How to Fix Root Rot (If You’re Lucky): The Secret Reason Your Plants Keep Dying

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You know how your houseplant looks lush and gorgeous, and then the next time you look at it, it’s sad and wilted or losing leaves? You might be dealing with root rot. This layperson term means the roots of your plants are, well, you guessed it: decaying. “Root rot is often misunderstood,” says Justin Hancock, horticulturalist for Costa Farms. “It’s commonly associated with overwatering your plant, but that’s not the only reason for the roots of plants to start decomposing.”

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Here's what you need to know about root rot and whether you can salvage a dying plant:

Root rot is often caused by overwatering

Essentially, when you water your plant too frequently, the roots begin to suffocate. Roots take up moisture, send it to the rest of the plant, and then water evaporates from the leaves, which is called transpiration. If there’s an imbalance and the soil is too soggy, the plant can’t get rid of the excess moisture fast enough. “Do the finger test,” says Hancock. “If you stick your finger in the soil and it’s sopping wet, overwatering may be the cause of your plant’s decline.”

root rot overwatering
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But root rot isn’t Always caused by overwatering

Sometimes root rot is caused by a soilborne fungus, but there’s no way you can tell by looking at it. “In the nursery, we’d have to send a plant out to a lab for testing to identify the pathogen,” says Hancock. If you’re super attached to the plant, you can try to treat it by applying a fungicide soil drench for houseplants (a fungicide spray won’t work). Follow the package instructions, then hope for the best. Just be aware it’s no guarantee it’s going to save the plant.

So, can you fix root rot?

Although some Internet advice suggests trying to rinse off the roots and replant in fresh soil, Hancock doesn’t recommend it. For one thing, it adds replanting stress to the plant, and handling the roots can cause breakage, which creates even more entry wounds if you are dealing with a pathogen. The bottom line: “There’s no way to sanitize the roots,” he says.

Instead, remove the plant from the pot. The roots may look mushy or smell funky. But even though it’s clear the roots aren’t healthy, the problem is that there’s usually no indication of why they’re dying. Your best bet at the point is to set the plant (outside its pot) on an old rag towel to dry out. It won’t hang on forever; it’s either going to improve or die within a week or two.

root rot prevention
Iryna Khabliuk/EyeEm/Getty Images

Can you save a plant with root rot?

Maybe, maybe not. If you’ve let it dry out after a few days to a week or more, you may see it perk up. If it doesn’t, and you truly can’t bear to part with your dying plant, Hancock recommends that you snip off a piece for a cutting and place it in a glass of water or directly into soil to start a new plant.

Can you prevent root rot?

Not always. Certain plants, such as the ones that are drought tolerant, tend to be more susceptible to root rot. That includes popular houseplants such as pothos, snake plant, ZZ plant, peace lily, and cacti and succulents, so be extra careful not to overwater them. Also, make sure your plant stays healthy by giving it the right lighting conditions, decent humidity levels and average indoor temps with no drafts; a healthy plant is more resilient and less vulnerable to stress of any kind, says Hancock.

On the other hand, you don’t always have to take the blame and think you’re a bad plant parent if your plant develops root rot. “Sometimes these problems set in before you buy them. If a houseplant dies within a week or two of bringing it home, that could be the issue,” says Hancock. Either way, consider it a learning experience, and try again.

The Best Tools for Dealing with Root Rot:

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Freelance Gardening Editor

Arricca Elin SanSone is a gardener with more than 15 years of experience. In addition to PureWow, she writes for Prevention, Country Living, Veranda, The Spruce and many other...