What causes a plant to go into shock?

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What is plant shock?

Plant shock is when you, er, shock your plant. There are various causes of plant shock which we’ll explore in this article.

Plant shock can kill plants. They’re delicate creatures, and any sudden changes can cause them to drop leaves, wilt, and develop root rot.

This is why it’s generally advised that you let plants settle for a week or so before repotting them. Better yet, don’t repot them until they need repotting (actually need repotting, rather than you ‘need’ to repot them so that they look more aesthetically pleasing).

And yes, I’m guilty of being over-eager to get my plants into prettier pots.

Do as I say, not as I do.

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Causes of plant shock – temperature

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Too hot

When I was new to this plant parent business, I took all of my plants outside for a lovely treat. It was a beautiful day, and I thought they’d appreciate feeling the sun’s rays on their leaves.


Don’t do this.

They don’t like it.

At all.

I mean, an hour or so outside won’t damage your plants, as long as the sun isn’t beating down on them, but generally speaking, they won’t feel any benefit.

They may even pick up a few bugs. Yay.

If you want to take your plants outside, go for it, but you have to do it gradually, and you’ll need to protect them from the sun.

Moving into hotter temperatures without having any time to adjust can cause your plant to shrivel up and die – they’ll dry out much quicker than they would in the house, so you may even need to water them every day.

The sun can also burn their delicate leaves easily.

You may appreciate an afternoon lying in the sun, but your plants probably won’t.

Even desert plants like cacti can experience sunburn if they’re not used to being outside.

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Too cold

I bought a plant at the weekend (shocking, I know) and the lady wrapped it in a bag to protect it from the wind. Even though it was a journey of fewer than 2 minutes to the car.

Plants don’t like extreme temperature drops. It can make them shed all of their leaves in one go. They’re nature’s panickers.

At the very least, a sharp drop in temperature can cause your plant to dormant and refuse to grow until it warms up significantly.

Plants that are too cold look…sad. They go a bit yellow and droopy and will die if left for too long. They certainly won’t grow.

There are plants that don’t mind a sharp temperature drop – some cacti and succulents live in deserts that naturally experience them in the wild (as it were).

These plants can tolerate a sharp drop but they still won’t like a sudden rise in temperature – whilst deserts go cold very quickly, they heat up slowly, so bear that in mind when you want to take your cacti outside.

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Causes of shock – transplant shock

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Even if your plant is literally bursting out of its pot, it won’t thank you for repotting it – at least not straight away.

It takes time for plants to get used to the change in pot size and medium. This is why it’s important to select your pot size carefully.

Don’t just buy the biggest pot you can find so your plant can grow into it – this will increase the chance of your plant going into shock because its such a dramatic change.

Going from being root bound to having loads of room will have a big impact on your plant – the soil won’t be as tightly packed around the roots and the soil can hold lots more water.

Changes like this can massively increase the chances of your plant getting root rot or mould. Just go for the next size up, or one that will comfortably fit your plant but won’t drown it.

I have a post here on how to repot a plant without killing it.

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Moving from the growers

Taking your plant home from the garden centre or nursery is a major source of transport shock.

If you bought your plant from a specialist nursery, it’ll be used to having perfect conditions – a lot of light (especially if it was grown in a greenhouse or conservatory), ample humidity and someone on hand that’s financially invested in making sure it’s kept alive and in good health.

Our homes are often not specially designed to grow house plants (yet!) and are usually much darker, colder, and less humid than the shops they come from. It’s therefore natural that your plant will experience a bit of shock.

In order to reduce the risk of shock when you bring your plant home, make sure it has enough light and don’t bug it too much (i.e. don’t repot it).

If you bought your plant from a supermarket, you might experience transport shock along with other issues.

Supermarkets don’t keep their plants in as good a condition as nurseries, and they don’t have experts taking care of them.

I always check for signs of bugs, overwatering (so so common in supermarket plants), and lack of humidity. If your plant has been overwatered to the point of root rot, you may have to break the rules and do an emergency repot to save the roots.

Do I still buy plants from supermarkets? Yes. But I try to stick to ones that don’t mind a bit of overwatering, like ferns. I have an Alocasia Zebrina from Sainsbury’s that was luckily pretty cheap but is down to three leaves due to (I believe) lack of humidity.

