Dead or Dormant — How To Tell If Your Plant Is Just Chilling

Dead or Dormant — How To Tell If Your Plant Is Just Chilling

While bears enter hibernation and monarch butterflies head to California, some of your houseplants will be getting started on their winter vacation plans: going dormant. Now, if you aren’t familiar with dormant houseplants, you might panic once winter rolls around. A dormant plant can easily be mistaken for a dead one! Knowing how to tell if a plant is dead or dormant could prevent you from tossing your beloved plant into the trash when all along, it was just taking a winter nap. 

Dormant plants and dead plants share a lot of the same symptoms: 

  • Wilting
  • Dropping leaves
  • Stunted growth
  • Just looking straight-up dead

The reason your plant goes dormant is that it needs to conserve energy for its spring growth spurt. Also, many tropical plants, like philodendrons, are accustomed to fairly consistent climate conditions in their native habitats, so they enter dormancy as a survival mechanism when exposed to more drastic seasonal changes. Their paused growth will allow them to conserve energy until there’s enough sunshine or humidity for them to bounce back. 

Some plants may also enter dormancy after a period of stress that may not be related to seasonal changes. Drastic changes in the environment, like moving to a new location or turning on air conditioning, could make your plant have a bit of a freakout, dropping leaves and pausing growth to save energy for survival. Then, to make it a bit more confusing, there are certain plants such as Aeoniums, that are dormant in summer and grow in winter.  Here’s a few suggestions that will hopefully help clear up any confusion:


houseplant coming out of dormancy Plant Decor Shop

How To Tell If A Plant Is Dead or Dormant

There are a few tests you can do to check if your plant is still thriving and just chilling or if they’ve sadly kicked the bucket. Here’s how to tell the difference between a plant that is dormant and one that is dead:

The Scratch Test

Scratch the outside of a stem with your nail or a sharp knife. If the outer layer easily scrapes away to reveal damp, green tissue on the inside, then it’s still alive. If it’s brown and hard to scratch, it’s probably dead. Keep checking down along the stem closer to the base because there may still be some living tissue down there. Cut away any dead tissue, so it doesn’t keep draining energy from your plant.
healthy houseplant roots Plant Decor Shop

Check the Roots

Inspecting the roots of your plant is a great way to tell if it’s dead or dormant! If it’s dead, those roots are going to be moldy, smelly, and gross. If it’s dormant, the roots will be light in color, supple, and considerably less gross. Keep in mind that sometimes if your plant undergoes stress, it may kill off some of the outer layers of its roots while still maintaining the core area. Pull away any dead root material, and if you’ve still got a living root ball in the center, pop that bad boy back in a pot of soil!

The Snap Test

Pinch the tip of a stem with your thumb and forefinger and bend it back. If it snaps off easily, then that part is dead. If it’s flexible, or if the outer layer cracks to reveal a flexible white or green layer inside, then it’s still alive. If the tip of the stem is dead, there still might be living tissue lower down, so snap a bit more off the top. If it’s still dead, do the scratch test lower on the stem to avoid injuring live tissue.


caladium plant going into dormancy Plant Decor Shop

How to Care For Dormant Plants

Dormant plants don’t need as much attention as they do during their active growing season. You can water them less, and most can go without fertilizer. Fertilizer may confuse your dormant plant and trigger its growth spurt too early, resulting in leggy, weak growth. Particularly nutrient-hungry plants may still need some fertilizer over the winter, but you should still reduce the amount you provide in those cases.

If you’re worried your plant isn’t getting enough sun over the winter and it really is dying, you can use grow lights to supplement the natural light coming into your home. 

Figuring out how to tell if a plant is dormant or dead will save you money and unnecessary heartbreak! If you’d like to add some new green beauties to your collection, our California greenhouse is constantly stocking up on trendy new plants. Shop our online catalog to see the latest new arrivals ready to be shipped to your home or office!

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