Many plants have periods of dormancy in the year, most often over the winter. Just like we need sleep, most plants need a period of dormancy to rest. Knowing whether your plants are dormant or dying can be a bit tricky since many of the symptoms are the same.
The typical traits going into dormancy include wilting, dropping leaves, and even looking utterly dead for some plants. For others, it may just mean not putting out any new growth over the winter.
Dormancy can be caused by seasonal changes or environmental stress. When the weather gets colder and days get shorter in the fall, it signals to outdoor plants that they should go into dormancy before winter hits Iowa. Environmental stress like lack of water, cold temperatures, or lack of nutrients can also cause plants to go into dormancy to conserve their energy in order to grow again if or when their living conditions improve.
Houseplants experience a bit of both seasonal change and environmental stress in winter. The amount of light they get goes way down, and while they don’t usually experience extreme temperature fluctuations, they do experience a pretty drastic change in humidity when we turn our furnaces on.
How to Check if Your Plants are Dormant or Dying
If your houseplants have played a dramatic tragedy lately and dropped all their leaves, you can check if they’re dying or just having a bit of winter rest.
Try the Snap or Scratch Test
The scratch test is the simplest. Using a sharp knife or your fingernail, scrape away a small portion of the outer layer of skin or bark on a stem. If it scratches away fairly easily, and underneath is damp and greenish, it’s still alive. If it’s brown and hard to scrape, it may be dying. Check a little further down on a lower limb or the main stem. If you discover green lower down, cut off the dead parts a few inches above the signs of life.
For the snap test, try to bend a section of a limb or stem near the tip. If it’s flexible and bends back on itself or cracks open to show flexible white or green tissue, it’s likely still alive and dormant. If it snaps off easy, that part is dead. But, like with the scratch test, there may still be life further down, so keep checking. Just maybe don’t keep checking with the snap test, because if you do get to where there’s life and it doesn’t snap cleanly, you put your plant at risk of disease or pest infestations. Switch to the scratch test as it’s a bit less invasive.
Dormant plants still need care, though generally a lot less than when they’re actively growing.
Check the Roots
Even if your plant appears to be entirely dead above the surface, there might still be life in the roots. Remove your plant from its pot and check the roots. If they’re healthy, they’ll be light-colored, supple, and full of moisture.
If they’re dead, you’ll probably smell it, and they’ll be squishy or shriveled up and rotting. But even if some roots are rotting, it doesn’t mean they are all rotten. A dormant plant may let outer roots die off to conserve energy, so the primary roots at the center may still be alive. If this is the case, it’s a good idea to remove the rotting sections of roots with a pair of sanitized clippers and put them into fresh, barely damp soil.
What to Do with Your Dormant Plants?
Dormant plants still need care, though generally a lot less than when they’re actively growing. You should keep the soil lightly moist for dormant plants. How often you’ll need to water dormant plants will vary a lot. The only reliable way to know is to check the soil with your finger. Feel the soil; if it’s damp an inch down, leave it be. If it’s dry an inch down, it could use some water, but just give it a light watering, don’t soak the pot.
If you think your plants are going dormant because of environmental circumstances like not enough water, not enough light, or low humidity, you can do your best to remedy the situation. You could add a humidifier, grow lights, and adjust your watering schedule. Or, you can cut back your watering to suit a dormancy period and let them take a break from growing for the winter.