You’ll need to act fast to rescue a Pothos that’s dealing with root rot. This deadly condition is a major killer of houseplants. The good news is that quick, decisive treatment can often save an overwatered Pothos and restore healthy growth. We’ll walk you through the process and help you fix your plant.
To save an overwatered Pothos that’s developed root rot, you’ll have to remove any infected roots. You can recognize them by their dark color, squishy feel, and foul odor. Disinfect your pruning tools before each cut to avoid spreading fungi or bacteria around. Then repot your Pothos in all-new soil.
A case of root rot should be a wake-up call that you need to change your care approach. There’s a good chance that your Pothos would be healthier with a different container, potting mix, or watering routine. Keep reading to learn how to rescue your Pothos from root rot and stop the disease from coming back.
Is My Pothos Overwatered?
Overwatering is one of the most common problems with tropical houseplants like the Epipremnum (AKA Pothos). Even brand-new plant growers usually know that a plant can die of thirst. But they may not realize that it’s possible to smother a Pothos by watering too much.
How do you tell if your Pothos is overwatered? One common warning sign is rapid yellowing. If multiple leaves are fading to yellow in a short span of time, you may be overwatering. Your plant may also slouch and droop like Eeyore from Winnie The Pooh. When you touch the leaves, they’ll probably feel soft and limp instead of pleasantly firm.
The best indicator of overwatering has nothing to do with the plant, though. It’s the condition of the potting mix. In a sense, it’s really the soil that gets overwatered, not the plant. Sludgy, wet soil blocks the roots from taking in the oxygen that they need.
If you just watered your plant, it’s normal for the soil to be wet. However, if it’s been a few days and the surface of the potting mix is still soggy, you may have a problem.
The deeper soil takes longer to dry out, but should still only be mildly damp most of the time. You can test near the bottom of the pot with a moisture meter, or even an unglazed wooden chopstick. Waterlogged soil means you’ve given your Pothos more than it can handle.
Does My Pothos Have Root Rot?
If you’re lucky, you might notice you’re overwatering your Pothos before rot sets in. In that case, the plant should resume healthy growth once you let the soil dry out a bit. You may even consider removing the plant from the container and letting it dry out on a baking rack for a few days to speed up the process.
If you’re unlucky, your Pothos might develop root rot before you notice. What is root rot? Basically, it’s a microbial infection that thrives in saturated soil.
For certain kinds of fungi and bacteria, wet potting mix is like wine, candles, and R&B music. They’ll breed like crazy, swarming over your plant’s roots. Your Pothos will become necrotic, its roots dissolving into sludge.
When this happens, the symptoms described in the last section get worse. And they’ll keep getting worse even after the soil dries out, because the pathogens will keep spreading. The leaves will continue to wither. They’ll go from yellow to brown and start dropping off of your plant.
If the infection makes its way to the surface, the stems of your Pothos will turn soft and mushy. Slimy brown spots might also appear on the leaves. As the soil fills up with nasty microbes, it may also start to stink. Odors of rotten eggs, vinegar, clogged drains, or sewage are major warning signs of root rot. And clouds of fungus gnats may appear around your Pothos, drawn by the smorgasbord of microbes in the soil.
Our advice: don’t wait until it gets to this point to take action. Once the rot reaches the upper parts of your Pothos, it may be too late to save it. It’s best to proceed to treatment as soon as you notice that your Pothos is overwatered.
Here’s what you’ll need to do:
Step Zero: Getting Ready to Save an Overwatered Pothos
You’ll need to gather some supplies before treating your Pothos for root rot. Here’s what you should prepare:
It’s not always necessary to move an overwatered Pothos into a new pot. In some cases, you can just wash and disinfect the old container before replanting. But you should consider whether a poor choice of pot played a role in giving your Pothos root rot.
For one thing, the container could have been too large. A higher volume of soil takes longer to dry out, giving more time for bacteria to multiply. Ideally, your pot should only be slightly wider than your Pothos’s clump of stems.
Overwatering is also more likely when the water has no way to flow out of the pot. Are there any holes in the base of the container? If not, your Pothos needs a new home with better drainage.
