Most Dracaena species are semi-tropical plants that thrive in perpetually damp soil. However, if you don’t have proper watering habits or your plant has poor drainage, there is a chance that overwatering can lead to serious health issues like root rot. The good news is that even if you suspect your Dracaena to have root rot, it is possible to save it!
Think your Dracaena has root rot? Remove the plant from its soil and prune away any infected portions of the root system to stop the disease from progressing. Replant it into new potting soil in a new or thoroughly disinfected container. Moving forward, make sure your Dracaena has good drainage in its new container, and adjust your watering habits to prevent overwatering again.
Dracaena plants tend to bounce back quickly from overwatering issues, but it is essential to catch root rot early. If you see any of the classic signs of overwatering (yellowing leaves, drooping leaves, soft or drooping stems), back off on the watering and check the roots. If left too long, root rot can destroy the entire plant. However, if caught early enough, your plant will recover quickly and shore up its root system in short order.
Why is My Dracaena Rotting?
Anyone who has owned a Dracaena plant for some time probably knows that they are relatively easy-going and don’t require much attention. However, to really thrive, Dragon Trees prefer to have perpetually damp but not wet soil, which sometimes is a hard concept for plant owners to grasp.
Often afraid of drying our plants out too much, we may become a little overzealous with our watering frequency. Even if the soil is plenty damp down below, we often see the topsoil dried out and get a little heavy-handed with the watering can.
Although plants need moisture to survive, the soil they are planted in is also home to bacteria and fungus that can lie in wait until the conditions are right for them to multiply. Unfortunately, dark, warm, perpetually wet soil seems to be their preferable environment, and healthy root systems are their perfect targets.
While it isn’t the end of the world if you find your plant suffering from root rot, it is, by and large, so much easier to avoid the problem in the first place. So, what are the common causes that lead to root rot?
Overwatering: As I mentioned above, in an effort to create that perfectly damp soil for a Dracaena to thrive in, it’s easy to water a bit too often. Rather than watering on a schedule or because you think plant needs more, only do so when the top two inches of soil have dried out. Even though the top is dry, trust me…there is still plenty of moisture deeper down.
Poor Drainage: A contributing factor to overwatering is poor drainage. Even if you do water properly, if the pot has poor drainage, it can easily retain too much moisture, waterlogging roots, and setting up a perfect environment for fungal issues.
Compacted Soil: Think of this as another version of poor drainage. If the soil isn’t aerated or light enough, it’s going to hold too much liquid when watered. You’ll want to be sure the soil your Dragon Tree is planted in is porous. If your potting soil isn’t already light enough, add perlite or pumice to the mixture to keep it well-drained.
Poor Hygiene: Just like we need to keep ourselves clean to prevent disease and infection, the same goes for plants. Fungus and bacteria can live in old soil and even on used pots for a long time, so if you’re transplanting your houseplants and reusing materials, you might be setting your plants up for failure. Make sure to use fresh soil any time you transplant and, if you plan to reuse pots, give them a really good scrub or a diluted bleach bath to prevent spreading disease.
Signs You May Be Overwatering or Have Root Rot
The trouble with root rot, and why it is such a wearisome issue for plant owners, is that, by the time the plant shows any physical signs of distress above ground, the issue can be pretty advanced in the root system.
The only true way to definitively identify root rot is by actually removing your plant from its container and looking at the root structures. Ahead of digging your Dracaenas up though, there are a few other signs you should be on the lookout for. These are the common signs of overwatering, but can also indicate you may be fostering an environment for root rot to take hold.
Slow growth: One of the earliest warning signs is substantially slowed growth or none at all. This one is perhaps a bit hard to detect in Dragon Trees, whose growth is a little harder to discern than some other houseplants. However, if your plant care habits haven’t changed and there haven’t been any big shifts in the plant’s environment, slowed growth could hint at a bigger issue.
Discoloration: A classic symptom of overwatering, and therefore another potential indicator of root rot, is yellowing leaves. Dracaenas typically have long, glossy leaves that come in vibrant shades of green, burgundy, and lime, but if you notice a substantial amount of yellowing, you are most likely overwatering.
This is a smart sign to pay attention to because it might present itself in the plant before any root rot has actually set in. By backing off on your watering frequency and only watering when your Dragon Tree truly needs it, you might entirely prevent root rot before it starts.
Droopy Foliage: Because many Dracaena species have long, slender, trunk-like stems, they tend to droop and lean when the plant gets chronically overwatered. This is an especially important symptom to take note of because, once again, you can correct your watering habits before any serious damage is done.
If you notice this drooping even after overwatering has been corrected, it’s a pretty clear sign that something else is going on with the root system, and it isn’t absorbing what the plant needs. At this point, you’ll definitely want to remove your Dragon Tree from its pot and inspect for root rot.
Brown Rot: Lastly, if you see any brown, soft spots on stems or leaves, this may be an indication that rot is creeping up from the soil and infecting your plant.
Checking Your Dracaena for Root Rot
If you’ve noticed any of the warning signs listed above, it’s time to act fast. As I mentioned, many of these symptoms could just be a sign you’ve been overwatering and may be corrected by altering your watering habits a bit, but you don’t want to mess around with root rot. If you wait too long to determine if it’s just an overwatering issue, the problem could be getting worse.
Dragon Trees are pretty tough plants, so removing them from their containers and poking around in the roots will always be less stressful than a growing case of root rot.
Set the pot on its side and gently wiggle and pull your Dracaena by the base of the plant, making sure you don’t tug too hard. If the plant has shown signs of distress, it may have already sustained some root damage, and removing it with brute force can easily make it worse.
