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One of the (many) reasons house plant parents hate winter is that dreaded dormancy period. We like growth. A plant that putting out new growth is a happy plant.
But do house plants actually go dormant? This is issue is often debated by house plant parents, and I can answer it thusly:
Some house plants display signs of dormancy in winter, due to the drop in temperature, low humidity, and shorter days/lower light. Whilst some plants truly go dormant and drop all their leaves, most just slow down significantly, putting out less new growth to conserve energy.
Why do plants go dormant?
In a nutshell, they’re not happy with their situation.
You can understand, right?
If you’d been designed to live in a rainforest for your entire life and were actually having to make do with a windowsill in London, you’d have to…adapt.
Rainforests are humid, warm, and generally lovely all year round. Our plants are confused because our houses are NOT.
So they slow down, and in some cases take a life pause and go dormant.
In most cases, plants don’t go dormant. They just try their best to conserve their energy. This can mean no new growth at all – they’re just trying to preserve what they already have.
But sometimes get winter growth, and it can be a little sad.
Winter growth is smaller, often a bit crispy; I think because the plant has a lot on, what with fighting off bugs, and the water not evaporating as quickly. New leaves just aren’t a priority right now.
Actually dormancy is rare in my experience, and I live in the UK, where it gets pretty cold and the light is…suboptimal, to say the least.
What happens to a plant when it goes dormant?
Oh, it’s pretty terrifying. Luckily, it doesn’t happen that often, in my experience.
Most at risk are alocasia, so make sure you keep yours warm, humid, and in the light. This can be a pain because obviously the brightest light is by the window, and that’s where it’s coldest. I put my alocasia about four feet from the window BUT I put a mirror behind it to optimise the light.
I am a GENIUS.
Jokes, the mirror and the alocasia were already there. It wasn’t until we were deep into winter that I realised the mirror placement was helping it not go dormant.
By the way, some plants need to go dormant in winter. That’s part of their lifecycle. But this site is all about house plants and there aren’t THAT many house plants that go dormant in the wild, as it were.
Some examples are plants like cyclamen, that die off and then regrow if you look after the bulb properly. I can’t advise on that because I tried my hardest but the damn root just…disappeared. I assume it rotted, but maybe it was kidnapped.
We’ll never know.
Are there different types of dormancy?
Yes, there are two different types of dormancy, and they’re pretty self-explanatory:
Predictive dormancy is when an organism goes dormant before whatever it happens that makes it go dormant. Some plants use photoperiods, so when they detect that the light they’re receiving is diminishing, they go dormant. This is more likely to happen in native species, and can also occur when temperatures start to fall in the autumn.
Consequential dormancy is when the organism goes dormant after the adverse event has happened. We’re more likely to see this in house plants because they don’t experience winter naturally, so they won’t have evolved the dormancy response to photoperiods and temperature decrease.
You just don’t get a sudden prolonged temperature drop in the rainforest.
Though the way the world’s going at the moment, they might have to evolve, and quickly.
Anyway, it would seem that predictive dormancy is the best because the plants are all safely conserving their energy before winter, but not necessarily. You see, we may experience a warm winter which allows the plant to grow a bit, despite lower light levels. Organisms that don’t go into dormancy at the first sniff of winter can elongate their growing season.
Signs that your plant has gone dormant
- All its leaves drop off
This is alarming as hell since as we know, leaves are kind of a big thing. But don’t worry, some plants, such as alocasia, can regrow from their tubers in the spring. Hence I’m trying not to panic because my Alocasia Zebrina is down to its last two leaves. EVERYTHING IS FINE.
- It looks dead
That’s pretty much what we’re looking for in house plants. If you’re not sure if your plant is dead or is just enjoying a bit of dormancy, I have a whole article on how to tell if your plant is dead.
Do plants always go dormant in winter?
It really depends on the plant.
Some plants will always go dormant in the winter, but they tend to be outside plants. If your house plant is tropical, it won’t go dormant if you can maintain the conditions one would most likely find in a rainforest.
Oh, and some plants go dormant in summer, like the cyclamen I mentioned before. They flower in the winter and sleep throughout the summer.
They’ve evolved to do this because they’re from the Mediterranean, and there’s better flowering conditions in the winter (i.e. it rains more, and the sun isn’t as full-on).
Are some plants more likely to go into dormancy than others?
