With its dramatic foliage, the zebra plant (Aphelandra squarrosa) is the perfect green companion for any home.
However, improper care and unfavorable conditions can leave this South American native susceptible to certain diseases, including the dreaded root rot.
In this guide, we’ll explore the signs and causes of zebra plant root rot. Plus, we’ll provide practical tips to help you nurse your tropical beauty back to its vibrant health.
Root rot is a death trap for zebra plants and many other houseplants. As the name implies, it attacks the root system, which delivers essential life support to the rest of the plant.
The initial symptoms often go unnoticed, as it inflicts damage beneath the surface and out of prying eyes.
Recognizing the early signs of root rot can save your Zebra plant from irreversible damage. So, keep a watchful eye for the following root rot red flags:
If the soil remains wet or fails to dry out after your last watering, root rot should be your first suspect.
Waste no time; remove the plant from its pot and break apart the soil to get a closer look at the root ball.
Healthy roots should be firm, whitish, and free from discoloration. Soft, mushy, and darkened roots, on the other hand, are strong indicators of root damage.
If you have enough healthy roots left to work with, there’s a good chance your zebra plant will survive.
Root rot mimics the symptoms of underwatering. The leaves get thirsty and deprived because the damaged roots cannot absorb moisture and nutrients.
As a result, you may notice that your zebra plant’s once-gorgeous foliage is limp and yellowing.
Once root rot has set in, your zebra plant will fail to thrive. The overall vitality may decline, with smaller or fewer leaves produced.
Rotting roots give off the stench of earthy decay. Sometimes, root rot can reach a point where the odor becomes more offensive, resembling the smell of rotten eggs.
When the stem feels like a limp noodle, your zebra plant is beyond saving. The best way forward is to discard the plant and contaminated soil to prevent the spread of root rot.
It’ll also be a good idea to disinfect the pot and all gardening tools used during the process.
Let’s break down the root causes (pun intended) of root rot in zebra plants:
Zebra plants love moist but not soggy soil. Unfortunately, overwatering is a common mistake when caring for this tropical plant, especially when grown in pots and containers.
Excess moisture leads to waterlogged soil, which impedes proper air circulation in the root zone.
This lack of oxygen creates an ideal environment for fungal or bacterial squatters to thrive, causing root rot to take hold.
Closely related to overwatering is inadequate drainage. Without proper drainage holes, the soil can get swampy and drown the roots.
Garden soil is too dense and heavy to use in a pot. It can become compacted over time, restricting drainage and aeration.
Various fungal and bacterial pathogens, like Pythium, Phytophthora, and Fusarium, cause root rot.
They can creep in through contaminated potting media, infected plants, or unsanitized tools.
If the root rot isn’t so severe, repotting can only add more stress to the compromised plant. Instead, allow the soil to dry out before watering again and wait for the plant’s natural defense to take over.
Otherwise, follow these steps to save your zebra plant from impending doom:
- Remove the plant from the pot and wash off the old soil under running water.
- Trim off the dead roots using sterile pruning shears or scissors. Be sure to cut through healthy, firm tissue above the rot.
- Disinfect your shears with rubbing alcohol and prune back some of the leaves. This way, the plant can focus its energy on supporting the roots.
- If reusing the pot, wash it with a bleach solution and air-dry.
- Prepare the pot with fresh, well-draining potting mix.
- Place the plant in the center of the pot and spread out the remaining healthy roots. The soil should be loose around the roots to encourage airflow.
- Finally, adjust your watering routine to avoid making the same mistake twice.
Here are some tips to keep your zebra plant happy and healthy while keeping root rot at bay:
- Use a pot with drainage holes at the bottom for excess water to run off.
- Choose a pot that’s appropriate for your houseplant’s size. It should have enough room for root growth but not too large that the soil will stay damp for too long.
- Never line your pot with pebbles or stones that can clog the drainage holes and cause water to pool around the roots.
- Use a well-draining potting mix. Amend your soil with horticultural sand, perlite, or vermiculite to improve drainage.
- Allow the soil to drain after watering. Empty any standing water from the saucer or cache pot.
- Check the soil’s moisture level before reaching for the watering can.
- Stick your finger about an inch deep into the soil. If it feels dry, that’s your cue to water it; if it’s still moist, hold off on watering a bit longer.
- Wet and cold are a recipe for root rot, so water less during winter.
Zebra plant root rot is a potentially fatal disease that needs early detection for successful treatment.
If you notice persistent wet soil, a little digging can help confirm root rot. Once you’re certain about the diagnosis, feel free to use this guide to address the issue and save your plant.
Growing up with a mom who filled her home (inside and out) with all sorts of plants, Lisa got her start in gardening at a young age. Living now on her own with a home and yard full of plants (including an indoor greenhouse), she shares all the gardening tips she’s gained over the years.