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How To Tell If Your Plant Is Dead — Or Just Dormant During The Winter

Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen, the co-author of "The Spirit Almanac," and the author of "Return to Nature" (Spring 2022).
How To Tell If Your Plant Is Dead—Or Just Dormant During The Winter
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You're not the only one who gets a little lazy in the winter. Houseplants typically spend the season taking it easy and conserving their energy for when conditions are more conducive to growth. Cued by the changes in light, most varieties significantly slow down their growth once colder weather hits while others stop growing altogether.

This dormancy is totally normal, and growth should pick back up again once spring really gets into full swing. "The longer days will kick-start the process since the plants get their energy from the sun," Kierslyn Kujawa, a plant expert and Earth's Ally ambassador, tells mbg. "Where you live and how much the temperature and humidity are still fluctuating in spring will affect [when plants start] coming 'back to life,'" she adds.

With that being said, if you notice that dormancy lasts well into sunny season or your plant is showing other signs of distress, here are three pro methods for figuring out if its sluggishness is natural or indicative of a larger issue:

1. Check the roots.

Less sun means less photosynthesis and less visible leaf growth, but it shouldn't affect what's happening under the soil too much. So one way to diagnose dormancy is to gently remove your plant from its pot and check on its roots.

"See if the roots still look healthy. If they do, no need to worry," Kujawa says. Healthy roots are light in color; they really pop from the dark soil and feel firm and strong to the touch. "If there are any mushy roots, it is a sign this is something more than dormancy," she adds, and in that case, you might want to check our primer on diagnosing and treating root rot.


2. Do the snap test.

If you don't want to risk getting soil everywhere, Joyce Mast, longtime florist and designated Plant Mom at Bloomscape, says there are a few ways to check on your plant's growth without taking it out of its pot. For one, if your plant has some longer stems, you can do the "snap test" and sharply bend a pencil-length section of one of its stems back on itself.

"If alive, it will bend easily, and eventually, the stem will split, showing moist wood within," Mast previously told mbg. "A dead limb will snap cleanly with very little pressure and appear dry within."

3. Try the scratch test.

Another fuss-free method from Mast, the scratch test requires using a fingernail or knife to scratch off the outer layer of a plant stem. "If you see green, it is alive. If brown, work your way down the stem to see if it's green farther down by the soil," she says. If the plant doesn't show signs of green life closer to the roots, it could be seriously struggling. (Poke through our guide to diagnosing and saving sick houseplants if so.)

If your greenery passes the root, snap, or scratch test, all signs point to new growth in your future. Here are some more pro tips on how to help your houseplants have their best spring yet.

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