Succulent Root Rot – Preventing and Saving

Before we get into the succulent root rot causes, prevention and fixes, let’s talk a little about how succulents get water in their natural habitat.

What makes succulents so special is their ability to survive harsh climates. The desert is dry, hot (and then possibly freezing at night), with little rainfall. Succulents in the rain forest (yes, there are some) get plenty of water but little light. No matter where they grow, they are there because they can survive where other plants can’t.

Even though condensation and humidity can be absorbed through succulents leaves and stored in their roots, stems, and leaves…

It’s Really All About the RootsPlanted succulent

Desert succulents have very short roots, a few inches at most. They are used to long periods of time without rain and then a drenching. The rain usually falls hard and fast and therefore runs off, it doesn’t sink into the ground. The short roots let it grab what it can when it can.

Other succulents have longer roots allowing them to find water.

Roots in succulents allow them the take in nutrients, water, and oxygen. Oxygen is important for photosynthesis (taking energy from the sun and turning it in the food). If succulents are overwatered or if the soil doesn’t drain quickly, the roots will suffocate or drown. By the time we see symptoms above the dirt, it is an emergency!

What is Root Rot?

Rotting applesRoot rot is a broad term for anything that damages the roots. This can be bacteria, or in the vast majority cases of succulents, overwatering. Once a section of roots start to suffocate or die, the decay spreads to the other roots. It’s the ‘ole “one bad apple spoils the bunch” scenario. The decay spreads quickly from one root to another until it is affecting the entire plant.

How Do I Know if Root Rot is the problem?

There are two ways you can tell if your plant has root rot.

  1. You see the roots – This would be the best case scenario because you would see it before it has reached the plant. While this would be great, the chances of re-potting at the exact time your plant is starting to show signs of root rot are slim.
    1. If you are looking at the roots though, what you want to see are white or tan/yellow roots. These indicate a healthy plant.
    2. If you see light brown/brown crumbly roots, those are dried out but are not a sign of root rot.
    3. If the roots are a dark brown to black, wet, slimy, and smell bad…that is root rot!
  2. The stem and leaves – Root rot starts at the roots (I know, duh) and works its way to the top. Visible signs can include the bottom leaves (this is key, it will start from the bottom and work its way up, if all leaves are yellow, it is not root rot) will turn discolored, be mushy, and fall off with the slightest bump. The stem or bottom leaves could also turn black. Since some succulent leaves cover the stem, it may be hard the see early warning signs.

Fixing Root Rot

If you have positively identified root rot, there are a few things you can do the possibly save the plant.

  1. Remove the plant from the pot/planter
  2. Cut off all visible signs of root rot, then trim a little more. Root rot can spread inside the roots so cutting well above the visible line is important
  3. Remove any affected leaves
  4. Let the plant dry in indirect sunlight for 3-4 hours
  5. Repot – if you are using the same pot it was in before, make sure to remove all dirt and clean the pot thoroughly. Do not water the plant for at least 7-10 days after re-potting and then only dampen the soil. Once the soil is completely dry, after the dampening, water as normal. See this article, “How the Take Care of Succulents”.

If the root rot has spread to the stem, there is little chance the entire plant can be saved. The best option is the start of a new plant from the dying one. This article gives instructions and can walk you through the steps “Grow Succulents From Cuttings” . Hopefully, a leaf or the head can be saved to create a new plant. Not ideal but at least there is a chance you have a piece of the original plant.

Preventing Root RotRain on glass

You are probably expecting a short answer of “don’t overwater it” and while that is true, let’s look at a few things.

As discussed earlier, desert succulents get drenched and dry out for long periods of time and then get drenched again. Rain forest succulents get rain every day.

So while the “easy” answer may be, “don’t overwater them”, the correct answer is “you need to know your succulent”.

The chances of overwatering your rain forest succulent is slim but it may get too much light. The chances of overwatering your desert succulent is great but it may not get enough light

Knowing the origin of your plant (desert, rain forest, or in between) will help you understand how much water (and light) it needs.

If you are unsure about what type of succulent you have, go with less water. It is a lot easier to give a plant more water later when you think it needs it, than to correct it being over watered.

Who Else is Tired of Reading the Words “Root Rot”?

Succulent in a potSay root rot three times fast! Saying it three times fast is just as hard as finding it before it’s too late! The best advice I can offer on succulent root rot causes, prevention and fixes is to know your plant (how much water does it need) and keep an eye on them (any changes in color, etc).

One other thing I think worth mentioning is healthy roots start when you buy the plant. Here is an excerpt from “Types of Succulent Plants and How to Choose”.

Things to look for in a healthy plant:

  • No bugs
  • No scars on the leaves
  • The leaves are not easily falling off the plant (if you bump the pot, are the leaves staying on?) If the plant has been overwatered, the leaves will fall off and feel sorta mushy
  • The color – the plant should be brightly colored – dull plant equals dull health
  • Healthy roots – if you can see the roots, they should be white or a yellow/tan color

One key to you having a healthy plant is starting with a healthy plant.

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