The fiddle leaf fig has really gained popularity as a houseplant in the U.S. over recent years. Its huge, elegant leaves add dramatic decor to any living space.
These plants can be tricky to care for, because they actually do not do as well indoors as they would as outdoor plants. That does not mean they cannot be kept indoors, of course, but there are specific rules that should be followed to keep them happy indoors.
One of the most common problems encountered by fiddle leaf fig owners is root rot. This is when the plant’s roots are constantly surrounded by soggy soil, and they die and start to rot due to pathogens in the soil. The rot will spread from the roots to the rest of the plant, and can kill it if not caught early enough.
In this article, we will discuss the causes of root rot in fiddle leaf figs and how to repot one with this condition. So, if you are currently having this problem and you want to learn more, just keep reading.
Signs of root rot in fiddle leaf fig
1. Algae on the soil
In fiddle leaf figs with root rot, it is not uncommon to see algae or mold growing around the base of the plant. Note that mold and algae love environments that are perpetually moist, so if you have been consistently overwatering your plant, these are the ideal conditions for them, and most likely also root rot.
2. Leaves turning brown
One of the first signs you will notice is the browning of the plant’s leaves. At first, the browning will be small spots, but the longer you allow the overwatering and root rot to continue, the more these spots will spread, until entire leaves have turned brown or even black.
3. Drooping stems
Another sign of root rot in fiddle leaf figs is drooping stems. This sign may not be as obvious at the start, because the weight of the large leaves naturally causes the stems to droop a bit, but if the stems appear to be drooping more than usual, this might point towards root rot.
4. Smelly soil
When the roots of the plant are beginning to rot, there will be an accompanying rotten smell. Healthy roots should not have this musty smell, and it is usually indicative of root rot that has been present for a while. If you cannot smell anything, that does not automatically eliminate the possibility of root rot, because it might still be in its early stages.
5. Soft, mushy, brown or black roots
The most damning and obvious sign that your fiddle leaf fig has root rot is when the roots have turned soft and mushy and are brown or black instead of white and firm. Roots that are afflicted with rot are essentially dead and decomposing, hence the change in texture and in color. The rotten smell will be amplified if you remove the plant from the pot to inspect it.
How to check a fiddle leaf fig’s roots
If you see one or more of the signs of root rot mentioned above and you want to confirm the diagnosis, you need to remove the plant from its pot so that you can examine the roots more closely.
Remove the plant gently from the pot, because the roots will be fragile and you do not want to lose more roots than necessary. Sometimes you can just slide the plant out with no problem; other times you will need to squeeze the pot to help the plant slide out.
After removing the plant from the pot, shake off as much of the old soil from the roots as you can. If you need to run the plant under the tap to clean off more soil, do so. Again, remember to be gentle so as not to break off any significant portions of root.
Now that the roots are visible without the soil, look for parts that are not white and firm. Rotten roots are brown or black and they feel soft and mushy when you touch them.
If such rotten roots are present and the soil seems to be waterlogged, you can safely deduce that your plant has root rot.
Causes of root rot in fiddle leaf figs
- Too much water
The most common cause of root rot in these plants is overwatering. Overwatering can occur due to various scenarios: You may be giving the plant more water than it needs each time you water it, you may be watering it more often than you should, you may be leaving it out in the rain, you have not adjusted your watering schedule to the change of season or weather, you are using a pot that does not have drainage holes, or you are using poorly-draining soil. Basically, all these situations will result in the plant’s roots standing in constantly waterlogged soil. The roots will drown because they are unable to dry out enough to get access to oxygen, and they will then begin to rot.
Avoiding overwatering is the most important factor in avoiding root rot, because they essentially go hand-in-hand. The trick is to only water your fiddle leaf fig when the top two inches of soil in the pot are dry to the touch.
- The wrong soil
As mentioned above, using the wrong soil for your plant can also lead to overwatering.
When soil is too dense or compact, the water will be trapped and will stay in the middle of the soil in the pot.
This plant likes soil that is well-draining. It should be airy and loose and allow air to flow freely through the soil and the roots, so that the roots can dry out between waterings and get the oxygen they need to survive.
The soil’s pH level should be somewhere between 5.0 and 6.0.
You can make your own soil mix by combining one part perlite to two parts regular potting soil. The perlite will make the soil more well-draining and porous.
