How to Detect and Treat Root Rot in Your Houseplants

  • 7 min read

Root rot treatment for houseplants, How to save your root rot houseplants

Caring for houseplants is not only about taking care of their vibrant and lush foliage. To maintain their health and vitality requires more than just occasional watering and exposure to sunlight. Hidden beneath the soil's surface, a plant's root system plays a pivotal role in its overall well-being. Unfortunately, there's a stealthy threat that can compromise these vital roots and lead to the downfall of even the most thriving green companions: root rot.

Root rot doesn't discriminate between novice and expert – it's a nightmare for every gardener. In essence, root rot is a potentially fatal plant disease that targets the root system. Left unchecked, it can swiftly spread to the whole root system, causing irreversible damage and even can silently kill your beloved green friends. That's why it's crucial to be a root rot detective, spotting the first hints of trouble and knowing how to save your plants. With a little knowledge and some preventive action, you can safeguard your plants against this underground nemesis.

What is Root Rot?

As the name suggests, root rot is the decay and breakdown of the plant's root tissues. This decay hinders the roots' ability to absorb water and nutrients from the soil, which are essential for the plant's growth and overall health. Without a properly functioning root system, the plant's vitality is compromised, and it becomes more susceptible to other stresses and diseases.

Root rot primarily results from two main causes: inadequate oxygen supply and fungal infection. These factors can profoundly affect plant health, leading to severe consequences if not swiftly dealt with.

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Root rot houseplant

What Are The Factors That Cause Root Rot?

Root rot is caused primarily by a combination of factors that create an environment conducive to the growth and activity of fungal pathogens. These factors include:

  • Excess Moisture: Overwatering or poor drainage is one of the main culprits behind root rot. When the soil remains consistently wet, it limits the oxygen available to the roots. This creates a perfect breeding ground for fungi that thrive in wet conditions.
  • Poor Drainage: When the potting mix or container lacks proper drainage, water can accumulate around the roots, creating a stagnant, oxygen-deprived environment. This stagnant water provides an ideal habitat for root rot fungi.
  • Fungal Pathogens: Various types of fungi, such as Phytophthora, Fusarium, and Rhizoctonia, are responsible for causing root rot. These fungi are naturally present in soil and can become problematic when conditions are right for their growth.
  • Cool and Damp Conditions: Cold temperatures combined with high humidity provide an environment where fungi can flourish. This is particularly concerning when plants are in a cool and damp setting, such as during the colder months.

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Root rot is caused primarily by a combination of factors.
Photo by GreenThumbShots

  • Plant Stress: Plants that are stressed due to factors like poor nutrition, inadequate light, or pest infestations are more susceptible to root rot. When a plant's overall health is compromised, its ability to defend against pathogens decreases.
  • Overcrowding: Planting too many plants in a single container can lead to overcrowded roots and reduced air circulation, increasing the likelihood of fungal infections.
  • Inadequate Pot Size: Using a pot that's too large for the plant's root system can cause excess moisture retention in the soil, promoting the growth of root rot fungi.
  • Contaminated Soil or Equipment: Using soil that is contaminated with fungal spores or reusing contaminated equipment like pots or tools can introduce pathogens to healthy plants.

    What Are Signs of Root Rot?

    Here are the common signs to watch out for:

    • Yellowing and Wilting Leaves: One of the earliest signs of root rot is the yellowing and wilting of leaves. This occurs because the compromised root system can't supply the plant with sufficient water and nutrients, leading to stress and leaf discoloration.
    • Stunted Growth: As root rot interferes with nutrient uptake, plants affected by the disease often show slowed or stunted growth. New leaves may appear smaller than usual, and the overall plant development can be visibly hindered.
    • Brown or Blackened Roots: The roots themselves are a primary indicator of root rot. Healthy roots should be firm and white, but those affected by root rot become soft, discolored (often brown or black), and may even appear mushy when touched.
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    Yellow leaves is one of the signs of root rot houseplant.
    Photo by smile23
    • Foul Odor: Root rot often produces a distinct foul smell. This smell can be particularly noticeable when you remove the plant from its pot or disturb the soil.
    • Loose or Falling Leaves: Leaves might start falling off more easily than usual, even when the plant is not undergoing natural shedding. This can occur due to the weakened state of the roots and their inability to support the plant's foliage.
    • Drooping and Lack of Turgidity: Affected plants might lose their natural rigidity, with stems and leaves appearing droopy or flimsy. This is a result of the water and nutrient deficiency caused by root damage.

