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Root Rots on Houseplants

Wilting of poinsettia associated wtih Pythium root rot
Wilting of poinsettia associated wtih Pythium root rot

Brian Hudelson, UW-Madison Plant Pathology and Laura Jull, UW-Horticulture
Revised:  4/25/2004
Item number:  XHT1071

What is root rot?  Root rot is a general term that describes any disease where the pathogen (causal organism) causes the deterioration of a plant’s root system.  Most plants are susceptible to root rots, including both woody and herbaceous ornamentals.  Root rots can be chronic diseases or, more commonly, are acute and can lead to the death of the plant.

How do you know if your plant has a root rot?  Homeowners often become aware of root rots when they note that a plant is wilted, even though the soil is wet.  Plants with root rots are also often stunted, and may have leaves with a yellow or red color, symptoms that suggest a nutrient deficiency.  Careful examination of the root systems of these plants reveals roots that are soft and brown.  These roots may have a bad odor.

Where does root rot come from?  A large number of soil-borne fungi cause root rots. Pythium spp., Phytophthora spp., Rhizoctonia solani, and Fusarium spp. are the most common root rot fungi.  These fungi have wide host ranges, and thus can cause root rots on a wide variety of plants.  Most root rot fungi prefer wet soil conditions and some, such as Pythium and Phytophthora produce spores that can survive for long periods in soil or plant debris.

How do I save a plant with root rot?  Often the best and most cost effective way of dealing with a plant with root rot is to throw it out.  If you decide to keep a plant with root rot, REDUCE SOIL MOISTURE!  Provide enough water to fulfill the plant’s growth needs and prevent drought stress, but DO NOT over-water.  We DO NOT recommend use of chemical fungicides for control of root rots on houseplants because of the limited availability of products for use by homeowners, and because those products that are available tend to be expensive.

How do I avoid problems with root rots?  First, buy plants from a reputable source and make sure they are root rot-free prior to purchase.  Second, replant your houseplants properly.  Use a pot with drainage holes, but DO NOT put rocks or gravel at the bottom of the pot.  The presence of rocks or gravel can actually inhibit drainage.  Use a pasteurized commercial potting mix, NOT soil from your garden.  Garden soils often contain root rot fungi.  Add organic material (e.g., peat moss) to heavy potting mixes to increase drainage.  Third, minimize potential contamination of your plants with root rot fungi.  DO NOT reuse potting mix from your houseplants, or water that has drained from your plants, as both potentially can contain root rot fungi.  After working with plants with root rot problems, disinfest tools, working surfaces and clay pots with a 10% bleach or detergent solution, or alcohol.  DO NOT reuse plastic pots as they are often difficult to disinfest adequately.  Finally and most importantly, moderate plant moisture.  Provide enough water to fulfill your plants’ needs for growth and prevent drought stress, but DO NOT over-water.  In particular, DO NOT allow plants to sit in drainage water.  REMEMBER, root rot fungi grow and reproduce best in wet soils.

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