As you can probably guess, the plants that require the most light, humidity, and warmth are the hardest to keep from dormancy. If you can prevent consequential dormancy, your plant will keep growing, even though that growth may be a little gnarly.
I don’t believe any of my plants have gone into dormancy, but the ones that have grown the least are:
- Alocasia – stingray has seen two new, crap, leaves. Amazonica and Zebrina have lost leaves and not produced any, ALTHOUGH Amazonica BLOOMED.
- Philodendrons Green Wonder and Pedatum. Selloum is acting like nothing happened and is shooting out new leaves, all the heart leaves are putting out a lot of growth, albeit small.
- Monstera Deliciosa is an interesting one. No new growth from October until March, and then shot out three normal leaves at once. Fair enough.
- No new growth on the Fiddle-leaf fig, but it didn’t die, so I’m claiming that one as a win.
- Hoya crinkle 8 hasn’t put out any new growth, yet Hoya Carnosa Krimson princess hasn’t slowed her growth at all
- The Calathea as a group have put out a bit of growth, but it’s been a bit weedy and crispy. The exception that proves the rule is, bizarrely, my Orbifolia, which hasn’t been slowed down at all. She even put out a half leaf, which had been bitten back to the base by my rabbit. Undeterred it put out the rest of the leaf.
Is there anything I can do to stop my plants going dormant?
I didn’t do anything particularly special to keep my plants alive. I didn’t run my heating any more than usual (and I have an old draughty house), and I don’t have a humidifier, because my house is pretty humid by itself.
I have a whole post on how to keep your plants alive during winter, but here are a few quick tips to help you prevent dormancy:
- Check your plants regularly for pests.
They’re more susceptible to infestations in winter, since they’re in a weakened state and can’t fight off any bugs.
- Dust your plants
I spray mine with a neem oil solution and wipe them with a cloth. I don’t do them as often as I should (like, every 2 or 3 months, oops) but this is great way to deter bugs and it allows the leaves of your plant to get as much light as possible.
- Water them enough
Whilst it’s true that plants need far less water in winter than they do in summer, they need more than you might expect. Check them with a moisture metre at least weekly, and make sure the water you give them is room temperature or a little above. If you didn’t have the foresight to leave the water out overnight to acclimatise, add a little hot water into your watering can.
- Maintain humidity
Central heating can dry plants out, so consider investing in a humidifier (it’ll be good for you too!). It’ll more replicate the rainforest, and it’ll reduce the risk that any new growth comes in crispy. Winter growth is crap enough, we don’t want crispy tips too.
- Get grow lights
As I mentioned before, it’s all very well moving your plants closer to the window for light, but you risk them getting too cold. Betsy Begonia has a great video on how she used cheap grow lights to stop her plants from dying due to lack of light. I plan on getting a set of those grow lights soon and trying them out, but there’s a link to the ones I use in my resources page.
I also have an article all about my favourite grow lights here. There are some cheap ones that will just keep your plants alive, but if you have a bigger budget, you can maintain decent growth year-round
Do plants go dormant in their natural environment?
In the UK, yes. In rainforests, no.
Some plants grow more depending on the season – lots of growth in the rainy season, for example. And I’m sure there are plants that go dormant in the tropics, but that’s not what you’ll experience in the average house in temperate climates.
Whilst tropical regions do experience seasons, they may not be the same as ours – Vietnam doesn’t have freezing winters (well, a bit in the north), we don’t have the monsoon season.
It’s a bit swings and roundabouts – plants have to deal with different things in different regions. Sure, it’s chilly in your living room, but at least there aren’t hordes of locusts.
Dormancy is a response to a certain set of conditions, which some plants experience and others don’t.
How to tell if your plant is dead or dormant
I do have a whole post on this here, but here are a few quick tips:
- The roots are brown and mushy – this is a dying plant, and needs tlc. More information about recovering from root rot here.
- The snap test – snap a branch, and if the inside is green, your plant is alive. If it’s brown, it’s dead
- If it has a tuber or rhizomes, there’s a chance it can revive itself – plants such as alocasia, oxalis, and ZZ plants
I hope this was helpful!
- Most tropical house plants don’t go dormant in winter if they’re kept in a warm, light environment
- If they do, they won’t necessarily die, but they’re in a weakened state, so stay vigilant re. pest and root rot.