    It's important to note that these symptoms can also be caused by other factors, such as improper watering, nutrient deficiencies, or pests. Therefore, careful observation and consideration of the plant's overall conditions are crucial for accurate diagnosis. If you suspect root rot, it's best to gently remove your plant from the soil to inspect the roots and take appropriate action promptly to prevent further spread of the disease.

    How Can You Save Houseplants from Root Rot?

    Saving a houseplant with root rot requires immediate action and careful intervention. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you rescue your plant:

    1. Remove the Plant from the Pot: Gently remove the plant from its pot, being careful not to further damage the roots.
    2. Inspect the Roots: Examine the roots closely. Healthy roots are firm, white, and have a fibrous texture. Root rot-affected roots will be discolored, and mushy, and may emit a foul odor.
    3. Trim Affected Roots: Using clean, sterilized scissors or pruners, trim away the affected roots. Cut back until you reach healthy, unaffected tissue. Discard the removed roots.
    4. Clean The Roots Thoroughly and Let Them Air-dry:Clean the roots under running water, remove as much soil as you can, and let the whole root system air-dry. Discard all the old, infected soil. 
    5. Use An Antifungal Solution: Dip the remaining healthy roots in a diluted antifungal solution sold at gardening stores to reduce the spread of the root rot fungus.
    6. Repot in Fresh Soil: Choose a slightly larger pot with proper drainage holes. Fill the bottom with fresh, well-draining potting mix. Place the plant on top of the new soil and gently spread the roots over it. Do not use garden soil as it can contain harmful pathogens. 
    7. Adjust Care Routine: Place the plant in an area with appropriate lighting for its specific needs and adjust your watering routine to prevent overwatering. Allow the soil to partially dry out between waterings.
    8. Isolate the Plant:If you're dealing with multiple plants, isolate the affected one from others to prevent the potential spread of the root rot fungus.

    Remember, saving a plant with root rot is not always guaranteed, especially if the disease has progressed significantly. Early detection and immediate action are crucial for a higher chance of success. If your efforts to save the plant are not successful, it's essential to prevent the fungus from spreading to other plants by properly disposing of the affected plant and sterilizing any equipment used.

    What Are Tips to Prevent Root Rot?

    Preventing root rot requires a combination of proactive practices that create an environment unfavorable for the growth and spread of root rot-causing fungi. Here are some tips to help you prevent root rot in your houseplants:

    • Choose the Right Pot and Soil:Select pots with drainage holes to ensure excess water can escape and use a well-draining potting mix appropriate for your plant's needs. Avoid heavy soils that retain too much water.
    • Optimal Watering Practices:Water your plants only when the top inch or so of the soil feels dry to the touch. Ensure proper drainage by allowing excess water to escape from the pot's drainage holes. Use a saucer or tray beneath the pot to catch excess water, but don't let the pot sit in standing water.
    • Monitor Humidity Levels:Maintain appropriate humidity levels for your plant's specific needs. Avoid excessively humid conditions, which can promote fungal growth.
    • Improve Air Circulation:Ensure proper spacing between plants to allow air to circulate freely around them. Avoid overcrowding pots, as this can restrict airflow to the root zone.

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    Repotting and rescheduling plant routines to save root rot houseplants.
    Photo by Iryna Imago

    • Quarantine New Plants:Before introducing a new plant to your collection, isolate it from other plants for a few weeks to ensure it is free from any potential diseases, including root rot.
    • Regular Inspection:Periodically inspect your plants, including their root systems, for any signs of stress, disease, or root abnormalities.
    • Care Practices:Maintain optimal growing conditions for your plants, including proper lighting, temperature, and nutrition. Healthy plants are better equipped to resist diseases.
    • Adjust Watering During Cool Months:During colder months when plants naturally require less water, adjust your watering schedule to avoid over moistening the soil.
    • Sterilize Tools and Pots:Use clean, sterilized pots and tools to prevent introducing fungi to your plants. Wash tools with soap and water and sanitize them with a diluted bleach solution.

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