- Poorly-draining pot
Even if the soil you are using is airy and well-draining, if the pot does not have drainage holes at the bottom, the water will have nowhere to go and will end up being reabsorbed by the soil anyway, making it waterlogged and causing root rot. The drainage holes also need to be large enough that chunks of soil cannot block them.
The material of the pot can also be an issue. If you are using a pot or container made of plastic or metal, the roots will not be able to dry out as fast because these materials are not porous. Air will also not be able to enter the pot very freely. Use a container made of either clay or terracotta, because these materials are porous and will let water seep through them if you pour too much into the soil.
Remember not to choose a pot that is too big for the plant. A big pot means more soil is needed to fill it, and more soil means more water will be retained, possibly leading to overwatering.
How to repot a fiddle leaf fig with root rot
Once you have confirmed that your fiddle leaf fig does have root rot, you will need to repot it as soon as possible.
You will first have to remove the plant from its current pot. Do this gently so that the roots are not damaged as you pull it out.
Shake or wash off as much of the old soil as you can from the roots, so you can inspect them more easily.
The healthy roots will be white and will feel firm when you touch them. If there are any roots that are brown or black and feel soft and mushy to the touch, those are rotten and you will need to remove them before repotting the plant.
Use a sterilized knife or scissors to cut off the affected roots. Make sure no rotten roots are left, because they can reinfect the plant. Even the smallest trace of rot needs to be removed.
Remove any damaged leaves as well, if you want to preserve the plant’s aesthetic.
After removing all the damaged roots and foliage, you are ready to repot the plant.
Choose a new pot, made of clay or terracotta, that has adequately-sized drainage holes at the bottom. Dispose of all of the old soil, because it is contaminated. If you want to reuse the old pot you can do so, but make sure you wash and disinfect it thoroughly so that all the pathogens are killed.
If the cause of overwatering and root rot is poorly-draining soil, you will need to amend your soil mix. Use one with components that will make the soil drain better, such as perlite or coarse sand. These materials are bigger and chunkier than soil particles and will allow air and water to move more freely around the plant’s roots.
Place the plant in the new pot and fill it in with the new soil mix. Do not pack the soil in, as this can make it too compact. It should just be loose and airy.
After repotting the plant, water it immediately so that it can start recovering.
How to care for a newly-repotted fiddle leaf fig
After repotting the plant, make sure you correct your watering techniques to avoid overwatering it again. As discussed earlier, overwatering and root rot go hand in hand, and the longer you overwater the plant, the more likely root rot will follow, which brings even more serious consequences.
Do not fertilize your fiddle leaf fig right after repotting it because it will still be recovering. Repotting is a stressful and traumatic process for the plant and it needs to recover completely before being subjected to the minerals found in fertilizers. You might think that fertilizing the plant will make it heal faster, but you could actually do it more harm than good.
How to avoid root rot in your fiddle leaf fig
As already stated, the best way to avoid root rot is to avoid overwatering. You can do this by following proper watering techniques. There is no set schedule to follow when watering your fiddle leaf fig; rather, it is a matter of knowing when your plant needs to be watered. You will know this by touching the top two inches of soil in the pot. If the soil is dry, water the plant; if the soil is still damp, wait one or two days before checking it again.
Make sure the plant’s pot has sufficient drainage and that the drainage holes are not clogged with clumps of soil or roots.
You can also help aerate the soil, and hence allow it to dry faster, by poking holes in it with a chopstick or a wooden barbecue skewer.
Fiddle leaf figs are Instagram-popular plants thanks to their large, luscious leaves that boost the aesthetic of any indoor space. They are not the easiest plants to grow indoors, and typically do much better outdoors. However, as long as you provide your plant with the best possible cultural care, it should do just fine.
A fiddle leaf fig with root rot will have browning leaves, drooping stems, foul-smelling soil, algae and mold growing on the soil, and soft, mushy, brown or black roots.
If your fiddle leaf fig has root rot, you need to repot it immediately. Remove the plant from the old pot, wash off the soil, trim off any rotten roots, and plant it in a new pot with adequate drainage holes, using well-draining soil. Water the plant after repotting it to aid its recovery.
Avoid root rot by watering the plant only when the soil is dry, checking the drainage holes to make sure they are not clogged, using porous and airy soil, and aerating the soil by poking holes in it with a chopstick.
Image: istockphoto.com / Bogdan Kurylo