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Moving plants within the home

We’re talking about a specific plant here. You know the one I mean.

I move my plants around the house all the time. They don’t seem to mind it, because as I grow more knowledgeable about their needs, I can put them in a spot that will suit them better. I don’t always get it right, but as soon as I notice a plant declining, I move it.

But as we all know, there is one plant we mustn’t move once it’s found its spot.

The Fiddle Leaf fig tree.

As soon as you notice growth, it’s locked in place. Don’t move it, because it’ll have a hissy fit and die like a little bitch.

For a full care guide on fiddle leaf figs, click here.

But in general, you won’t shock your plant too badly if you move it within your home, provided to don’t live in a humongous house that has wild variances in temperature and humidity.

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How to prevent shock

  • Research your plant before you buy it so you know where to put it. If it needs bright, indirect light and you don’t have any left, put it back and grab a Calathea.

  • Try not to let it get windswept, cold or wet on the way home. Unless you live in a tropical country. If you live in the UK like me, protect your plant as best you can, and run home.
  • Check the roots. If they look brown and mushy put the plant back. If you’ve already bought it then check the soil and change it if it looks a bit too heavy. Just add a bit of perlite. In all but the worst-case scenarios you’ll just have to wait for the plant to dry out a bit and pray. If the roots smell really bad and everything looks gross, go for an emergency repot.
  • Once you’ve got your plant home, put it in its new spot and leave it alone.
  • Check the soil with a moisture probe. Most plants are in wet soil at the time of purchase. Don’t water it again until the moisture metre reads about three (depending on the plant of course, but 3 is the most universally safe number you’re going to get).
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How to ease shock

  • Clean the leaves gently. This will allow the plant to absorb more light.

  • Trim any dead or dying leaves. Your plant doesn’t need any dead weight in this difficult time.

  • Only water when needed. This applies to all plants all the time, but especially to plants suffering transplant shock. Leave ’em be.

  • If you have to water, use lukewarm or tepid water, not cold.

  • Add Superthrive to your water – it helps plants deal with transplant shock better.
  • Keep an eye on it – look for signs of mould, fungus, or bugs.

  • If you need to repot, be very gentle on the roots, especially if the plant is rootbound. Roots can attach themselves to the clay, and are pretty delicate.

  • Unless the roots are a bit rotten. In which case you may want to gently trim the worst ones. Once the roots are brown and mushy, they ain’t coming back. Chop them off!
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And so ends our lecture on plant shock. Be gentle with your plants, and you should be ok. And just wait a week or so before moving it into that cool you pot you bought.

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6 thoughts on “What causes a plant to go into shock?”

  1. I really enjoyed reading, Simple tips that I will keep in mind. It’s been quite an adventure figuring out what im doing wrong at times but it makes so much sense now. My plants kinda hate me sometimes but I got hope.

  2. That’s exactly how I felt when I started! I cringe when I think of all the rookie mistakes I made thinking I was helping my plants – pots with no holes, gravel in the bottom of the pots, watering every day (!!!!)…I’m surprised my plants lasted as long as they did! I have a Monstera that is a real trooper!

  3. Strange question, but can you do anything for seed? Like, if it’s just growing something and has recently fell over? Would the plant already be dead then, or is their hope for it?

  4. There’s always hope! Plants can grow back from surprisingly little, so it’s always worth trying to save them. A warm, humid, bright place is your best bet for revival.

  5. Hi there! I’m desperate to find info for my begonia that fell and the plant holder fell on top and cut a lot of the stems. I am rooting a bunch of them, but the plant (which is over ten years old, and has survived a bunch of horrendous events), is left to just a few little leaves sprouting from the center. What can I do to help my Sweet plant recover? Plant food?

  6. First of all, don’t worry! Plants are remarkably resilient.

    Plant food might be a bit much if the plant is stressed – increase light, humidity and warmth for fast growth. My begonia loves my grow light, so if you have one, crack it out now. If not, a warm windowsill is perfect. If you think it might be hungry add worm castings to the soil – they’re gentle and won’t burn the roots.

    Once the cuttings root you can put them back in with the original plant to make one big plant – it’ll be back to its former glory before you know it.

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