If you’re still having trouble removing the plant, you can run a butter knife or garden trowel around the edge of the pot to loosen the soil a bit.
Gently brush away as much soil as you can so you can see the root system. Running the root ball under some water can help with this task. Once you have a good view, examine the roots closely.
Dracaena roots are often bright yellow or orange in color and are springy and full when healthy. If rot has set in, you’ll often find mushy, brown, or black roots or, in some cases, roots with outer sheaths that sluff off easily when gently tugged on. They may even give off a musty, dank smell.
How to Rescue a Dracaena from Root Rot
If you’ve caught it early enough and confirmed that you’ve just got a simple case of overwatering on your hands, but no rot, then all you need to do is repot your Dragon Tree with fresh soil, ensuring it has proper drainage.
However, if there are clear indications of root rot on your plant, the time to treat it is right now!
Step 1: Rinse Out Your Roots
Yes, you’ve probably already done this step, but I’m repeating it because, at this stage, you want to have full access to the entire root system. If you only washed away enough dirt to find some evidence of rot, now is the time to fully rinse your roots so you can identify all the rotten spots in the root mass.
This is important because any rot that is left can quickly spread, and you’ll be repeating this step again in a few days.
Step 2: Prune Back Rotted Roots
At this point, you’ll want to remove as much of the brown, mushy roots from the root system as possible. To do this, you will need a pair of sharp, clean scissors or garden shears.
It is important to stress that you use clean tools! Ultimately, you are trying to prevent the spread of disease in your Dracaena, so using dirty utensils is a recipe for disaster. In the case of fungus or rot, I take the extra precaution of dipping the blades of my shears in a diluted bleach solution (1 part bleach to 9 parts water) and rinsing in fresh water between each cut.
Prune back any discolored or clearly rotten roots from your plant. Infected roots won’t ever recover, so even if you feel like you are taking a lot off, it is necessary to allow the plant the best chance of regenerating a healthy root system.
Step 3: Prune Back Any Rotted Stems or Leaves
If you’ve noticed that any rot has presented itself above the soil line, you’ll need to prune your Dracaena back. Because the stems are a bit heartier than most houseplants, you won’t often find decay that high, but if you do, it can still spread to other parts of the plant, and your best bet is to trim it back.
This can be somewhat disheartening, but just remember that you might just be saving your plant by taking such drastic measures.
Step 4: Disinfect or Replace Your Pot
Once you’ve removed all the questionable root, leaf, and stem material that might be harboring rot, you’re ready to repot your Dragon Tree into new soil. But first, you will want to make sure the container you are transplanting to is clean.
The best choice is to select a new pot for your plant because the old one can still be harboring the same fungus or bacteria that caused the rot in the first place. If you do want to transplant to a new pot, choose one of similar size and make sure it has a drainage hole.
It is ok if you still want to use the old container to repot your Dracaena, but you absolutely must sterilize it before you plant. To do this, I recommend soaking the container in the same diluted bleach solution you used to dip your shears in.
You can scrub your pot with soap and water first, and then wipe down both the inside and outside with your bleach solution. Or, what I recommend is that you actually soak your pot in the bleach solution for about 10 minutes.
It might be a bit overkill, but that’s the point. You want to make sure any disease-causing microbes are truly dead! Once removed from the solution, give the pot a good rinse with clean water.
Regardless of whether you use the old pot or a new one, this is the time to make sure whatever you are using has proper drainage. You may need to add more drainage holes in the bottom of the pot or make an existing one bigger.
Step 5: Replant Your Dracaena
Once you have your pot sorted and your Dragon Tree is rot-free, it’s time to replant. First thing first…ditch the old soil! It is absolutely teeming with disease, so just dump it in the bin.
Use fresh potting soil to replant your Dragon Tree. If you want to be sure poor drainage won’t be a contributing factor to root rot in the future, amend the soil with extra pumice or perlite to keep it light and airy. You’re aiming for a mixture that will retain moisture but won’t get compacted down easily.
Fill your pot with the new soil, place your Dracaena into it at a similar depth that it was previously, and then pack more soil around it to cover the remaining roots and support the stems. Water the plant deeply, ensuring the pot has good drainage.
Step 6: Don’t Forget the Aftercare!
Once your Dracaena has been replanted and placed back in its proper spot in your home, keep an eye on it. It’s just been through the wringer, and it’ll take some time for it to acclimate to its new conditions.
Make sure your Dragon Tree has a consistent environment with lots of bright, indirect light, stable temperatures, and protection from drafts. Only water when the top two inches of topsoil are dry to the touch. You want to be very mindful about how much water you are providing the plant, especially since its root system has been severely compromised.
Avoid adding any fertilizer to your plant for the first few months. Delicate new roots are trying to form and too much feed can potentially damage their progress. Plus, the new soil your Dracaena is planted in has plenty of nutrients to keep your plant happy for the time being.
Lastly, be patient. It will take some time, probably months, for your Dragon Tree to recover, so don’t expect it to grow much for a while. On the bright side, though…you just saved its life!
Although it can seem very overwhelming to take scissors or shears to your plant’s root system, quick and drastic measures need to be taken to save your Dracaena from root rot. Keeping an eye out for the warning signs and making those decisive cuts is going to give your plant the best chance to recover and, eventually, thrive once again.
Also, try to remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so pay close attention to your plant care routine, especially when it comes to watering. Be sure you’ve got your watering habits dialed in and that your plants are living in well-drained soil and containers. With proper care, you can easily avoid ever having to deal with root rot. Best of luck!