How to Deal with Rot Part 2: Saving Your Cacti & Succulents

It’s possible that, being a first time succulent or cactus parent, you have overwatered your cactus/succulent. It’s also possible that you have not overwatered it on purpose and have simply put it in a container without proper drainage or bought it in a pretty terrarium with rocks on the bottom. This mistake does not always have to be fatal to your plant, especially if you know what to look for. In my last post we talked about the signs of an overwatered cactus or succulent that can be fixed with a repotting and an imposed drought, but there are some signs of overwatering that can’t be so easily fixed such as if:

  1. The stem of your succulent becomes soft and it has a hard time supporting itself.
  2. The succulent or cactus begins to smell.
  3. The cactus begins to cave in.
IMG_1410
These baby succulents in my room were propagated from healthy succulent leaves and stems.

If your cactus or succulent exhibits these symptoms, you most likely have root rot. Root rot in cacti and succulents is systemic and can very easily kill your plant, so it’s very important to treat it immediately. If the plant is in a container with other plants make sure to remove all plants from that container and isolate the one exhibiting symptoms of root rot. Repot the companion plants in a new container with new soil, get rid of the old soil, and clean the old pot with soap and water so that the bacteria causing the rot can be eliminated and does not spread. It’s possible to save the affected plant if you catch root rot early enough, but surgery is required. Here’s some tricks to try and save your root rotted plant:

If the bottom of the succulent begins to feel soft and it has problems supporting itself or it cannot support itself at all, then you will not be able to save the root system. If the succulent is a kind of gasteria, haworthia, aeonium, echeveria, or opuntia, then you can propagate the healthy part of the plant so that it can grow a new root system. There are two ways to propagate your succulent. You can cut the healthy part of the stem from the soft/dying tissue and place on top of new soil in a new, clean pot. Put the stem into the soil and do not water for one week. After one week water very sparingly. As the new root system is developing the plant does not need a lot of water as it could cause more rot. If there is not a salvageable part of the stem, you can propagate a new succulent from the healthy leaves.

If your succulent or cactus begins to smell, then there is a chance you will not be able to save your plant as a rotting smell indicates that not only have the roots rotted, but that part of the plant itself has rotted. If you are on the look out for rotting cactus smells, the smell of succulent rot is much like mold and the smell of cactus rot is similar to rancid peanut butter. A rotting succulent can be treated as described above. The following advice is for caring for rotten cacti. If you find your cactus smells off, remove it from the soil and isolate it. In my experience, cacti with spines suffer from rot at their bases where water or wet soil touches their bottom-most spines and skin. The rot often appears light brown in color and you will notice that the spines and hairs are falling off or are withered. If the base of the plant is rotten through and the cactus can’t support itself, then you cannot save it. If the base is still strong, brush off any dirt away from the affected area and clean the base. Here’s what you’ll need to clean it:

  1. 2-3 q-tips (you do not want to use the same q-tip twice)
  2. water
  3. anti-bacterial soap like Dawn or SoftSoap
Mammillaria parkinsonii
This is my Mammillaria parkinsonii. I got this cactus from Wal-Mart in one of their pre-made cactus terrariums that had no drainage and glued pebbles on top. It suffered from rot along its base, and, after a good cleaning and repotting, is now very happy!

During this cleaning, it is important not to reuse q-tips and not to contaminate the water you are using to clean the cactus infection. If you do these things you may spread the infection and further endanger the health of your plant. Mix the water with your anti-bacterial soap. Dip 1 side of the q-tip into the water and press out any excess water. Gently scrub the infected area with the q-tip. When you are ready to apply more soapy water, use another q-tip. Repeat these steps as necessary. If you notice that there are roots with mold growing along the bottom, cut them away. Wait for the water around the plant’s base to dry before replanting. Important tip: Do not repot the plant in the same soil, and do not repot the plant in the same container unless it has been thoroughly cleaned with soap and water. When you repot your cactus, do not allow the soil to cover the infected area of the base. As the plant heals this area will need to breathe in order to generate scar tissue. After repotting the plant in a new or clean container with new soil, do not water it for 2 weeks. The cactus will go dormant as it heals itself so it will not need much water after the 2 week imposed drought. After about a month you should notice scar tissue where the rot used to be. This new tissue will be rough and dry to the touch. Once the scarring develops, add more soil to cover the base and continue to water sparingly. This should save your cactus.

