If you’ve ever brought a houseplant home only to have it die on you a few weeks later, unless you forgot to water it, chances are you bought an unhealthy plant. Spotting a sickly plant isn’t always easy, but it’s important to keeping the rest of your collection healthy.
Your best line of defense against getting an unhealthy plant is to buy your houseplants from a nursery or florist that is dedicated to carrying healthy houseplants and to treating them well. This means that the establishment keeps the plants indoors, out of the elements, and they water them properly.
To have the best luck finding healthy houseplants for your indoor collection, keep the following signs of unhealthy and healthy plants in mind. Signs of sickness in houseplants include the following:
Wilted, drooping foliage, despite wet soil. If a plant looks like it’s parched, but the soil is soggy, this is a sign of fungal infection and root rot. The plant is actually thirsty, but the root rot has shut down the roots so the plant can’t take up water. Plants with root rot are hard to save.
Wobbly and loose with a mushy base. This is another indication of fungal disease and root rot. The plant is loose because it’s not well attached to the roots.
Black or brown, soft roots. This is a definite sign of root rot. The roots may also smell bad.
Roots are girdled. Pot-bound houseplants that contain little soil and feature a mass of circling roots tend to be starved for water and nutrients. This lack often creates long-lasting damage to the plant.
Plant has etiolated. Plants that lean to one side and stretch for light have been grown in insufficient light for so long that they may be permanently adversely affected.
Distorted foliage. Houseplants with shriveled or unusually small foliage often have a pest or disease problem, or they are nutrient deficient.
Signs of pests. Plants with sticky residue, spider webs, a cotton-like substance or visible pests on the foliage indicate troublemakers. Introduce such a plant into your indoor garden, and the pest is likely to spread rapidly, threatening the health of all of your houseplants.
Signs that houseplants are healthy include the following:
New growth that appears to be normal and has no deformities. Healthy plants feature new foliage and flowers that appear to be properly proportioned.
The plant is firmly anchored in the soil and doesn’t move when you push on it.
Leaves are a normal size and appear vibrant and healthy.
Plant roots are white or beige, as well as firm and never smelly.
If the plant flowers, it has buds or blooms.
Plant just seems to be healthy and is growing in a well-balanced manner.
Put new plants in quarantine. No matter how healthy a plant looks, it could be harboring a pest that has been lying dormant and is waiting to rear its head. To protect the rest of your indoor garden, keep new houseplant additions separated from the rest of your collection for two to three weeks. During quarantine, watch for signs of pests or diseases. If you see signs, treat the plant before putting it into the general houseplant population.
Julie Bawden-Davis is a garden writer and master gardener, who since 1985 has written for publications such as Organic Gardening, Wildflower, Better Homes and Gardens and The Los Angeles Times. She is the author of seven books, including Reader’s Digest Flower Gardening, Fairy Gardening, The Strawberry Story, and Indoor Gardening the Organic Way, and is the founder of HealthyHouseplants.com.