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The Garden Writers Association

Last Update 03/27/11

Plant of the Month

Saving an Adenium (Desert Rose) from Rot

A reader has written in to ask about saving her prized Desert Rose that is about 7 years old. She explains that “It is in a large pot and has done very well until this winter when it got very cold. I live in Ft. Lauderdale. I moved the plant during the real cold snap closer to the house and covered it. I think it may have some sort of rot from over watering as I read on a few sites that they don’t like water in the winter. I was traveling a lot and had a friend watering my plants. She probably watered it every other day. I am only guessing that was the case. The main trunk and branches are rubbery and peeling. There are some flowers and sparse leaves. I feel so bad because I love this plant & don’t know what to do? I do not see any sign of bugs. I lifted the plant from the pot & there a 2 huge bulbous things… one completely rotted and the other very soft. There are hardly any roots. The soil is very dry right now as I haven’t watered it in 2 weeks. I suspected at first it was from overwatering but now I just don’t know what to do. I hate to lose it…”

This gardener has unfortunately learned that a proven method to kill established Desert Rose (Adenium) plants is to leave them in a combination of wet and cold or to excessively water them in water retaining, poorly draining growing medium. Combined with night temperatures below 50 deg. F., the plants are almost guaranteed to rot.

Is there a possibility to save this plant? Yes, there is. Provided the rot has not moved too far into the caudex of the plant at which point, trying to root cuttings from healthy branch tips (see below) may be the only hope.

The reader sent me some pictures of the plant which help me to see what the problem is. First, I will explain what I see then I will explain what to do…

desert rose plant - Copy.jpg Image used with permission of JO-ANN TABRY

desert rose plant - Copy.jpg

desert rose roots - Copy.jpg Image used with permission of JO-ANN TABRY

desert rose roots - Copy.jpg

 Image used with permission of JO-ANN TABRY

desert rose trunk.jpg

This is what I am seeing from the images (click to enlarge):

1) In desert_rose_trunk.jpg, the left-hand trunk looks rotted through, if it is still supporting leaves and flowers at the top, you may want to take cuttings to start new plants otherwise the branch should be cut off at the bottom (however, if you wash and rub the rot away and you see some green in that branch, do not cut it, it is healing itself)
2) If you look at about 6:30 in the picture you can see a healthy root growing down into the dirt – that looks like a good sign
3) The branch in the top right hand corner looks like it has some rot, but the plant may be able to heal that itself
4) The branch to the lower right corner looks healthy
5) In the desert_rose_roots – Copy.jpg it looks like there are some healthy roots growing there also. Incidentally, seeing where the soil line is on the plant, that tells me that either it was originally planted too deep into the soil or it sunk down over time (see below for how deep to replant)
6) In desert_rose_plant – Copy.jpg I am looking at the bottom of the pot which looks like fertilizer salts have collected there (the white coating on the outside of the pot).

This is what I suggest:

Before operating, get together all of the tools you will need:

1) A new, clean pot that is the same size and style as the pot the plant is currently in (I am concerned about the fertilizer salt that has leached through the pot and collected on the outside. Do not reuse that pot.)
2) Potting Soil Mix for Adeniums (see below)
3) Clean, sharp gardening knife
4) Isopropyl alcohol to sterilize knife
5) Bonide® Sulfur Plant Fungicide
6) Hormex® Rooting Hormone powder

Suggested Soil Mix for Adeniums:

80% Hyponex® Potting Soil
15% Coarse Builders Sand
5% Miracle-Gro® 0.31 cu. ft. Perlite

The first step is to de-pot the plant and carefully rinse all of the dirt off of its caudex and roots. The caudex looks something like a large yam. Next, look it over for discolored areas and gently probe with your finger to test for soft spots. With your sterilized knife, carefully carve out the rotted portions of the caudex and roots. If half or more of the caudex it rotten, the plant may be a total loss. Otherwise, dust the cleanly cut areas of the healthy part of the caudex with sulfur fungicide powder and the roots with rooting hormone powder then repot the plant as described below.

Growing Tips for Desert Rose:

Keep Desert Rose in a location that receives full sun throughout the day -- poor lighting causes leggy growth and a lack of flowers.

Water Desert Rose when the top inch of potting soil becomes dry to the touch, about once every five to seven days. Reduce the frequency of watering to once every three to four weeks during winter to induce a period of dormancy (essential for blooming) and to discourage rot.

Fertilize once per month during spring and summer using an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer. Follow the instructions provided on the package for the best results. Cease fertilizing during fall and winter.

Prune Desert Rose once each year during early spring just before active growth resumes. Use pruning shears to cut off excessively long and leggy branches and thus encourage fresh, thicker growth and more flowers during the blooming season. Propagation of the mother plant may be achieved by taking healthy 3 to 4” lengths of the growing tips of healthy branches, making a clean end cut, dusting the cut with rooting hormone and re-striking them in a 50% coarse sand/potting mix to root.

Repot Desert Rose once every two years to refresh the growing medium and allow additional room for root growth. Increase the size of the pot by 1 to 2 inches each time you repot making sure that the soil is within an inch of the top of the pot and that the point of current soil level on the trunk is about ½” above the level of the soil in the new pot. For best results use the Adenium soil mix suggested above. Do not use a saucer under the pot as water needs to be able to drain out freely.

Happy Gardening!


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