What is Root Rot? Effective Fixes and Prevention Strategies

Key Takeaways

  • Root rot is a plant disease that affects the roots of plants, causing them to decay.
  • It primarily results from excessively moist or damp soil, which provides a favorable environment for the pathogens that cause it.
  • Root rot can be extremely detrimental to a plant and can be fatal in severe cases.
  • Early indicators of root rot include yellowing or wilting leaves, stunted growth, and an overall decline in the plant’s appearance.
  • To combat root rot, immediately remove the infected plants away from other plants and prune and cut away the damaged roots. Remember to sterilize all cutting tools when done.
  • Prevention is key when it comes to root rot, as it is often easier to avoid the problem entirely than to treat an infected plant – the key is to not overwater your plant.
  • Lastly, and unfortunately, after your best efforts to save your plant from root rot, it may come to just throwing the plant away in order to prevent the root rot from spreading to your other plants.

Root rot is a common problem that can be extremely detrimental to a plant. It occurs when pathogens infect a plant’s root system, which typically happens as a result of excessive watering or poor drainage. 

Root rot can strike at any time, and even with the best of intentions and adequate soil drainage, it can appear when you least expect it.

Early indicators include yellowing or wilting leaves and soft, discolored roots. Infected plants should be removed, damaged roots pruned, and replanted in fresh, well-draining soil.

Prevention through proper watering, soil, and root system care is key to avoiding root rot.

Some plants are more susceptible than others, such as indoor plants, so knowing what to look for is crucial to their care.

With our help and this guide, you’ll be able to learn the warning signs of root rot and ways to ensure your plants has the best chance of avoiding it and living a long and healthy life.

For more information on houseplants, head back to our main Houseplants page.

What Is Root Rot?

root rot caused by plant fungusPin

Root rot is a general term to describe a plant disease that affects the roots of plants, causing them to decay.

In severe cases, it can be fatal for the plant. The pathogens that cause root rot typically thrive in overly moist or damp soil, which creates a favorable environment for them.

The most common cause of root rot is soil that’s too moist, and because house plants are kept inside where there’s less sun, they’re more susceptible.


Root rot happens when pathogens like fungi or bacteria infect a plant’s roots. These pathogens thrive in poorly drained or overwatered soil, leading to the decay of plant roots.

Factors that contribute to the onset of root rot include:

  • Over-watering
  • Poor soil drainage
  • Poor aeration in the soil
  • Excessive use of organic materials, which can retain moisture


Diagnosing root rot can be challenging, as it shares similar symptoms with other diseases and pest problems.

However, when a plant has root rot, the main indicator is that its roots will generally turn brown or black and mushy. As the roots are responsible for transporting nutrients and water to the rest of the plant, their decay often has a domino effect.

Key symptoms of root rot in affected plants include:

  • Root discoloration (brown or black, mushy roots)
  • Yellowing leaves
  • Wilted leaves
  • Poor growth or stunted growth
  • Sudden or gradual plant decline
  • Early leaf drop
  • Branch dieback

To diagnose root rot, a visual inspection of the roots is necessary. When removing the plant from the soil, take note of the condition and color of the roots.

Healthy roots should be white or light-colored and firm to the touch, while decayed roots will be brown or black and mushy.

Spread of disease

Root rot pathogens can spread through various methods:

  • Soil: The disease-causing pathogens can move through the soil and infect neighboring plants. Soil can be contaminated through watering or run-off from infected areas.
  • Tools: Contaminated pruning shears or other gardening tools can spread root rot from one plant to another if not properly sterilized between uses.
  • Water: The pathogens can be transferred through water that spreads across different plants, especially if they share the same container or are close to each other.

Preventing the spread of root rot involves proactive measures such as practicing proper watering techniques, ensuring good soil drainage, and sterilizing tools between uses.

Regularly monitoring plant health can also help detect the early signs of disease, allowing for prompt intervention and treatment.

Types of Root Rot

Pathogens that attack the roots and cause them to die are the main cause of the common plant disease known as root rot.

We’ll discuss the three most typical types of root rot in this section, which are fungi, oomycetes, and bacteria.

root rot in plant that has brown leavesPin


Fungi that infect the plant’s roots and cause decay are what cause fungal root rot. The most common fungal pathogens responsible for root rot include multiple species of Pythium, Phytophthora, Fusarium, and Rhizoctonia solani.

These fungi thrive in waterlogged soil, and their spores can easily spread through contaminated water, soil, and gardening tools.


Pythium root rot often causes a soft, waterlogged decay of the roots. Infected roots may appear brown or black and can easily break off from the plant.

