Exotic Gardening with Rare and Strange Plants

how to tell if a plant is dead

Over the years I’ve definitely asked this question more then once. “Is my plant dead?” All the leaves have dropped, the stem broke, or the plant straight up exploded on impact when I dropped the pot to the floor. Whether you forgot to water, a cat got adventurous or you accidentally left a shade lover in the blazing sun all day, a lot can go wrong when caring for plants. “Here’s a little water, not too much, and not too little, there ya go little buddy.” Unlike collecting stamps or antique toothpicks, plants are living, breathing creatures and require the same respect as you’d give to a house cat or child. I know this sounds like a daunting task, but it’s easier then it sounds, after-all a ficus is significantly less work then a toddler. Don’t despair, we’re all capable of growing gorgeous healthy plants. It might just take a little bit of trial and error, and a better understanding in how plants work. Not all dead looking plants are in fact departed, sometimes they’re just asleep or set back, waiting for their chance to flush out once again.

Dicentra emerge in mid March, grow quickly, flowering abundantly, and peter out and die by mid summer. Only to return every season, this is there time to shine.

I think the biggest concept amateur plant geeks don’t understand is that plant’s generally live seasonally and in turn transform and change throughout the year. Some plant’s like a common philodendron or spider plant stay the same nearly all year round, just add water, and your plant will happily grow from January to December. Other plants live for a specific season and/or condition, waking up to the right weather and light, and then sleeping for the rest of the year. While the cute little florist cyclamen you have in your windowsill flowers it’s heart out for 3 months in early spring, it doesn’t die after flowering, it just rests so as to gather energy for next year’s floral display. The plant will show all signs of death, a decrease in growth and sometimes no foliage whatsoever. It’s best to do a little research for before tossing out a dead looking plant. A cyclamen in it’s native habitat has evolved to flower at the right time of year to meet it’s pollinators. My cyclamen outdoors flushes it’s foliage out in winter and early spring, thus gathering energy from the sun without the competition of the now leafless deciduous trees above. Plants are opportunists and while this might not be conducive to your year round floral display, they often maintain the time table they acquired while evolving in their natural habitat.

Last fall I went to inspect my euphorbia griffithii only to find a hallow dead cane. The good news is unlike other euphorbias in my collection, E. griffithii is deciduious and dies back every season. A lesson in plant cycles and more importantly a better understanding of this plant’s personality. Look at it flowering now (april 8th 2012).

Many of the exotic plants I have from the southern hemisphere still think they’re in Africa, growing in the winter and flowering right as we’re getting our first frosts. Crazy stupid plant, don’t you know you live in Canada now. Some plant’s can be tricked into growing outside their natural cycles, but often with disastrous results. The common Venus fly trap often sold at grocery stores and other quickie plant stops, will inevitably die in your kitchen as they need a winter dormancy to chill out and regain lost resources. While you might be able to trick it into living for a couple years by providing non-stop awesome conditions, eventually they burn out. Every single plant in my collection has a specific habitat and condition it thrives in and for the best results you should do a little research. If you don’t want to look it up or read it on the internet, the best thing you can do is observe. After-all there isn’t a tutorial on every plant variety out there, the more time you spend with your plants the more you’ll learn about their idiosyncrasies.

“You’re telling me the tulips outside live their entire existence to flower no more then 1 week a year, then go dormant again for 10 months. I’m afraid so Billy, plants are strange bunch indeed”.

Beyond the natural cycles of plants, a mistreated plant will sometimes look dead but is really just waiting for more suitable conditions. Case and point I recently had my Acacia pravissima drop all it’s leaves this winter and dry up to a crispy shade of dead. While I had worried that the frost had finally become to much for it, it turns out the pot dried out under the eve and the plant didn’t have enough to drink. Upon snapping branches, depressed and dissapointed I noticed the cambium underneath the plant’s bark was still green. A true sign of life, while this plant is still knocking on death’s door, there is still hope. Given the right conditions, and a little luck my Acacia might flush out again when things get a little warmer. A simple thing like transplanting is sometimes enough to put a plant to sleep for the year. You’ll often be surprised to plant something, watch it die within the week, only to pop up next spring. An unfortunate cold and wet winter might set back some plants and have them skip an entire season all together. Plant’s are a difficult bunch, and sometimes it’s hard to tell what they’re up to. If I really love a plant I often will let it’s dead looking self sit in a unseen corner in hopes of recovery. More often then not, I’m surprised with the results. Have you ever grabbed hold onto a leafless tree, only to feel the roots fight back and not relinquish the branch from the earth. It looks like your still alive little fellow.

A couple tips on checking if your plant is dead.
First of all, inspect the parts of the plant that are above the soil. If you make a small scratch on a branch and still see some green, the plant is still alive. If your plant looks dead, ask yourself why? Does the soil look waterlogged, what’s it smell like? Rot stinks like a sewer, and can often mean true death to a plant. If you feel soft spots in the branches of your plant, but it hasn’t spread everywhere, sometimes a simple surgery can save it’s life. Removing rot, applying fungicide, and crossing one’s fingers might make a difference. If the plant isn’t doing so well, is there any sign of life? Removing the pot and inspecting the roots can sometimes help. A plant that is alive will often have a healthy root system, sometimes a dead looking branch will hide healthy growth buds under the soil.

Signs of a healthy plant below the soil line.

If i find myself with a truly miserable looking plant I sometimes try to gauge how good a life it had before it declined in health. If you have a plant that has grown flawlessly for 3 years, then suddenly dropped all it’s leaves, it might have enough energy stored to grow back. If it’s barely limped along so far, and it hit an unfortunate leaf drop, it might not bounce back this time. I often think of plants as little machines with their leaves acting as little solar panels. Even if a plant looses 97% of it’s foliage, I figure the 3 leaves it did keep are still generating some energy for it, and best left undisturbed in hopes of a slow recovery.

When a plant isn’t doing so well, relate to it as a sick friend. When you get a cold you aren’t looking your best. Decrease watering, place it in a protected area, and be extra cautious about bug infestations. I don’t know what it is about a sad plant that attracts aphids and other critters, but they smell the weak one’s in the herd. Most of all have patience. I won’t tell you how many times I’ve got fed up waiting for a plant to regain it’s health, only to rip it out of it’s pot and see new buds forming. At this point it’s often too late, having damaged it for the last time, it won’t have enough energy to fix this impatient mistake.

Remember… All gardener’s kill plants, but most of us have more successes then failures. Happy growing.


Mr Nat. Gardener, Plant Nerd
Tips and tales about gardening in one of the most mild climates in Canada. Specializing in rare and strange plants from far out destinations, this is the story of an obsessed young gardener in Victoria B.C. Let's create more tropical gardens in the garden city on the southern tip of Vancouver Island.