Prepare some potting mix for your Pothos – you’ll need to scrap the old stuff, since it’s likely full of pathogens. As with the pot, drainage is vital here. A soil that tends to soak up and hold onto water is far more likely to give your Pothos root rot.
Unfortunately, most commercial potting mixes are very water-retentive. An off-the-shelf blend is usually a bad choice for your plant. The main exceptions are specialty mixes designed for aroids, the plant family that includes Pothos.
It’s not hard to prepare a decent DIY mix for your Pothos, though. Just make sure that more than half of the ingredients (by volume) are coarse materials that won’t decay very fast. Some examples include:
The rest of the mix should be more absorbent materials like coconut coir or peat moss. They’ll store a little moisture to hold your Pothos over between waterings. Here’s a simple but effective recipe to get you started:
The main tool you’ll need to save an overwatered Pothos is a set of small clippers. We like these pruners from Fiskars, but even ordinary scissors should get the job done if they’re nice and sharp.
We also recommend getting some disinfectant and a rag or microfiber cloth. You don’t want to transfer microbes from an infected root to a healthy one. Swabbing down the blades with sanitizer before every snip helps remove these microscopic hitchhikers. Here are a few good options:
- 70% isopropyl alcohol
- 1 part household bleach in 9 parts water
- 3% hydrogen peroxide
Hydrogen peroxide is also handy for rinsing the roots after trimming, though you’ll need to dilute it a bit more. (See Step 4 for more detail.)
Step 1: Uproot Your Overwatered Pothos
Once you’ve got your materials together, you can tip your plant out of its pot. Grip the stems gently but firmly at the base, then upend the container to dump it out. Smack the bottom of the pot a few times if your Pothos doesn’t want to slide free.
Now shake or brush the soil away from the roots. If it’s clingy, you can run some lukewarm water over the root mass to wash it clean. It’s best if you can see the roots as clearly as possible for the next step.
Step 2: Inspect the Roots
Look at your Pothos’s root mass carefully. Probe and squeeze them with your fingers – don’t pinch them off, but feel for their level of resistance.
What are you looking for? There are four main indicators that a root is rotting:
- Discoloration. Healthy Pothos roots have a whitish or khaki color. Root rot will turn them gray, dark brown, or black. This is usually the easiest sign to identify.
- Slimy surface. Decaying roots often feel slick to the touch. Many fungi and bacteria surround themselves with a thick layer of protective slime. A root that’s in good shape might feel damp or dry, but never gooey.
- Mushy texture. Pothos roots should have a firm, springy texture. As they break down, they turn soft and mealy, just like a rotting vegetable.
- Nasty smells. Roots are supposed to smell like freshly-turned earth. If they’re giving off a gross odor like bad eggs or clogged drains, they’re sick. This may not be useful for diagnosing individual roots, but you should give the plant a whiff after treating it. A bad smell could indicate that you missed a spot.
Step 3: Trim the Roots and Leaves
Clip off every root that shows any sign of infection. When in doubt, snip. Your Pothos can survive the loss of a few healthy roots. But if you leave any decaying ones, the fungi or bacteria will just keep spreading. And always trim well above the part of the root that’s visibly infected, getting as much of the rot as possible.
Remember to wipe down your scissors with disinfectant before every cut. The freshly trimmed spots are very vulnerable to infection until they heal up. If there are fungi or bacteria on the blades when you slice, they could worm their way into the healthy parts of your Pothos.
The foliage may need pruning too. Begin by removing any stems or leaves that appear to be rotting. You can identify them by their squishy texture or the presence of wet, slimy brown spots.
Even if the foliage looks healthy, some of it may need to go. If you had to remove more than ⅓ of the roots, you should trim the same fraction of the leaves. Otherwise, their upkeep requirements could put too much strain on the roots as they recover. Start with the oldest and least healthy leaves, and continue sanitizing your trimmers between cuts.
Step 4: Clean the Roots
This may not be strictly necessary if you did a thorough enough job clearing away infected tissue in Step 3. It’s never a bad idea to take some extra precautions, though. Step 4 helps make sure that there are no clumps of bacteria or fungus lingering among the roots.
Take some 3% hydrogen peroxide – the kind you’d find in a first aid kit – and add water. Use 1 part peroxide and 4 parts tepid water. Swirl the roots of your Pothos in this mixture for a minute or two. That should get the disinfectant into all the nooks and crannies.
