Typically if it is January in Connecticut, one’s horticultural proclivities are turned towards indoor plants. I’m thinking this might be the beginning of another atypical year as temperatures in Storrs, CT were in the 50’s today and I had to water some outdoor hardy chrysanthemums under an overhang because they were wilting. These lovely burgundy mums have survived in this spot for almost a decade and they flower profusely each fall so I did not want to lose them. Usually the ground is frozen in mid-January and I throw some snow on them as a winter blanket. Snowfall has been in rather short supply this winter and the little I had covering them from last Saturday’s snowfall had melted quickly as temperatures rose.
In the case of these chrysanthemums, the young basal sprouts were wilting obviously because of a lack of water. I could see and feel the dry soil. Plants need water, just as we do, to grow and survive. Water is necessary for photosynthesis. It moves nutrients and photosynthates throughout the plant, it acts as a coolant and it gives a plant turgor along with many other less obvious but just as important plant functions. One might suppose that limited quantities of either natural precipitation or human supplied water would be the primary reason a plant would wilt. While it is a major one, there are three other situations where wilting could commonly occur – at least when dealing with houseplants.
Overwatering will cause a houseplant to wilt. In fact, I recall seeing somewhere that overwatering was the number one cause of houseplant death. Many houseplant owners like schedules (as a good number of us do) and water accordingly. So, if today is Saturday, it is time to water the houseplants. The problem is, the houseplants may or may not need water. When to water depends on the type and size of plant, the size of the pot, indoor temperatures, exposure to light, and the plant’s growth cycle among other factors. If heat is provided all or in part by a wood or pellet stove and plants are in this area, they will dry out faster and may need more than once a week watering. Those plants kept in a cooler, dimly lit area might only need water every 10 or 14 days. Our watering houseplant fact sheet (at www.soiltest.uconn.edu) may be of interest to new houseplant owners.
If plants receive too much water, the potting mix they are growing in becomes saturated. As this happens, any air in the root zone is pushed out and replaced by water. While this sounds counterintuitive to non-plant people, a plant’s roots need oxygen in the root zone to take up water. Once all the oxygen in the potting mix is replaced by water, the plant cannot take up water so they wilt. Usually the response to seeing a plant wilt is to add more water, thus exacerbating the problem.
What’s wrong with this plant?
Few roots, brown, unhealthy and overwatered.
Another scenario for wilting is caused by overfertilizing, especially with synthetic fertilizers, either in water-soluble or granular formulations. Fertilizers are primarily composed of nutrient salts. We use sodium chloride as our table salt at mealtimes, while some examples of fertilizer salts that are used to supply nutrients to plants include potassium chloride, ammonium nitrate and superphosphate.
You may have heard it mentioned that nature is always striving to reach an equilibrium (no matter how short lived it may be!). Well, if there are more nutrients in the potting mix, because of over-fertilization, than in the plant, curiously, the plant will release some of its water to try to dilute these salts so that the concentrations within the plant and surrounding the plant’s roots are more in line with one another, i.e. in equilibrium. In doing so, the plant loses water and wilts. On top of that the fertilizer salts can cause physical injury by the ‘burning’ or desiccation of plant root tissue. As plant roots die, there are less healthy ones to take up water so plants may still look water-deprived. Also injured roots because of overwatering or overfertilizing become susceptible to a variety of rot diseases.
Lastly, that plant that needs water on a daily basis probably is trying to tell you it needs to be repotted. There are so many roots growing in a restricted area that more water than you can supply it is needed. If plants are repotted on a regular basis, they are typically moved into pots that are one to two inches in diameter larger than the one they are presently growing in. If the roots are terribly overcrowded, you might select a pot that is 4 to 6 inches wider if the roots are not cut back. Do untangle or slice through encircling roots before repotting.
It is up to you, the houseplant caregiver, to figure out why your plant is wilting. Start by knocking the plant out of the pot and looking at the roots. They should be nice and white and crisp and the potting mix should be moderately moist but not dripping water or desert dry. If this is not so, try to figure out what has gone wrong. If you are stuck, please give us a call. Find our contact info at www.ladybug.uconn.edu