How to Identify and Treat Root Rot in Succulents

Succulents are among the best plants for beginners. They are very easy to care for, and the more you tend to leave them to their own devices, the better they will thrive.

They love sunlight, and will withstand long periods of time without water, but one thing every succulent owner must look out for is root rot.

Here’s everything you need to know about root rot, including how to recognize it, how to save your plants, and when they are past rescuing. 

Root Rot: A Succulent Plant’s Kryptonite

Root rot is by far the biggest killer of succulents. While most succulents will take neglect into their stride, happily growing with very little water or nutrients in the soil for weeks on end, withstanding high temperatures without any issues, root rot is a shortcut to plant death, very quickly.

Root rot is not a disease that just affects succulents. It can impact any plant, but particularly those that need nearly freely-draining soil and grow in drier environments, such as orchids, scabious, lavender, and teasels.

This disease is caused by overwatering. As the roots are the part of the plant that take up the water, these are the first and worst affected. 

When succulents fall victim to root rot, the roots will decay, turning brown or black, no longer able to hold their shape or take up water. They can smell, too.

While you may know that the roots of a plant act as a sponge to take up water,  and also to keep the plant firmly in place in the soil, they also absorb oxygen from the soil, which helps the plant with a number of needs.

When a plant is overwatered and the soil becomes completely waterlogged, this deprives the roots of any oxygen, as the water washes out the air from the soil. 

It can also be caused by bottom-watering several plants in the same water. Any fungal or bacterial disease will transfer between plants, greatly increasing the risk of root rot.

So, how do you tell if your succulent has root rot? 

How to Recognize Disaster: Root Rot in Your Succulent Plants

It’s important to note that as soon as you suspect your succulents are suffering from root rot or something else, you need to be quick. 

It is literally life and death when it comes to root rot and succulent plants, and how early you act is the difference between the two.

This is particularly frustrating as root rot is difficult to spot when it first takes hold of your succulents, as the first part it affects is the roots. 

Obviously, you cannot see these because they are under the soil level, which means that the disease can push your plant past the point it can be saved, without you noticing.

Shortly, the disease will spread through the roots and to the stem and lower leaves. In the early stages of impacting the parts above ground, you’ll notice the ends of leaves nearest to the surface of the soil curling up and turning yellow.

The stem and foliage will go completely yellow, and if you brush the leaves, they will drop from the plant without any force at all.

Given a short amount of time, the stem will collapse completely, and at this point, the only way to salvage the plant is to propagate any healthy tissue left, and grow a clone of the original plant.

The one time that you will notice root rot in the first stage is when you repot your succulents. 

You should always glance at the roots when you repot succulents (see also Succulent Repotting Guide), as this will go a long way into ensuring that your plants live a long life. 

It’s also the only time you should look at the roots, as succulent plants don’t like being disturbed.

Healthy succulent roots should be firm, and an off-white color. This should be a complex network of roots, with tiny hairs coming off them.

A combination of soaked compost and roots which are starting to go brown and soft suggests that root rot has set in. The browner and softer the roots, the worse the root rot has gotten.

How to Rescue Succulent Plants Which have Fallen Victim to Root Rot

There are a few ways you can rescue your succulent if it is attacked by root rot, but they don’t always work, as it depends on how far the rot has progressed. 

Which method you need to use depends on how badly the roots have rotten.

Air Dry Your Succulents

For succulent plants with only some leaves affected, it’s a good idea to air dry your succulent. At this stage, at least most of the plant should still be salvageable. 

Grab a deep tray for this. Hold the pot over the tray, holding the soil between your succulent with your fingers. Gradually tilt the pot so the soil tips into the tray, making sure that you have a good but gentle hold of your succulent.

If the soil is completely waterlogged, you might have to loosen it before it will come out. 

Remove most of the soil from the plant, so the roots are exposed, and pop the poor thing onto an empty dish or shallow tray on a bright windowsill, avoiding areas with radiators or drafts. 

Leave it for a few days.

This will help the roots recover and lose some of that moisture. It is important that you do leave a little soil on the roots, otherwise the roots will die. 

When the roots have dried out, put them over a clean tray or sink, and rinse. This is the best way to see how much of the root system has been attacked, and if the disease has spread to the stem.

Use sharp, clean scissors to cut away any roots which aren’t completely firm or white. Shake the roots to get rid of excess water, and let the plant dry for another couple of hours.

Grab a fresh container, or thoroughly clean out the original with soap and water. Add some horticultural grit to the bottom of the pot before filling it with a suitable, succulent-friendly compost, and this will help improve the drainage.

For an added defense, mix a small amount of grit into all of the soil, and this will help keep the soil aerated, allowing for stronger root growth. 

Put the succulent into its new home, and place it somewhere bright, but where it won’t get any direct sunshine. 

Whatever you do, don’t water it! Hold off on that until at least a week has passed, always checking the soil before you do so. 

