Oh, the mystery plant. Odds are if you’re a plant parent you’ve come across a mystery plant at least once before. Maybe you found a plant at a grocery store or bodega and it wasn’t labeled and no one could tell you what it was. Maybe a friend moved away and gave you their collection of plants and some of them are plants you’ve never seen before. Perhaps you found it on the side of the road or were given a gift. No matter how the plant may have come to you, it’s always hard to know exactly what to do with a mystery plant.
So what comes next? How do you know how to properly care for it? How do you keep it alive and know that it isn’t going to hurt your other plants? We spoke to two plant experts who have dealt with this in the past. They both offered up some great insight on what to do.
Meet the Expert
- Sarah Gerrard-Jones is the author of The Plant Rescuer and is an expert at rescuing plants. You can find her at @theplantrescuer on Instagram.
- Lauren Camilleri is the cofounder of Leaf Supply and coauthor of a number of plant books including Plantopedia and Indoor Jungle. You can find her on Instagram at @domus_botanica.
Figure Out What Type of Plant It Is
“Identifying what species of plant you have is the priority," says Sarah Gerrard-Jones, author of The Plant Rescuer. "Without this basic knowledge, you wouldn't have the necessary information to be able to give it the care it requires."
Gerrard-Jones had a few ideas for how to do this: "My first suggestion would be to type a description of the plant into the internet, describe the leaf shape, color or any distinguishing features the plant has. If this fails you could post a photo of your plant on social media and ask people to identify it for you."
It’s important to at least attempt to figure out what sort of plant you now have in your care because it’s going to have a big influence on so many other things. “Knowing the type of plant you have acquired is fairly important as it will directly affect the type of care and position it will need," explains Lauren Camilleri, cofounder of Leaf Supply. "Looking at the foliage, it is usually fairly easy to determine if the plant is a succulent or a tropical foliage plant. Succulents generally have plump fleshy leaves that retain water, while the foliage on tropicals is thinner and more delicate."
Both Camilleri and Gerrard-Jones agree that if all else fails, reaching out to your favorite plant people on Instagram can help you determine the type of plant you’ve found.
Inspect It for Pests
We know that plant parents love bringing a new leafy baby home, but you don’t want to bring a mystery plant home without checking its leaves and soil first for harmful interlopers. “When you bring a plant into your house, and this applies to plants bought from shops/online too, it's important to keep it away from your other plants until you have thoroughly inspected it," advises Gerrard-Jones. "If you have a magnifying glass, use this to inspect the leaves, paying particular attention to the underside of the leaves, stem and the soil. You are looking for any signs of pests which can be absolutely tiny and range in color—most commonly white, brown and black. The last thing you want to do is infect your other plants with pests."
Plant pests can be super pesky and spread really quickly if you have a lot of plants in one part of your home. It would be a real shame to kill your entire collection because a plant you brought home wasn’t doing well. “While some issues are obvious at first glance other issues might take a bit more time to arise so give it a few weeks on its own to start with... Treat any pests with the appropriate action and repeat the process a few times until you’re sure they’ve been eradicated,” suggests Camilleri.
Check the Roots to Make Sure the Pot Is Right
“If the plant looks unwell and you've ruled out pests, you might want to take a look at what's happening beneath the soil," suggests Gerrard-Jones. "The roots of a plant should generally be light in color and feel firm to the touch; mushy roots are rotting and these need to be cut away if the plant is going to stand any chance of surviving. If all the roots are rotten, then propagating a section of the plant might be your only option for saving it."
While you're checking the roots, you may discover that your plant has little or no soil left in its pot and the roots are strangling each other. This is really common if the plant was neglected or overlooked. “If the plant is busting out of its current home you can look at repotting to give it a bit more room to grow," advises Camilleri. "Choose a pot with good drainage and only increase the pot size by around 1 - 1 ½ in. diameter to avoid having excess potting mix that can become waterlogged."
Find It a Good Home
Now that you’ve figured out what kind of plant you have and if it’s healthy, you need to find a proper home for your plant. “Once you have a pretty good idea of the plant, you can find the perfect spot for it," says Camilleri. "Foliage plants will generally thrive with lots of bright but indirect sunlight while desert dwelling succulents and cacti will need access to direct rays to live their best life." Keep an eye on your plant for a few weeks or months. You may need to move it around until you find its perfect spot.