In some cases, small, white, cottony growths may be visible on the surface of infected roots.


Phytophthora root rot can cause a brown-to-black discoloration of roots, often starting at the tips and progressing toward the base.

Infected roots may appear water-soaked and may be soft and easily broken. In some cases, small, white, cottony growths may be visible on the surface of infected roots. 


Fusarium root rot can cause a reddish to brown discoloration of roots, often starting at the tips and progressing towards the base.

Infected roots may appear dry and brittle and may break off easily from the plant. In some cases, small, pinkish, or reddish growths may be visible on the surface of infected roots.

Rhizoctonia solani

Rhizoctonia root rot can cause a brown to black discoloration of roots, often starting at the base and progressing upward. Infected roots may appear dry and brittle and may break off easily from the plant. In some cases, small, dark brown or black, sunken lesions may be visible on the surface of infected roots.

Preventive measures for fungal root rot

Fungal root rot can be a major problem for gardeners, but there are several preventive measures that can be taken to keep it at bay. Waterlogged soil can foster fungal pathogens, so garden drainage is crucial.

Another effective strategy is to rotate crops regularly, as this prevents the buildup of these pathogens in the soil.  

Lastly, to prevent the fungal disease from spreading and cross-contamination, sterilize gardening tools after each use. These steps will protect your plants and keep your garden healthy.

Water mold (Oomycetes)

Oomycetes are a group of water molds that can also cause root rot in plants. The most common oomycete that leads to root rot is Phytophthora.

Phytophthora species are more closely related to brown algae than fungi and can spread through water, soil, and plant debris.

Phytophthora root rot often appears as dark, water-soaked lesions on the roots, accompanied by wilting or yellowing leaves. Like fungal root rot, prevention of oomycete root rot is crucial.

  • Avoiding overwatering and ensuring proper soil drainage
  • Removing infected plants and debris to limit pathogen spread
  • Treating the soil with appropriate fungicides where needed.


Bacterial root rot is less common than fungal or oomycete root rot but can still cause significant damage to plants. The bacteria responsible for this type of root rot enter the roots through wounds or natural openings, where they multiply and cause decay.

Signs of bacterial root rot can vary but typically include soft, water-soaked, and discolored roots, as well as a foul smell. Treatment of bacterial root rot is often challenging, and prevention methods are similar to those for fungal and oomycete root rot:

  • Maintaining good drainage to prevent excess moisture
  • Practicing proper sanitation to limit cross-contamination
  • Avoiding injury to roots and managing pests that may introduce bacteria

By considering the different types of root rot and their specific prevention methods, it’s possible to limit the occurrence and damage caused by these pathogens and maintain healthy plants.

Immediate Treatment of Root Rot

root rot killing a succulent plantPin

If you suspect that a plant has root rot, there are a few immediate steps you can take to try to save the plant:

Inspect the roots

Remove the plant from its pot and inspect the roots. Root rot is most likely present if the roots are brown, mushy, or smell bad.

Prune and Cut Away Rotting Roots

Trim away any dead or rotting roots using a clean, sharp pair of scissors or pruning shears. Be sure to sterilize your tools with rubbing alcohol or bleach before and after use to prevent the spread of disease.

Repot in Fresh Well-Draining Soil

Repot the plant in fresh, well-draining soil. Choose a pot that is slightly larger than the previous one to allow for growth, and make sure it has drainage holes to prevent water from pooling at the bottom.

Water Sparingly

Water the plant sparingly, allowing the soil to dry out slightly between waterings. Avoid overwatering, as this can contribute to the development of root rot.

Closely Monitor Your Plant

Monitor the plant closely for signs of improvement or worsening.

Unfortunately, if the plant does not improve and looks like it is dieing, it may be necessary to throw your plant away to prevent the spread of disease to other plants – despite all your efforts to save the plant.

Prevention of Root Rot

Removing Affected Roots

If your plant shows signs of root rot, promptly remove it from its pot and gently wash away the old soil from the roots.

With sterilized pruning shears, cut away the diseased and discolored roots, leaving only healthy ones. Disinfect the shears after each cut to avoid spreading the infection.

Repotting and disinfecting

After removing the affected roots, repot the plant in a clean, sterile pot with fresh, well-draining soil. Avoid using the old pot unless it has been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected.

To disinfect, wash the pot with soap and water before soaking it in a bleach solution for at least 15 minutes. Rinse and let it dry completely before reuse. This will help eliminate any lingering fungal spores and reduce the risk of reinfection.