IMG_0046
I have had this Opuntia microdasys for 2 years and it has survived two instances of overwatering by propagating healthy segments of the plant.

Unfortunately, if your succulent or cactus begins to cave in, then there is little hope of reviving it. If the squishy area of a succulent or cactus is fairly small, then it’s possible to remove the section and the succulent or cactus will scar over and continue growing. In my experience, removing the affected tissue is not effective in saving the plant as the opening often becomes infested with bug larvae such as house flies or gnats.

So, to save your cacti or succulents from root rot make sure to do the following:

  1. Remove the affected plant immediately from its container
  2. Do not repot it in the old soil or the old container if it has not been cleaned.
  3. If the plant cannot support itself, you can propagate new plants from the healthy parts of the stem or healthy leaves.
  4. If the plant has rot on the base and it is still sturdy, you can give your plant a quick q-tip bath and repotting.

In the final post in this series, we’ll talk about how to clean and repurpose your terrarium decorations and containers after root rot.

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14 thoughts on “How to Deal with Rot Part 2: Saving Your Cacti & Succulents

  1. Hi there, great site! I have a couple of cacti thag have been with me for 18months and have grown quite attached to them. Unfortunately, during the past month i noticed that they are both turning yellow at the base and one already has a brown concaved area. Could you please let me know if they can be saved? May I send you some photos so you can check them out?

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  2. Hi! Two of my aloe-like horvatias (thats what it says on the store sticker) had root rot 😦 they where with me for very long time, it really saddens me and one of them was my favorite. I dont have much light in my house, but they seemed okay all this time. What happened? I took them out and cut the rotting part off, now i m trying to put them into new soil and hope they will develope new roots. Very sad 😦

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    1. Oh no, Kaii! I’m so sorry to hear your plant babies aren’t doing well. You definitely did right by cutting the rotting parts away and repotting them. Did they make it? It could be that they didn’t have enough time to dry between waterings which may have caused some excess moisture. Wishing you and your horvatias well ❤️

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  3. Hi, I have a copper king that was overwatered by parents when I went away to uni. The spines have gone white at the top, and theres rot at the base so it can’t support itself, but the rest of the stem is still healthy. Would I need to use any kind of root powder when cutting above the base and repotting or just place the healthy stem in soil?

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    1. Hi,

      So sorry to hear about your copper king! You don’t have to use a root powder. The roots will grow from the stem even if you place the cut portion into fresh soil. The benefit of root powder is the roots will grow faster and be more voluminous, so, if you have it, definitely use it. But it’s not necessary.

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      1. Ah okay then, thank you. There’s a garden centre nearby so I will get some as I’d like as high a chance of success as possible. Thank you for replying so quickly!

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  4. Hi, I have a moon cactus and it has become brown, mushy, and is starting to rot. I have repotted it, cleaned the roots, cut the moldy parts of the roots, and tried to dry it in case of overwatering. Even after this, my cactus is still the same. Is there anything else I can do?

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    1. Hi! I’m sorry to hear your moon cactus isn’t doing well. Unfortunately moon cacti are particularly sensitive to root rot and don’t tend to recover well because it’s a grafted cactus. Depending on how rotted the plant is, you may be able to save it by cutting the healthy, green trunk away from the roots entirely. Feel free to send me some pictures of your plant to thegardengeneralist@gmail.com and I can give you more specific advice.
      Best,
      Sofia
      The Garden Generalist

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