Houseplant is dying. Help?
April 24, 2019 11:18 PM   Subscribe

My venerable old houseplant is dying (pictures). Can it be saved?

It's lost 50% of its leaves over the two months. This is unusual and seems bad. I added some earthworm casting fertilizer a couple of weeks ago to see if maybe that would help, but it hasn't. It gets watered regularly and has lots of natural light, and under that regimen it has survived for the last five years --- until now.

Assume I know nothing about the care and feeding of plants.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Five years is a long time for a tall plant in a little pot. The soil in the pot is probably very depleted and quite acidified by now.

If that were my plant I would have re-potted it as soon as it started looking like growth was slowing down. It might still be possible to save it by doing that now, but I wouldn't expect much.
posted by flabdablet at 12:12 AM on April 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

Also, with 50% less leaves and hard shiny leaves at that, it probably doesn't want as much water as you think. Overwatering is the #1 cause of root rot in indoor plants.
posted by flabdablet at 12:14 AM on April 25, 2019 [4 favorites]

Also also, worm castings applied to the surface are not going to do much at this point. You want a soluble fertilizer like diluted worm juice or compost tea or human urine diluted 30:1, probably with a teaspoon of lime stirred in. Worm castings are for mixing into potting soil, or for regular application to the surface well before the plant starts needing the nutrients they contain.
posted by flabdablet at 12:18 AM on April 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

Over the years, potting soil can degrade and compact, which can lead to malnourished plants and root rot, especially if you continue watering on a regular frequency. Just from looking at the 2nd photo, I'd say it's time to re-pot.

When you added earthworm castings, did you repot and mix the castings in with new soil? Or did you just spread them on top of the existing soil?
posted by theory at 12:20 AM on April 25, 2019

Searching for [diagnosing houseplant problems] gave some promising links. Also, I read something that said that leaves turning white in the center could be a nitrogen deficiency.

If you can find out what plant you have, you can then look for common problems of that plant, as well as what the ideal growing conditions are.
posted by amtho at 5:56 AM on April 25, 2019

That plant is mostly alive, you’ll be fine, as long as you don’t give it root rot by overwatering. Back off of watering, ensure good light, prune it a little to stimulate growth. Up-potting is probably not bad exactly, but maybe not the best ameliorative—these guys usually don’t mind being a little root bound, and I can’t tell what’s going on beneath the surface. If it’s very hard to stick a pencil in 2” deep anywhere on the surface, then yeah put it in a pot that’s 20% bigger by volume and about the same aspect ratio.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:43 AM on April 25, 2019

That looks like a rubber plant - I have one that looks very similar.

Definitely recommend you repot and check out the roots while you do - make sure they're not spongy/rotten. Rubber plants don't want much water - I use an automatic spike plant waterer on mine with a jar of water below the pot and occasionally (1-2x/mo generally) flood it with water from a fish tank water change.

Unless that spot gets direct light at some point in the day, you'll need to supplement the lighting with, e.g., a grow light on a timer. If you look at the wide spacing between leaves, it looks like it's been stretching upwards to try to get more light.

You might also consider cutting off the top of the very-tall part to encourage a bit of bushiness - cut just above a leaf node if you do. Bonus: you can probably use the cutoff parts to propagate one or more new rubber plants!
posted by bookdragoness at 7:27 AM on April 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you haven't repotted it in the last five years, find a pot that is only one to two inches bigger in diameter and repot it with fresh soil. If it comes out in one solid block, you'll want to gently use your fingers to loosen soil all around so you can get as much fresh soil in there as possible. This is also your opportunity to check out the roots. Given its size, you might need a buddy to help you.

You might consider trimming off some of the top as bookdragoness suggests and/or adding more light. You might also put the pot up on a little stand to literally get it a bit closer to the source of light.

If you want to propagate the cuttings, this guide looks reasonable.
posted by purple_bird at 9:15 AM on April 25, 2019

It gets watered regularly and has lots of natural light, and under that regimen it has survived for the last five years --- until now.

If you hadn't said this, I'd have diagnosed it as light deficiency. The picture doesn't look like it's in a bright spot, and ficus elastica has a tendency to drop leaves due to lack of light.

But if it's been getting by well in that same spot the past 5 years.... can you identify if anything has changed in its environment (temperature, light, humidity, medium, food and water)? I agree with the suggestion to repot it in a slightly larger pot (check for root rot) with a well-draining medium mixed in with some boosters. Cut back on your watering schedule, and if you're watering from the tap, leave the water out so the chlorine evaporates.
posted by hellopanda at 9:28 AM on April 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the advice all! I've repotted the plant as directed. Its root mass is much smaller than I would have expected, and some roots have rotted off, but there is one good long tendril that seems to be sustaining it. I've moved it to a spot with more sun and we'll trim and bushify it as bookdragoness suggests if it pulls out of this current downward spiral. I'd feel bad cutting off healthy leaves right now when it has so few of them.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:03 PM on April 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

Cutting off healthy leaves is pretty much always bad for a plant. Cutting off healthy growing stems, though, can be exactly what they need.

The difference is about a plant hormone called auxin, which is made at the tips of every growing stem. Auxin moves back down the stem toward the roots, and it functions to suspend stem bud development. So if you cut off a stem, all of the stem buds from the cut on back will start to grow into new stems.

The first buds to get started will be those closest to the cut point, because they're the ones that the backward-travelling auxin will clear from first. Once those get started, they will start making their own auxin and slowing down the growth of the buds behind them. The net effect is that when you cut a stem, what you get in its place is a branched set of new growth.

If your plant is dying because of damage to its roots, pruning back its stems can also be helpful because it reduces water demand on those damaged roots. This allows you to run the pot a little drier, which (along with better soil aeration) is exactly what you need to do if you're trying to kill off root rot organisms.

If you have a plant that's got leggy and stemmy due to leaf loss and/or a persistent need to search for light, something you can try instead of pruning it right away is to see if you can persuade one or more stems to throw out roots of their own via layering, possibly with the aid of a commercially available rooting hormone gel. For your plant I would expect successful layering to require help from a decent grow lamp.
posted by flabdablet at 10:14 PM on April 25, 2019 [4 favorites]

Yeah, pruning can save a plant, it stimulates growth. Plants are dynamic machines. It was dropping leaves because it had too few roots to support them. It will grow more leaves fast when it has fewer leaves than necessary to support the other healthy parts of the plant.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:24 AM on April 26, 2019

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