A dying aloe vera plant

How to tell when your houseplant is a lost cause (and how to save it if not)

Posted by for Plants

Most indoor plants are pretty resilient – but there’s only so much they can take. Here’s how to tell when a houseplant is dead or past saving, and how to revive it if not.     

We’ve all been there. Just months after you’ve welcomed a new plant into your home, you notice its leaves are starting to look a little droopy.

You try your best to revive it by pouring what’s probably way too much water straight into the pot, but it’s too late – within a week, the plant has lost most of its leaves, and you’re left with an almost barren stem looking very sorry for itself.

But just because a plant looks, well… dead, doesn’t mean it actually is. A houseplant that’s lost most of its leaves or is turning brown may not be very healthy – but that doesn’t mean it’s always a lost cause.  

In fact, most indoor plants are more resilient than you might think – you just need to know whether or not a plant has passed the point of revival and, if not, how to nurse it back to health.

With this in mind, we reached out to Patch’s resident plant doctor Richard Cheshire to find out how you can tell whether or not a plant is a lost cause – and what action you can take to help your plant through a rough patch. Here’s what he had to say. 

How can you tell when a houseplant is dead or past saving? 

A dying houseplant
Houseplants need three key things to survive a period of poor health.

While there’s a common belief that looking after houseplants is super hard if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing, the plants we bring into our homes are a lot tougher than you might think.

“Houseplants are often a lot hardier than we give them credit for,” Cheshire explains. “Most houseplants will need three things to survive and thrive: 1. some healthy leaves attached to 2. a healthy stem, which should be connected to 3. some healthy roots.

“The leaves are important to provide the plant with energy by absorbing light in the process of photosynthesis as well as allowing the plant to breathe, and the roots transport key nutrients from the soil, up the stem and into the leaves. If any of these three are completely missing it is unlikely that most houseplants will make a comeback.” 

However, Cheshire adds, there are some plants that will be able to bounce back without any leaves at all: “There are many varieties of plant that emerge from ‘bulbs’ or ‘rhizomes’ rather than a root system, and these could bounce back from no leaves at all. Ferns, for example,” he says.

“These plants can come back from virtually nothing; as long as you treat the root cause of the problem, new shoots can emerge from the soil in moist conditions.” 

How to revive a dying houseplant 

A houseplant with yellowing leaves
The easiest way to revive a sick houseplant is through propagation.

If your houseplant still has the basics it needs to bounce back, there are some steps you can take to help the process along and give your plant the best shot possible.

“When a plant is really poorly but it has some healthy parts left over, there are ways to propagate them. Propagation is a means of creating a new plant by taking a part of an already established one.

“There are many ways to propagate a plant, such as dividing roots or by taking a leaf cutting, but different plants will prefer different methods. The easiest method of propagation that works for most houseplants is by water.”

To find out more about how to propagate a sickly plant, you can check out our beginner’s guide

New to plant parenthood? Check out Stylist’s guide to buying, styling and caring for plants to get started.

You can find out more about the most common houseplant problems by checking out our range of plant care content, too. 

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.