One day everything is beautiful and green in your indoor garden, but the next day you wake up and see all your plants drooping, as if they’ve read the news and the weight of reality has crushed them. There are some plants that are natural drama queens (yes, I’m looking at you, dear Fitonia and Peace Lily), but there are others that don’t have this habit of passing out every day and it’s normal to panic the first time you see them like this.
Don’t worry, your plant dieback has a permanent solution as long as you act quickly. Remember that when you are not feeling well, you are able to verbalize it and ask for help. Your plants don’t have a voice, but they are living beings capable of communicating with you through their leaves and posture. So all this dramatic display can give you important information about their well-being. Take a deep breath and read on, because this article will tell you why your plants are weakening, as well as everything you need to do to restore their strength and vitality.
Wilted vs. Withered Plants
The first step is always to carefully examine your plants. It’s not the same to have a wilted plant as a wilted plant, as a wilted plant requires more attention and can be harder to recover from than a wilted plant; also, the two conditions can be produced by different causes. You could say that a wilted plant is throwing a tantrum to indicate that it is not feeling very well for some reason, while a wilted plant is already starting to have serious consequences.
The main difference between the two states is the leaves. Decayed plants have softer green stems, unable to stand, the leaves look droopy and offer a tired and sad appearance. The leaves are still green and, although they look a little shriveled, they are in perfect condition. If you touch the plants, they are as always, just a little softer.
A plant that wilts immediately experiences a change in leaf color. They may start to yellow or turn brown, look dry and brown, start to fold over and fall off. If you touch it, it is toasted and crispy. This can happen on a single leaf and it’s part of the life cycle of the plant and it’s normal, that leaf will die, fall off and be replaced by another; but it can also happen on a single section of the plant.
Rotted plants can begin to wilt if the cause is not treated quickly and wilted plants are closer to death. A big difference between these two conditions is that plants can wilt very quickly due to fungal and bacterial infections. It is therefore advisable to carefully check the possible reasons why a plant suddenly starts to wilt, as both conditions are progressive and more or less slow.
Why do plants appear to be drooping?
Plants are living things in which processes take place that regulate their life functions. Mammals depend on their skeletons and muscles to stand upright, but green-stemmed plants (and some animals such as spiders) depend on other types of structures and on a process called turgidity.
Turgidity can be defined as water pressure. It is actually a phenomenon in which cells expand due to fluid pressure and exert outward pressure on the cell wall, making it firmer. Imagine you have a balloon and you fill it with water. If you put in too little water, the balloon will have little volume and may look flabby and wrinkled, whereas if you fill it to the top, it will be firmer. This happens in almost every cell, including human skin cells. This is why, when you are dehydrated, your skin looks looser and more droopy.
Plants are like hydraulic machines, relying entirely on turgor pressure to keep themselves upright, but also to regulate the sweating process and metabolism. Plants are composed almost entirely of turgid cells. They are therefore totally dependent on the flow and pressure of water to keep them upright. This liquid pressure occurs in the roots, which are responsible for absorbing moisture from the soil and pumping it throughout the plant.
In plants such as Prayer Flower and others in the Marantha family, a process known as nyctinia occurs. The leaves of these species have a special system called Pulvinis that allows the leaves to react to light and temperature. Pulvinis regulate the turgid pressure of the plants, using a chemical photoreceptor that causes water to withdraw from certain sections of the leaves at night and refill during the day, so that these plants gather the leaves up at night and reopen with the arrival of the sun.
Unlike balloons, which are filled with water and remain so because the plastic is quite resistant, the cells have permeable membranes that allow the exchange of liquids and therefore it is possible the loss of these, which can become a dehydration. In the case of plants, there are openings in the leaves called stomata, through which occurs a process called transpiration, which is vital for photosynthesis.
Through transpiration, water is forced to flow upward and into the plant, carrying nutrients to the leaves, but the water is also transformed into water vapor, which is released through the stomata. This process is particularly effective in plants such as dracaena and maranthas, which therefore help to regulate moisture levels in the spaces.
If there is not a balance between the water that is lost through transpiration and that which is absorbed by the roots, there is a loss of fluids that will depress the system, the cells will not be firm anymore, the dehydrated stems will lose volume and turgidity. As a result, the plant will look droopy and sad. This is a defense mechanism, because in this way the loss of water is minimized and is used for more important processes, such as the synthesis of food; in addition, the fallen and shrunken leaves expose less surface to the sun’s rays, which can accelerate the evaporation of the little moisture that exists.
Causes of plant degradation
As I mentioned at the beginning, plants have their own language to announce that they are under some type of stress. They may change color, develop spots or appear droopy. The loss of plant stiffness is a cry for help that needs to be treated immediately so it doesn’t get worse. Some of the causes of this phenomenon can be:
Lack of irrigation
This is usually the most common cause. Water is in constant movement in the plant, a tiny part is invested in photosynthesis, the rest goes into the transpiration process. If there is not enough moisture in the substrate, the balance is broken and the plant loses its turgor and collapses before your eyes.
The identification of this cause is very simple: you just have to touch the substrate with your finger or with a stick (I use one of the disposable chopsticks they give you in Asian restaurants). If the substrate is dry, you will have to adapt the watering of the plant.
Some plants, such as fittonia and peace lily, are quite spectacular and will fade at the slightest lack of water. This is usually not serious and you just need to water them very well, as within a few hours they will regain their shape.
