How to Identify and Treat Root Rot in Houseplants

Rotting roots don't have to mean the death of your plant!

A gardener with white gloves inspecting the roots of houseplants on a wood table.

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Is your houseplant plant wilting, displaying yellow leaves, or relentlessly dropping its leaves no matter what you do? Root rot may be the culprit. Root rot is usually the result of plants being overwatered. So before you do anything else, set down your watering can, back away slowly, and read on for our top tips on treating root rot in houseplants. 

What Is Root Rot?

Root rot is a disease that affects the roots of plants and causes them to rot. It is caused by prolonged exposure to wet soil conditions, and has two sources. First, overwatered conditions can starve a plant's roots of oxygen which causes them to rot and die. This rot can spread to all of the roots quickly, and may persist even after the soil conditions have been corrected. The second source of root rot is harmful fungi in the soil that thrive once exposed to wet soil conditions. There are two main types of soil fungi that can lead to root rot—fusarium and pythium. Fusarium is a common soil fungus that thrives on dead or dying plant tissues, and pythium is a bacterial organism that is commonly transmitted by fungus gnats (which also thrive in consistently moist soil conditions). Ultimately, while there are multiple potential sources of root rot, the treatment is the same regardless of the root cause.

Gloved hands inspecting the rotting roots of an orchid on a whitewashed table.

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How Plants Get Root Rot

Plants get root rot when they are subjected to overwatered conditions. Indoor plants are more susceptible to getting root rot than outdoor plants since water is more easily contained in the soil. Overwatering can happen for a number of reasons. The most common reasons are improper drainage and watering too frequently. It is important to note that certain plants may be more susceptible to root rot than others. For example, plants that like drier environments such as cacti and succulents can be overwatered more easily than plants that are happy in moist environments such as ferns or calatheas.

How to Treat Root Rot 

Once established, root rot is hard to treat. The best you can do is remove the parts of the plant that are dying (including the roots) and provide it with fresh soil. If the root rot is widespread and has affected the majority of the plant's roots and foliage, then the plant may be beyond saving. However, if the plant has any healthy roots left, it may be possible to rehabilitate it using the following steps.

  1. Remove the Plant’s Soil and Inspect Its Roots.

    Gently remove your plant from its pot and break away as much of the soil from the roots as possible. Inspect the roots and foliage of the plant and identify the rotting portions. Healthy roots are green or white and firm, rotting roots are brown and squishy or stringy.

  2. Cut Away the Rotting Roots and Foliage

    Using a pair of sharp pruning shears or scissors, gently remove the rotting portions of your plants roots and foliage. Be careful not to damage any of the healthy growth.

  3. Repot With Fresh Soil

    Once you have removed all of the dead or dying roots and foliage from your plant, it is time to repot the plant in fresh soil. Choose a pot with a drainage hole, and ensure that the fresh soil is the appropriate mix for your plant.

Tip

You can increase the drainage of your soil by adding perlite, sand, or pumice into the soil mix.

Root Rot Prevention

Ultimately, the best treatment for root rot is prevention and there are a few different ways that you can prevent an overwatering situation that may lead to root rot. First, ensure that you familiarize yourself with your plant’s specific watering and care needs. Some plants require significantly more water than others, so an appropriate amount of water for one plant may result in overwatering and root rot for another. 

Indoor plants should also have appropriate drainage to prevent water from accumulating around the roots. The amount of drainage available to a plant is determined by two factors—the type of soil and the type of container. Different types of soil/soil mixtures have different degrees of drainage. For example, clay soil retains water very well and is considered to have poor drainage while sandy soil is considered very well-draining. The type of soil that you should use varies depending on the plant, so don’t just assume that sandy soil will work for every plant! Do some research into which soil is best for your specific plant. 

In addition, houseplants should always be planted in a container with a drainage hole, which allows excess water to drain from the soil during watering. Many decorative planters do not have drainage holes, and in this case, we would suggest that you pot your plant in a smaller plastic nursery pot and then place it inside the decorative planter. During watering, you can remove the plastic pot, water the plant (allowing all of the excess water to drain from the pot), and then put the plant back inside its decorative planter until the next watering.

FAQ
  • Can root rot be reversed?

    Root rot cannot be reversed. Treating root rot involves removing any roots/foliage that are rotting and repotting the plant in fresh soil in an effort to give the remaining healthy roots a new start.

  • What are the signs of root rot?

    If your plant is wilting, dropping leaves, or suffering from yellowing leaves then you may be dealing with root rot. Checking the roots for rot is the only definitive way to know if these issues are being caused by rot, or some other issue.

  • Can a houseplant recover from root rot?

    If it’s caught early enough, houseplants can successfully recover from root rot if the appropriate steps are taken. Unfortunately, if the root rot is widespread and is not caught on time then sometimes plants cannot recover.