny fragment of the whole. If you happen to notice the problem with your plant early, the piece that you cut off can be a greater part of the original plant, let’s say ⅔ of its height.

You can read more about the methods of rooting and caring for severed plant tips in the posts about propagation of house plants.


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Łukasz Dumiszewski

A computer scientist who likes house plants and who once wanted to be a writer. A blogger who writes about his experiences in growing house plants by using the benefits of computer science. 😉

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