Drainage and watering

Proper drainage is crucial for preventing root rot. Ensure that your plant containers have drainage holes, and never let your plants sit in standing water.

Always empty the saucer beneath your pots after watering. Be mindful of overwatering, as it suffocates the root system and can lead to rot. Water your plants when the top inch of soil is dry, not on a strict schedule.

Soil and plant selection

Choose well-draining soil for your plants. A mixture of potting soil, perlite, pumice, or sand can improve drainage and aeration, preventing root rot.

For outdoor plants, consider amending the soil with compost to enhance its structure.

Select plants suited for your climate and location, and opt for disease-resistant varieties whenever possible. Consult with your local extension office for recommendations.

Fertilizing and pruning

Over-fertilizing can damage plants by increasing salinity in the soil, which weakens their resistance to diseases like root rot.

Apply fertilizer conservatively and only as per the specific needs of your plants. Prune dead or damaged branches as they can make plants more susceptible to infection, and ensure that the canopy is thinned for improved air circulation.

Fungicides and chemical solutions

In some cases, using fungicides may be necessary to combat persistent root rot. However, this is where you’ll need to know what type of root rot your plant has.

In general, this plant fungicide usually works on a variety of fungi and other pathogens – but again, it’s not going to kill every type of fungus.

Note: Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for application rates and always handle chemicals with care, keeping them out of reach of children and pets.

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Root Rot in Different Plant Species

Root rot is a common plant disease affecting the roots of various plant species, including houseplants, trees, and shrubs.

It usually results from overwatering and poor drainage, leading to a lack of oxygen and eventual decay of the roots.

In this section, we will discuss how root rot manifests in different plant species and how to prevent and treat it.

Indoor Plants

root rot in indoor succulent plantPin

Indoor plants can be susceptible to root rot due to the confined environment of containers and the tendency of some people to overwater.

When a houseplant’s roots can’t access the oxygen they need, they become weak and susceptible to fungal infections that cause decay.

To prevent root rot in houseplants, use well-draining soil, avoid overwatering, and ensure adequate spacing between plants for proper air circulation.

Outdoor Plants

Overwatering or planting in soil that drains poorly are the two main causes of root rot in trees and shrubs.

Various species of trees and shrubs, including ornamentals and cultivars, can be affected. Some common symptoms include foliage discoloration, wilted leaves, and stunted growth.

To prevent root rot in trees and shrubs:

  • Plant in well-draining soil.
  • Avoid over-watering
  • Improve soil drainage with amendment materials, such as compost.
  • Regularly monitor the health of your plants.
phytophthora infected root rotPin

Outdoor plants, whether in containers or directly in the ground, are also prone to root rot if they experience prolonged wet conditions.

The prevention tips mentioned above work well for outdoor plants too, with the addition of providing appropriate protection from heavy rains and moisture accumulation.

Properly managing irrigation systems and further improving soil drainage may also help prevent root rot in outdoor plants.

Remember to watch for early signs of root rot in all plant species, such as wilting or yellowing leaves, and take prompt action to treat it.

Addressing the problem early can help save affected plants and prevent the disease from spreading to neighboring plants.


What is root rot?

Root rot is a common plant disease caused by various soil-dwelling fungi, molds, or oomycetes. It affects the roots of plants, leading to their decay and, ultimately, the death of the whole plant. Overwatering and poor drainage are the primary causes of root rot, as these conditions create a suitable environment for pathogens to thrive.

How do I identify root rot?

To identify root rot, carefully lift the plant and inspect its roots; healthy roots are typically white and firm. If you observe brown, mushy roots, it’s an indication of root rot. Additionally, the plant may exhibit wilting, yellowing leaves, stunted growth, and an overall decline in health.

How do I treat root rot?

To treat root rot, remove the affected plant from the ground or its container. Clean the roots by washing off excess soil, and use a sterilized cutting tool to trim away any decayed, mushy roots. Before replanting, improve the soil by adding compost or transplanting the plant to a better-drained spot.

How can I prevent root rot?

To prevent root rot, ensure proper watering practices—avoid overwatering and underwatering. Using a moisture meter can help you monitor your plant’s moisture needs. Ensure that your plant containers have proper drainage, and amend the soil with organic matter to improve aeration and drainage.

Can my indoor plants also get root rot?

Yes, root rot can also affect indoor plants. To prevent root rot in indoor plants, use well-draining soil, avoid overwatering, and empty any excess water from saucers or trays underneath the pots. Keep an eye out for the same symptoms and follow the same treatment steps.


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