Do You Suspect Your Plants Are Suffering from Root Rot?

Do you suspect your plants are suffering from root rot? 

Root rot is a silent killer. Because most of the damage is dealt below the surface of the soil, your plant’s entire root system could succumb to rot without you noticing. This gruesome disease is caused by a plant sitting in saturated soil for extended periods of time. Unfortunately, plants developing root rot is a natural – although troublesome – phenomenon. Owning a plant that has been afflicted doesn’t make you a bad plant parent. It happens to the best of us, and in fact, it happens in nature as well. For parents of moisture-loving plants (i.e. pothos vines, monstera deliciosas, elephant ears), this can be a tricky battle. Prevention, as usual, is the best form of medicine. Ward off root rot by  being proactive: avoid overwatering your plants and use well-draining soil and pots. 

As indoor gardeners and plant enthusiasts, we should always closely examine our plants for signs of root rot. If your plant is displaying signs that it’s stressed out, there could be a number of causes. However, root rot is the most dangerous and deadly threat, so it’s the one we should remain on guard for. Some of these signs may include:

  • Discolored leaves, especially black or yellow spots
  • Stunted growth during the growing season
  • Wilting of the leaves/stems

If you do suspect your plant has root rot, follow the guide below to save your baby. On the other hand, if you have a healthy plant and would like to propagate it to produce more plants, you may follow these steps as well, disregarding the information about unhealthy root systems. Many healthy plants can be propagated directly from cuttings without roots; if this suits your specific plant, then follow steps 6-7.  

Step 1: Dig up your plant.

Carefully remove your plant from its pot, doing your best to avoid traumatizing the root system any further. Grab your plant by the base, and gently wiggle it out of the pot. If your plant is determined to stay put, try tilting the pot and patting it gently to urge it to loosen its grip. If you potted in a plastic container, you may find that cutting your plant out is the easiest method.

Step 2: Examine the root system.

Once your plant is freed from its pot, tease its root system to separate it from the soil. Then, closely examine the root system. Healthy roots are white and firm; if your plant has brown and soft roots, your diagnosis is complete – your baby does, in fact, have root rot. If the root system appears healthy, your plant may be suffering from a different ailment. It’s better to err on the side of caution, because root rot will kill your plant faster than any other disease.

Step 3: Cut off all afflicted roots.

Disinfect a pair of sharp scissors or a knife, and begin to cut off all brown and mushy roots with clean slices. If any roots are questionable to you (i.e. not quite mushy, but a little bit soft), go ahead and remove these too. If the root rot is advanced and you’re left with hardly any remaining roots, don’t fret; many plants can be propagated from cuttings in water or in a potting medium, as long as you have a healthy cutting and/or several healthy nodes. If you take a cutting without roots, be sure to cut the plant below at least a couple of healthy nodes. These nodes will be where your plant develops roots in a new medium.

Step 4: Disinfect your plant.

Now that you have removed the unhealthy portions of your plant, you need to disinfect your plant to kill the lingering deadly bacteria. You can do so by lathering your hands with soap and water and gently washing the roots off. Using soap on a plant may make you feel uneasy, but don’t worry; the soap won’t hurt your plant’s roots, and it will increase its odds of survival. 

Step 5: Allow your plant to air dry for 24 hours. (Optional)

Once your plant has been disinfected and rinsed of soap completely, you may opt to air dry your plant for 24 hours. This step is optional; some plant owners choose to reroot their plants in a medium immediately, but I recommend this step for plants that had advanced root rot. Root rot is caused by a buildup of bacteria in water-saturated soil, so starving any remaining bacteria of water will allot your plant a better chance of survival. Plants that have experienced root rot are highly susceptible to being reinfected, so I follow this step to be extra cautious. In the process of air-drying your plant, some of the remaining roots will shrivel up and die. This isn’t something to stress about – those roots were weak, and were unlikely to survive anyway. After air drying your plant, simply snip off any additional roots that didn’t make it.

Step 6: Reroot your plant in another potting medium.

If your plant has plenty of remaining roots, it’s up to you if you’d like to stick it back in soil again. If you choose to do this, make sure you use a disinfected, well draining pot and a well-draining soil.

Many plant propagations can be rerooted in water (i.e. pothos, many varieties of vines, monstera deliciosa, zz plant, etc.). A quick Google search will let you know if this is an option for you. When rerooting in water, it’s recommendable to use an opaque vase/container. If you choose a clear container, you’ll have to switch the water out more frequently because the water will evaporate out quicker, and the container is more susceptible to algae buildup. Either way, you’ll need to refresh your plant with new, room temperature and filtered/distilled water at least once a week so that the water maintains healthy oxygen levels. With this method, make sure that your plant’s nodes are continuously covered with water, while its leaves remain dry. Your plant should begin to grow water-roots from its nodes within a few weeks. Pay close attention and track this growth to ensure that everything is developing properly.

Step 7: Repot your plant.

Many plants can be grown in water forever, as long as they don’t outgrow their containers. Other plants can’t be kept in water for extended periods of time, so it’s important to track their development and repot within the appropriate time frame. If you’d like to keep your plant in water, and that’s an option for your specific plant, research your plant’s nutritional needs in water. Some plants, like the pothos, benefit from a couple of drops of all-purpose liquid fertilizer every few weeks. 

If you’d like to repot your plant in soil, research how to properly transition your specific plant. Water roots are very different than soil roots; they are fragile and accustomed to being surrounded by water, so many will die in the oxygen and bacteria-rich environment of soil. Many plants, such as the monstera deliciosa, benefit from being potted in moss before being transitioned to soil. Proper research is your greatest tool.

Good luck and happy gardening!

Hannah Menslage
Hannah Menslage

Hannah Menslage is the assistant publisher and editor of Katy and Fort Bend Christian Magazines. She also writes a lifestyle column and manages the social media accounts for these publications. Hannah is a journalism/communications student in the Valenti school at the University of Houston. In her free time, Hannah enjoys gardening, cooking and baking, hanging out with her dog and cat, writing and completing fun DIY projects. Contact her with any questions at hannah@katychristianmagazine.com.