Paradoxically, if you water too much, you will also get a drooping plant, but this is potentially more dangerous than an underwatered plant. The plant always loses its turgor when it cannot absorb enough water. This happens either because it is not watered or because it has too much water.
At first, you will see the typical signs of overwatering: the plant will turn yellowish, the leaves will be swollen (this is called edema and means it is retaining too much water). If the overwatering persists, the roots will start to suffer, because with the excess of humidity, the roots will not be able to oxygenate properly, they will suffocate, which will also lead to infections by anaerobic bacteria and the roots will rot.
The diagnosis is simple. Look for signs of edema and insert the stem into the substrate. If it looks waterlogged, sticks to the stem and stains your fingers, there may be an overwatering problem. Try taking the plant out of the pot and smelling it a bit, as an unpleasant smell, such as rotting leaves or mold, means there is a rotting problem. You must act very quickly to save it.
Too much fertilizer
This usually happens to novice and enthusiastic plant owners, because at first it seems to us that putting a little more than what the manufacturer says is perfect for the plants to grow bigger and more exuberant, right? The problem is that the cartoons have deceived us, because the excess of nutrients in the fertilizer causes chemical damage and affects the roots of the plants, which will not be able to absorb enough moisture from the substrate.
Inadequate temperature causes stress to the plant, whether from excessive heat or drafts. Excessive heat directly damages plant tissue if the sun falls directly on the leaves. Even in the shade, if it is too hot, moisture evaporates much faster and dries out not only the substrate, but also the leaves. This is easy to notice: look for brown leaves, brown spots and dry leaf tips.
Very low temperatures and intermittent drafts can cause direct damage to leaves and roots. The cold prevents the roots from absorbing water properly, causing them to wilt. Check to see if the plant is near a window or door where it gets drafts.
Many plants, especially those of tropical origin, need slightly more humidity than we usually have at home. Most manage to adapt, but if you are in extreme seasons (summer or winter) and have heating or air conditioning, it can dry out the environment too much and affect the turgidity of the plants.
Transplants are traumatic for plants, as it is often unavoidable to cause some damage to the roots, either because it was difficult to remove it from the pot, or because it had grown too much, or because the soil was too compacted in the root ball. Roots are not meant to be exposed to the open air or direct sunlight. They are delicate organisms, so their function can be affected when they are handled. This is why it is normal to see a slight decline when you put it in a new pot. Avoid overwatering after repotting, as this will not help the plant, but may actually make the problem worse.
Low or excessive lighting
Remember when we talked about plants that have nocturnality? These types of plants have specialized organisms that are sensitive to the amount of light in the environment, so they tend to show the effects of lighting problems much more quickly. If you have a Calathea Roseopicta, for example, and you place it in a location where it is exposed to direct sunlight, it will wilt and wither almost immediately. But this phenomenon is not unique to these species, as almost all plants react to poor lighting in this way.
How to Improve Wilted Plants
If your plants are weak, listless and sad, it’s time to get to work. If you’ve read about the causes, you already know what has caused this level of stress in your plant’s tissues, so you’re ready to start addressing it:
Lack of watering:
The solution is simple: water well and deeply. If you feel the substrate is too dry, you can submerge it for a while in a bucket of water that barely covers the pot. Then let it drain very well, checking that the excess water runs off. If you have a succulent or very leafy plant and it is difficult to moisten the substrate well, you can water it from underneath, put it in a shallow basin with water that reaches the middle of the pot and leave it for about 20 minutes, it will absorb the water it needs. Remember to adjust watering patterns, it is better to water infrequently and a lot of water than infrequently and several times a week. For spectacular plants like the peace lily, you can buy an automatic watering device, so it will never run out of water.
This is a little more complicated. Take the plant out of the pot, paying attention to the roots. Check if the substrate is too waterlogged. If it is, it’s best to put it in a fresh, dry substrate, discarding the soggy one. Check the roots to make sure they are not rotten or full of mold. Check the drainage holes in the pot and always place a layer of pebbles or pieces of polystyrene at the bottom, which will help drain excess water. Before watering, check the substrate or buy a good moisture meter to avoid watering problems.
This is remedied by watering generously and thoroughly to “wash out” the substrate, remove excess nutrients and remove leftover fertilizer that may affect the roots. If you think that the excess exceeds this method, you can change the substrate of the plant, leaving only a little on the roots, to avoid mistreating them and watering abundantly, letting the water drain very well to avoid problems due to excessive watering.
Temperature and lighting problems
The solution is simple: relocate the plant. You can learn about the plant’s preferences by researching its origin. You can find this information on the card that came with your new plant or on our website. Avoid placing plants near doors and windows, because without realizing it we subject them to drafts that stress them. Want to improve lighting but don’t have many windows? Then get a good UV lamp. Your plants will love it and it will give you a colorful light that will go great with your decor.
Water your tropical plants very gently with a watering can. Remember, succulents should never get wet, as they will stain and rot. Another tip is to put several plants together so that they regulate the humidity themselves.
Re-pot plants only when really necessary. If you find the pot unattractive, you can look for nice decorative pots. Try to transplant in spring and summer, always in the shade or at times when there is little sun. Do it quickly, without pulling the plant out and try not to handle the root ball. It is not always necessary to loosen the soil that is stuck to it, if the plant is healthy, it is better to leave it as it is. Water it normally and give it time to get used to its new home. In a short time, it will regain its healthy and neat appearance.