Those who don’t have hydrogen peroxide on hand can use some cinnamon. This spice has some natural antifungal properties, so it should kill many of the spores that cause root rot. Simply dust a little powdered cinnamon over your Pothos’s root mass. It’s not as good as hydrogen peroxide, but it’s better than nothing.
Step 5: Replant Your Pothos
Now it’s time to get your Pothos back into the ground. If you’re reusing the old pot, discard all the soil, then wash the container thoroughly. Wipe down the inside with sanitizer for good measure. The goal is to remove all traces of harmful microbes that could attack your Pothos in its weakened state.
Next, moisten the potting mix a bit. It should be just damp enough that you can make clumps with your fingers. Don’t get it so wet that it’s glistening or dripping. Lay down a base layer in the bottom of the pot, then put your Pothos inside. Cover up the roots with more soil until your plant is stable in the pot. Make sure not to pack down the soil too tightly.
Step 6: Keep Your Pothos Comfortable
Even if it’s necessary to save your plant’s life, slicing off a bunch of its roots will stress it out. You’ll need to give your Pothos a lot of TLC as it recovers.
For the next month or so, keep it out of direct sunlight. Try to maintain a steady temperature between 70 and 85 degrees. And don’t give your Pothos any fertilizer. The roots won’t be able to use it, and fertilizer that building up in the soil can hurt your plant.
High humidity can also help the root system recover. Your plant will be happiest when the relative humidity is around 60-70%. A humidifier will help with this. A cheaper option is to shut your Pothos inside a clear plastic bin or cover it with a plastic bag.
The higher humidity levels will also help keep your Pothos hydrated without frequent watering. That’s good, because the plant will be especially vulnerable to overwatering as its roots grow back. You should only add water when you can tell that the soil is getting dry.
Keep this regimen up until your Pothos begins sprouting new leaves. That’s how your plant will let you know that it’s on the mend.
Preventing Overwatering and Root Rot in Your Pothos
As you can see, saving an overwatered Pothos from root rot is quite an ordeal. You and your plant will be much happier if you can avoid the issue in the first place.
That starts with choosing the right soil and pot. Follow the guidelines we laid out in Step 0, and there’s a good chance you’ll never need Steps 1-5.
The other key is watering properly. That means giving your Pothos a drink only when the top 1-2 inches of soil feel dry to the touch. Watering when the mix is already wet is a recipe for root rot. Also, keep in mind that your Pothos doesn’t need to be watered as often when it’s cold and dark outside. It will grow more slowly and absorb less moisture. And the soil won’t evaporate as quickly in the cold.
What If Your Pothos Isn’t Overwatered?
The symptoms of overwatering that we listed above can also have many other causes. Lots of different stress factors might make a Pothos wilt and turn yellow or brown. Try to rule out these other problems, especially if it turns out that your plant doesn’t have root rot.
Here are some other common problems that may look similar to overwatering:
- Fertilizer burn. Minerals from fertilizer can accumulate in the soil and dehydrate your plant. If your Pothos isn’t overwatered or underwatered, but its foliage is turning crispy, try giving it an extra-large drink of water. This may wash the minerals out of the soil.
- Root bound. When a Pothos gets too big for its pot, the roots become crowded and constricted. You’ll be able to see this when you check for rot – the roots will be jammed together in a near-solid mass. Cut off the bottom ⅓ of the root ball and transfer your Pothos to a bigger container.
- Sunburn. Direct sunlight can create large dead spots of pale yellow or brown on your plant’s leaves. They’re usually concentrated on the side of the plant facing the nearest window. Move your Pothos to a spot where it will only receive indirect light.
- Pests. There are lots of bugs that like to drain the juices from plants, turning them droopy and discolored. Look for infestation markers such as pale speckling on the leaves, patches of sticky liquid, blobs of white fuzz, and dirty-looking webbing. If you think your Pothos has pests, you can treat it with a pesticide like neem oil.
Root rot is a dangerous disease, but you can usually save an overwatered Pothos if you act fast. You’ll also need to do a thorough job of removing every scrap of rotting tissue. In the future, be attentive to your Pothos and water only when necessary. Too much of a good thing can be fatal to your houseplant.