How to know if plant is dead or just a late riser

How do you know if a plant is dead? In some circumstances it is easy. The top growth is brown and the plant leaves the ground on the first tug. Other times it is much harder to determine.

How do you know if a plant is dead? In some circumstances it is easy.

The top growth is brown and the plant leaves the ground on the first tug. Other times it is much harder to determine.

Plants break dormancy depending on the temperature and moisture level of the soil as well as the amount of sunlight received. Survival instinct keeps plants dormant until the climate is one where the plant will thrive and reproduce.

In the local climate some varieties of plants will come to life in April with others waiting until the end of June, or later.

There are varieties of woody plants, trees and shrubs, that appear to be dead every spring.

Start checking for life by holding the branch in your bare hand. Live wood will stay cool to the touch. Dead wood will warm up from body heat.

Test the branch to see if it bends easily. Dead wood is rarely pliable and is likely to break when bent.

Live branches will be flexible.

The next check is to scratch off a small strip of outer bark. A bright green under layer means the branch it alive.

If all the branches appear to be dead there is still a chance that the plant is alive. Look for new growth, buds or leaves near the roots of the plant or low on individual stems.

When the top growth dies and the roots live, new shoots will be sent out form the roots. The old, dead growth needs to be removed at ground level to allow the new growth to sprout.

If the plant was grafted on different root stock, the original plant is dead and the roots will send out a different plant. It may or may not be one that is worth keeping.

When buds form on lower branches, cut back the dead top growth to just above the new buds and leaves. The plant will rejuvenate itself.

Brown spots on evergreens are not attractive. Once the scales or needles turn brown they will not become green again. In some cases the whole branch will be dead. In others only the needles or scales were burnt by the sun.

If the latter is the case new growth may appear as the summer progresses.

Either way wait until the end of June and remove all areas that do not contain green growth. If the end result is unsightly, without a change of regrowth, remove the plant.

Perennials’ life span varies with variety.

Peonies are known to last for up to 100 years while some primroses grow for a few years, spread seed and die.

If the plant has not put out new growth by the middle of June, dig it up and examine the roots.

Healthy roots are firm to the touch and will be light brown or white in color.

Dead roots will be flat, soggy and might have already started to decay. Only discard the plant if all the roots are dead.

When the plant has some dead and some healthy roots, remove the dead areas with a sharp tool and replant the healthy sections.

House plants are usually discarded as soon as the top growth is unattractive.

Given the fact that the plants purpose is to enhance the decor, it is a reasonable action. However there are plants that become dormant when their cultural conditions are not met. If placed in a good location and given water on occasion, they will often put out new growth.

Spring was late this year some plants are still in the process of breaking dormancy. Give them a few more weeks before discarding them.

Linda Tomlinson is a horticulturalist that lives near Rocky Mountain House. She can be reached at or

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