Updated: Apr 17
One of the most important structures of a plant is the one you typically can’t see- the root system. When troubleshooting plant health issues, this is typically the area we check first for indicators of what is wrong.
Let’s start with what healthy roots look like. This can vary depending on the type of plant, but generally, a healthy plant should have roots that are white, tan or slightly yellowish in colouring. They should be sturdy, or firm to the touch and eventually become long enough to hold the soil in the shape of the pot.
Unhealthy roots have their own telltale signals.
First, take note of the colouring. Roots that are brown, black, or purple indicate that something could be wrong. If the roots feel slimy, squish, or fall apart when touched, it’s very likely that you have a problem. Finally, do you notice an unpleasant smell? Healthy roots should only smell of soil. Unhealthy roots will develop a sour or sulphur smell over time.
There are a lot of causes of unhealthy roots; however, some are more common than others.
Overwatering is a primary issue because it encourages root rot. When roots sit in pools of water they aren’t able to absorb oxygen. This lack of oxygen leads to decay. Overwatering also enables fungus to grow in soil which then attacks the roots of plants.
It is good to water a plant with enough water that the whole root system gets fresh water, but there should be drainage so that any access can flow out of the pot. This excess should not be left for the plant to sit in.
Underwatering for an extended period of time can cause stress on roots. The fibrous roots that grow off of structural roots may burn and in turn cause the leaves to burn. The roots may also collapse and then when the plant is watered, these roots could rot and look as if the plant has been overwatered.
Soil conditions could also be creating issues for your plants’ roots. Tightly packed soil will create an anaerobic environment and roots need air to be healthy. Loosely packed soil is preferable and some plant varieties may require you to go a step further by using a potting mix that includes larger quantities of pearlite, peat moss, or bark to allow even more air to get to the roots of your plant.
It is important to note that some plants like dry conditions and are more susceptible to root rot, while others require consistently moist/wet conditions. Be sure to research the specific care needs for your plant varieties when making adjustments to a care routine.
If you are struggling with your plant, investigating its roots is a great start. Based on what the roots are showing, hopefully you will be able to determine what the problem is and the actions you can take to improve the health of your plant.