How to Tell If Your Plant Is Dead or Just Dormant

Over the past few years, houseplants have gone from being passive home decor items to an almost obsession for some people , filling our social media feeds with images of puppies and sunsets. If you’re one of those good bucks on plants, you probably want to be a good #plantparent (sorry) and make sure your potted possessions thrive – or at least stay alive.

But, as it turns out, the plants are cunning and, like some people, are less active in winter . Many of them hibernate in extreme weather conditions , such as low temperatures, and then go out again when conditions for their growth are better. When resting, the leaves of the plant fall off and it may look dead. But before you start planning your plant’s funeral (at least green burials ), you should know that this is most likely not the case. Here’s how to find out if he’s really dead or just dormant.

Remember that indoor plants hibernate too.

Outdoor plants obviously undergo some changes depending on the weather, but indoor plants can also go into hibernation. Some plants do predict bad weather conditions (usually caused by a drop in temperature or a rise in temperature). This is aptly called predictive calm . There is also an indirect dormancy , when the plant goes into hibernation after the occurrence of unfavorable conditions. In fact, many plants need a dormant period to survive. Gardening website Evergreen Garden Works explains :

Species that have a well-developed need for rest cannot be fooled. If you try to give a species like the Japanese maple, Acer palmatum, eternal summer by bringing it into your home, it will grow continuously for two years. After a maximum period of steady growth, a plant with a temperate climate automatically goes into a dormant state regardless of the season or conditions. Deciduous plants will lose their leaves, evergreens will restrict the growth of new plants.

But it’s not just the weather. Both outdoor and indoor plants can be dormant under stress . For example, if the plant is dry, it may drop its leaves and go into hibernation to conserve water remaining in it. He looks like he is dying, but it is mainly a defense mechanism that allows him to survive. According to , a maltreated plant may simply wait for more suitable growing conditions .

Whether it’s stress or winter weather, plants tend to exhibit the same simple traits when hibernating: They wither, start shedding leaves, and look dead.

Try the scratch test

To test if your plant is dead or just dormant, Oklahoma State University offers what they call a scratch test :

Begin by highlighting the tip of a pencil-sized branch. Grasp the twig and bend it sharply back towards you. A living branch will bend easily and eventually the trunk will split and there will be damp wood inside. A dead limb will break easily with very little pressure and feel dry inside. The scratch test is another common method. Use a knife or fingernail to scratch the bark of the young twig.

If the tree is alive, it will be green under the bark and slightly damp to the touch. On the other hand, a dead limb will be brown and difficult to scratch.

If you do see a brown color, go down the stem of the plant too. Try scratching the bottom branch or the bottom of the leg. As it gets closer to the roots, the plant may show signs of life. If so, cut off the dead stems an inch or two above your height.

Examine the roots

Even though a dormant plant looks dead above soil level, it will have healthy roots. If the snap and scratch test fails, you can remove the plant from the pot and check to see if the roots look alive and healthy, and if they are completely rotten or shriveled.

Rotten roots will also smell like a sewer, so if the roots of the plant look soft and smell, it may just be dead. However, if the roots of the plant are light and flexible , the plant is probably still alive, it simply hibernates.

However, some of the roots may be dead while others, including the primary, are still alive. You can see this for yourself with the example of a sleeping bonsai in the video above. To help the plant optimize its resources so it can come back when the weather gets warm, you can prune dead roots. Just make sure the primary root is intact like any other healthy root.

What to do with a dormant plant

Your plant may be dormant, but this does not mean that it is completely closed. According to gardener and writer George Weigel, sleeping light doesn’t need light. However, it still needs periodic watering: once a month (if any) should be sufficient. Simple enough, people often over-water their plants at this time of year, which can kill the plant. Heating a home kills all the moisture in the air, causing the soil to dry out, making people think their plants need to be watered more often. In short, indoor plants are at greater risk from over-watering in the winter, Get Busy Gardens explains .

To fix this, test the soil with your finger. If the soil seems damp an inch lower, it doesn’t need to be watered.

Plant dormancy is a natural part of its growth cycle. Apart from waiting for the weather, there is little you can do for them. They will hibernate, but as soon as the weather warms up, you will see new signs of life. Until then, you can prune the bare stems to make room for new growth. See how this is done with orchids in the video above.

Plants are not easy and keeping them alive can be challenging. Before you assume that you have killed another plant, make sure it is not dormant. Perhaps it’s just the anticipation of warmer weather.

This story was originally published on 1/9/17 and updated on 10/1/19 to provide more complete and up-to-date information.


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