Propagate Healthy Succulent Parts

Once the infection has spread to the plant parts above the soil line and has crept its nasty little way into the stem, it’s time to cut your losses. Understand that you cannot save this plant, but you can make a new one, or several.

Depending on how far the disease has gotten, it may not be worth uprooting the whole thing, especially if the stem has turned brown or black. 

In which case, you want to behead the plant. No, really. You want to make sure that you cut the healthy parts off, with a clean, sharp knife. 

Don’t keep anything which has gone yellow or soft, as it’s too late for those. Throw away the diseased bits.

Stem Cuttings

If you have most of the succulent still intact, gingerly place the cutting somewhere warm, dry, and away from sunlight. 

Let the wound heal over for a few days, before either placing sideways in a tray of moist compost, making sure the cut end doesn’t touch the soil, or upright into the soil, depending on whether it can stand upright or not.

Keep the soil damp but not wet. 

Leaf Cuttings

Sometimes all it takes to grow a fresh plant (see also Rosette Succulent Care) is a few succulent leaves. To increase the chances of success, you’ll need several leaves, and they cannot be broken or torn. 

Some types of succulent will root well from leaves, while others are a struggle to propagate this way, but it’s still worth a good try.

As with the stem cuttings, let them scab over for a few days in a warm and dry area, and this will stop the cuttings from drowning when you water them. 

Lay them directly on top of moist succulent compost, misting them occasionally, somewhere away from drafts or direct sunlight. You should see roots grow within a few weeks. 

Give them a little longer than that to either form roots which are at least an inch long, or until you see new leaves, and then repot them. 

If you prefer, you can place them cut-end down into the soil, so they look like little shark fins sticking out of the compost. 

Either method has varying degrees of success, depending on the type and variety of succulent you’re trying to save.

Remember: You Can’t Always Save Them

The roots are by far the most important part of the plant to keep healthy. With a good root system, you can cut back anything unhealthy above the ground, and there’s a good chance that the plant will grow new shoots.

This is true of most plants, not just succulents. But when it comes to succulents suffering from root rot, by the time the disease affects the leaves, there may not be enough healthy roots left to salvage.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to save them – you should – but it does mean that any method you go for isn’t a magical fix. These methods will work if you catch the disease early enough, but not past that. 

There is always a chance that the plant will die, so if you have a few healthy leaves left on that plant, try to propagate one or two so that not everything is wasted.

The good news is that succulents are very robust, and you can usually get at least one or two new plants from several leaf cuttings, if you cannot save the original plant.

How to Stop Root Rot From Forming on Succulent Plants

Any form of root rot starts with incorrect watering. Exactly when you should water your succulent depends on many factors, such as the surrounding temperature and atmosphere, how much sunlight the plant gets, and how big the pot is compared to the succulent itself.

A root-bound succulent which has outgrown its pot, for instance, will be much harder to overwater than say a very small succulent planted in a pot that’s too big for it. 

While you cannot always save a succulent from root rot, you can entirely prevent it to begin with. Here’s how.

Make Sure Your Pot Has Holes

This should be obvious, but if you’ve never grown a succulent before, and you’ve bought one from a shop which sold it in a container without holes, you’re going to have a problem when you water the plant.

This has never made sense. In one way, it’s probably cost-effective, but it will kill the plant no matter how careful you are at watering it. 

Maybe you potted up your first succulent plant in a nice container or mug, and it will look great, until you water it. It will die unless it has the right drainage.

Without holes, the container your poor succulent is trying to live in is living in a bowl, and it will quickly die unless you transfer it into a suitable pot.

This is easy to do, and the best time to transfer it is when the soil is completely dry. That way, you can water it once it’s in its new (suitable) home, without having to worry about drowning it.

Is the Soil Suitable for Succulents?

One thing that all succulents need is soil that drains well. A mixture of grit and poor soil works well, and so does commercially-sold succulent and cacti compost. 

If your succulent plant does not have soil that drains well, it will suffer. Water will pool around the roots for too long, leading to root rot.

When you are shopping for succulents, check the soil. Most places will sell their plants in the right soil type, but mistakes can be made!

Using a combination of half grit and compost is the best way. The grit vastly improves the drainage, while keeping the soil open and aerated. 

It also encourages the roots of the succulent to grow deeper into the soil, anchoring it better.

Only Water Succulents When Absolutely Necessary

Most succulent plants require their soil to completely dry out before they need watering again. This allows the roots to breathe, and prevents the plant from drowning.

You don’t need anything fancy to be able to tell when the plant needs watering. It gets easier with experience, but there’s a simple way of doing so.

Sometimes the old methods are still the best, especially when it comes to taking care of plants. Lift the inner pot out of the decorative pot, if you’re keeping it within two. 

Put your finger into the bottom of the drainage hole. If the soil is dry, you can water it safely. With time, you’ll be able to tell from the weight of the pot when it needs watering, as you get more familiar with the individual plant.

If the soil is damp or wet, leave it at least a week before you check again.

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