3 Signs You Might Be Able to Bring That Sale Rack Houseplant Back from the “Dead”

published Mar 9, 2023
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Shelves holding various houseplants for sale at a garden center.
Credit: BearFotos/Shutterstock

Picture this: You’re walking through the garden section of your favorite big box store and you stumble across a rack filled with really sad-looking plants that have been marked down. Most of them are so far gone — victims of inattention, or possibly too much attention — that they’re not worth saving. Some of those plants, though, might be worth the small amount paid along with a bit of your time invested to bring them back to their prime.

No matter if you’re a beginner indoor gardener or a seasoned professional, buying plants off the sale rack at a big box store (or any plant nursery for that matter) can sometimes be tricky business. The most obvious risk is the possibility of bringing plant pests into your home, which is why your need to quarantine any new plant for a bit before cozying it up to your other plants. There’s also the chance of bringing home a plant that seems like it’s doing well enough, only to realize within a few days that it has root rot and is on its way to the compost pile.

On the other hand, buying plants off the sale rack can be a great opportunity to score a trendy varietal on the cheap. And if you’re hoping to learn more about houseplant care, these strugglers are a great way to develop that muscle. Up for the journey of guiding a sale rack plant into its best life? Here are three signs you might have a chance to help it thrive.

The foliage is discolored, but still firm.

Just because a plant doesn’t have healthy green foliage doesn’t necessarily mean it’s on its way to being dead. (In fact, you’ll probably notice that most sale rack plants will have at least some yellowing, crispy, or otherwise discolored foliage.) But not all discolored foliage is the same. Some types can indicate short-term problems that are fixable, while others can signal deeper rooted problems (pun intended). So before bringing a sale rack plant up to the register, make sure to pay plenty of attention to its leaves.

Mushy, yellowing leaves can be a sign of overwatering and potential root rot, which is tough to come back from. But exposure to cold temperatures, even for a few minutes, can yellow many tropical leaves without affecting the overall health of the plant. And some plants, those in the ficus genus, can drop all of their leaves because of temperature changes. The plant roots, trunk and stems remain healthy — but the lack of leaves makes it seem like the plant has died. And brown and crispy leaves can be a sign that a plant has been underwatered, especially if the leaves are turning brown and crispy from the outside edges inward.

If you see signs that might indicate root rot, and you’re able to easily and cleanly remove the plant from its grow pot, it’s worth checking out the roots to make sure they are firm and white. Soggy, squishy roots that are browning in color probably can’t come back — best to leave those plants behind.

Other leaf discoloration issues offer a more promising future and are worth considering. As long as you spy green leaves in the mix, the best course of action is to maintain a watering schedule and make sure it’s getting enough light. Patience is key here. Wait for new growth to emerge, which could take anywhere from a week to a month, before cutting off any of the discolored foliage — those leaves might look dead, but a recovering plant can still pull nutrients from these while it’s on the mend. Once you have a significant amount of new, healthy foliage, start trimming the old off. 

The stems aren’t mushy.

Each variety of plant will be different from another when it comes to the feel of a healthy stem, but a little common sense goes a long way. If you gently squeeze the trunk or stems of the plant and your fingers go right through it, it’s rotting and should be avoided.

This is especially true if you feel around at the base, also known as the crown, of the plant. If there are a few mushy stems but a majority of the plant tissue in the crown is firm, it might be worth your time to try to save. If any part of the crown is soft and decaying, pass on it.

Soft and decaying plant tissue could be a sign of overwatering, or it could indicate a fungal disease called basal stem rot. Basal stem rot is caused by a contagious fungus that can easily spread to any plant it comes in contact with, which is why it’s so important to proceed with caution.

If you deem a plant worthy of rehabilitation, take it home, trim off the floppy stems, and quarantine it until you’re sure that the new growth is firm and healthy and that the plant isn’t infected. 

The roots are still white.

Rotting roots are a no-go, but as long as the roots are a healthy white color and have a firm texture, there’s hope. However, you might notice that a plant is root-bound, which means that its roots have outgrown its pot. This can seem alarming, but root-bound plants are a common find — especially on the sale rack at big box stores, where they sit in the same-sized pot for a long time no matter how much they grown. Root-bound plants can present in a few different ways:

Discolored foliage: If the foliage is yellowing and presents any of the other symptoms below, there’s a good chance the plant is root-bound. That’s because a root-bound plant isn’t able to get the nutrients it needs to thrive because the soil has either been depleted or there simply isn’t enough soil in the pot to support the overgrown roots.

Wilting stems: This one can be tricky if you’re trying to assess a plant situation in the store. Root-bound plants can be continuously wilty because the roots aren’t able to absorb the water they need since they’re crammed so tightly in the pot. Because of this, the plant is always thirsty and therefore always wilted.

Damaged pots: When extremely root-bound, the roots of some plants can break through plastic nursery pots. That’s a very obvious sign that a plant needs a bigger pot! In some cases, you can pick up a plant and feel the hardness of the roots bulging through the plastic.

Root visibility: Once roots run out of space to grow, they’ll start seeking other routes. Roots visible through the drainage holes at the bottom of a container are a sure sign of a plant that’s root-bound. This is also true of roots visible on the top or sides of a pot.

The good news is that rehabbing a root-bound plant is relatively simple. The hardest part is likely getting it out of its original container, which might require cutting the plastic grow pot away from the plant. After freeing the plant from its container, you’ll need to loosen the roots gently with your fingers and then re-pot it in a larger container.

A good rule of thumb is to bump your plant up to a container that’s 1 to 2 inches larger than the original pot. If the plant is extremely root-bound, a 3-inch difference might be appropriate. Always use a new potting mix and begin a watering schedule immediately. 

Your success may vary — and it’s good to know when to walk away.

These tips and tricks can go a long way in helping you revive sad-looking sale rack plants, but they are not guaranteed solves. Each plant situation is unique, and you should always use your best judgment. The most important part of engaging in sale rack plant rehab? When in doubt, avoid any plant that is obviously overwatered, has visible pests or pest-evidence, or is mushy! This will help you avoid bringing anything home that could affect the health of your current plants.