Care Guides

The Shopper’s Guide to Picking Healthy Plants

Helping a plant recover from a pest infestation, a disease, or major stress isn’t an easy feat. Aside from the cost of treatment, it requires thoroughness, time, and patience, all without the guarantee of the plant surviving through the ordeal. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and the best way to honor this saying is to put it into practice from the very start—that is, before you even purchase a plant. What should you be on the lookout for to ensure that your new green pal is happy and healthy from the get-go?

Begin by reviewing the overall appearance of the plants on display and the conditions they’re kept in. Are any of the plants visibly struggling? Perhaps there are signs of improper care like them being placed in the shade or drowning in water? Even if it’s just a few plants, such neglect often means that the others are affected too, albeit in less visible ways. Reputable vendors move sick plants away from the rest to prevent further spread of pests and pathogens, as well as keep their plants in good health to support their natural defenses against them. Also steer clear of stores that try to disguise non-thriving plants with things like decoration or bargains.


Once you’re done with this quick check, it’s time to get thorough. The foliage is a major indicator of how well a plant is doing, more so than flowers, fruits, or size. As such, make sure to inspect it for the following problems and their combinations:

  • Discoloration. A healthy plant’s foliage should be vibrant and uniform in color. If the leaves are yellowing, browning, dull, or appear bleached, the plant is experiencing stress.

  • Wilt. It affects the lower leaves if the plant is underwatered, most of them if there’s root rot, and localized areas if there’s pest or infection damage. It could also be caused by hot weather (especially if the plant is adapted to colder climates), so don’t be too quick to discard wilted plants entirely.
  • Spots or blotches. Gray, brown, or black spots on the leaves are usually symptoms of fungal infections. Patchy discoloration could result from a viral or bacterial disease. Wet or mushy spots are likely to be rot, and those that look like they’ve healed could be damage from feeding pests.
  • Shedding. Gently touch the leaves at their base. If this causes them to detach from the plant, it likely went through a recent shock like a drastic change in temperature or repotting. As such, the plant is in the early stages of stress and will probably exhibit more visible signs of it soon after. This doesn’t hold true for all plants, however; some species have easily detachable leaves by nature, so it’s best to quickly check if this applies to the one you’re interested in before doing this test.
  • Uneven growth. Plants cultivated for sale from seed should have an even leaf cover that’s more or less same in volume across the species on display. If the foliage (or shoot growth in general) appears lopsided, the plant likely wasn’t lit evenly. Distorted growth could result from that too, but it’s more often a sign of disease. Plants that look weathered may have been cultivated in an open area, but in the case of tropical and exotic species, this appearance could point to them being wild individuals that were smuggled out of their natural habitat.
  • The surface of the leaves isn’t all there is to see, though. Carefully examine their undersides, leaf sheaths, rosettes, leaf stalks, or any other hard-to-reach places. These are the most likely locations to find hiding pests or evidence of their presence—insect eggs, webbing, sticky or cottony residue, etc. The same goes for diseases, particularly those caused by excessive moisture.


    Next on the list is the stem of the plant if it has one. Here are the things to watch out for in this area:

    • Legginess. Stretched-out stems with wide spaces between the leaf or branch attachment points indicate that the plant grew without sufficient lighting. Even if the most recent growth looks normal, leggy stems are fragile and prone to breaking.
    • Scarring or cracking. Before they heal, wounds in plant tissue present an entrypoint for infections, which could then develop under the surface without visible symptoms. At best, they are a result of the plant being mishandled on its way to the display shelf.
    • Signs of pruning. These could be harmless—for instance, if the plant was pruned to give it a particular shape, remove suckers, or to encourage more vivid blooms. However, they could also mean that the plant was sick, and part of its treatment involved the removal of diseased or infested shoots. Use this only in combination with other potential issues to avoid passing up a perfectly healthy plant.


    The state of the potting mix is another invaluable source of information about the quality of care a plant receives. Look over the top layer for warning signs like:

    • Plant litter. It’s fine if there are only a few fallen leaves or spent flower buds on the soil, but a buildup of them signifies neglect. Plant litter often serves as a hideout for pathogens and pests, so it needs to be cleaned regularly to promote proper plant hygiene.
    • Visible roots. Unless the plant you’re inspecting is an epiphyte, its root system should be covered by the potting mix. Exposure to air and sunlight stresses roots and makes them prone to sickness. It could also mean that the plant is rootbound.
    • Fungal growth and soil insects. Even if they themselves aren’t dangerous to the plant, their presence is a sign that the plant is probably regularly overwatered. If they are, the soil may turn into the site of a future outbreak once you bring the plant home.
    • Weeds. They compete with the main plant for space and nutrients, so it’s best to remove them as soon as they sprout. Be especially wary if you find them in the pots of exotic plants, as this means they may have been poached.

    Next, find out if the plant was watered correctly. Generally, its soil should feel evenly moist or slightly dry to the touch. If the soil is soggy, or if it’s moist but has an unpleasant smell, chances are that the plant has been overwatered and might have already developed root rot. Afterward, check the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot to see if there are any roots poking out of it. Rootbound plants tend to be under constant stress and grow far slower than those with room for their root system as a result.

    We hope this list helps you find the perfect plant for yourself or give a green gift to someone else. Happy browsing!

    We use cookies in order to give you the best possible experience on our website. By continuing to use this site, you agree to our use of cookies.