Plant Shopping: How to Choose a Healthy Plant

Are you looking for tips to help you choose a healthy plant so you and your plant have optimal success from the moment you bring it home? This article will go through observational techniques you can use to choose healthy plants when you are out shopping!

Table of Contents

Buy a plant locally

Having the opportunity to see the plant in person allows you to inspect the plant for health issues and choose a specimen you like.

Shopping locally also allows you to support the local businesses in your area, which is a huge benefit.

What if you want to purchase a plant online? (Click to expand)

Purchasing plants online to be shipped to your house can be very successful, but it also comes with inherent risks.

The plant is packed into a small box where it is tossed around in shipping and has no access to light for days. It’s not surprising that this is super stressful for the plant.

Even the healthiest of plants will need time to recover afterward and have a much greater chance of arriving unhappy and/or unhealthy.

Also, most places that sell plants online do not post photos of the individual plant you are buying. Instead, you will get a similar plant to the photo used in the sales listing.

Sometimes that plant is exactly what you hoped for and sometimes it is very different than what you had hoped. That’s the reality of online plant shopping.

If you want to purchase plants online, look for well-reviewed businesses that have lots of happy customers already.

Look for a plant with perky, turgid (well-hydrated) leaves

What to look for in a plant’s foliage is:

  • Leaves look like they are full of life and health (are perky and turgid)
  • Leaves that are smooth and/or glossy
  • Leaves that have a bit of a bounce when you gently tug them and let them go.
  • Leaves that are pleasantly plump

What to avoid when observing a plant’s foliage:

  • Plants with wilted leaves that look kind of sad and tired
  • Plants that are lifeless and have no resilience when trying to bounce the leaves
  • Plants with leaves that look dull

The photos below show the difference between a healthy, turgid Phalaenopsis orchid and one that is clearly suffering.

Look at the tops and bottoms of leaves

Pests love to hide on the undersides of leaves and in the nooks and crannies of plants.

A plant that appears totally healthy from the easy-to-view areas of the plant may be totally infested on the leaf undersides and stem joints.

Sometimes the plant is so heavily infested, that you will be able to tell the plant is suffering without looking at the hidden areas.

Check out this heavily infested Ficus lyrata below. All that white dust and leaf discoloration is due to spider mites. There was definitely no need to look at the undersides for this poor plant.

In the earlier stages of an infestation, spider mites and other pests will hide under the foliage, wreaking havoc from their safely hidden spots.

The Ficus lyrata below looks much healthier and vibrant. A closeup of its leaf shows a clean, healthy surface. I would still want to check the undersides of the leaves to ensure there are no spider mites hiding out there.

Avoid plants with discolored foliage

Plants with discolored leaves may have pest or disease issues.

The plants could also be suffering from under or over watering.

I would avoid plants with:

  • several yellowing leaves
  • lots of brown, crispy leaves
  • leaves that have brown, yellow, or discolored patches
  • mushy leaves or stems

Here’s an example of Tradescantia zebrina where the first photo shows the plant with discoloration across its leaves. The second photo is a healthy and vibrant plant with no discoloration. The difference is a bit subtle, but there.

Here are several more examples of discolored foliage that I would avoid if posible, which appear as if the plants are suffering from fungal or pest issues.

Look for pest damage versus mechanical damage

It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between pest issues and mechanical damage on plants.

Mechanical damage is imperfection on a plant due to accidental mishandling: accidentally folding leaves, dropping the plant, etcetera.

This type of damage is no big deal. It’s just superficial and new leaves will be totally fine. It’s like a bump, bruise, or small cut for us versus some serious illness.

The plants below show some examples of mechanical damage.

The plant in the first photo looks like it was squeezed in between many plants or shoved up on the side of the box causing the leaves to become a bit crumpled like when a shirt is tossed and shoved in a drawer.

The second photo shows a pretty straight cut in the leaf, which looks like it was folded while being shipped or unpacked and the leaf ripped a little.

Pest damage is much more complicated because you are going to have to identify and treat the pest in order to stop the damage the plant is suffering from.

The next two photos show something I would be more likely to avoid due to suspicions of pest.

The oddly shaped hole in the middle of the leaf on this Ficus umbellata makes me wonder if something was chewing on the leaf.

The slight discoloration resulting in tiny yellow spotting or stippling makes me worry that spider mites might be hanging out on these plants.


Observe the soil

How do you know if a plant’s soil seems healthy?

Healthy soil:

  • does not feel like a brick or a solid mass when you touch it
  • does not have a musty, mildewy smell
  • is not sopping wet
  • does not have rotting foliage or other plant parts on the soil surface
  • is not growing white mold on the soil surface
  • can be easily manipulated using your fingers
  • allows water to pass through efficiently and effectively

You can see below how this cactus is potted in soil that is pulling away from the sides of the pot.

This happens when the soil is allowed to become completely dry (which is good for cacti, but not for dense potting mixes) and the mix hardens like a brick or cement.

If you tap the surface of this soil, it doesn’t allow your finger to sink into it. It is more like a hard surface.

When the soil becomes a brick, the water flows around the brick and doesn’t penetrate the soil. The result is that the roots are no longer receiving water and will slowly die.

What do you do if you have a plant with a soil brick? (Click to expand)

Soak the plant in a bowl of water until you can loose the soil. Keep soaking and removing hardened soil until the roots are freed. Then repot into a better houseplant potting mix!

Look at the roots, if possible

Only observe the roots if you can easily slide the plant out of its pot or if the plant is already in a see-through pot.

If you are able to look at the roots, avoid:

  • discolored, mushy roots
  • roots which fall apart easily
  • roots that look super dried up and crispy
  • root hairs that end in tiny threads where the outer cell casing has rotted off.

Go for the plant with roots that:

  • have a healthy color
    • typically white or off white, but some plants do have orange, yellow, brown, green, red, or pink roots; the important part is to look for consistency in the root color
  • have a healthy plump appearance

I wiggled this little Haworthia succulent out of its pot to look at the roots. The roots are fairly consistent in color and do not look mushy or smell. I would feel okay purchasing this plant if I wanted to, but I would soak and loosen the soil to repot it in a fresh, more well-draining mix.

Observe the plants around the one you want

It is important to take a look at the plants surrounding the one you want because the plants that are touching your plant may be passing on pest or disease issues that haven’t become visibly noticeable on the plant you want…. yet.

Below is an example of a nearly dead succulent. The succulents touching this one, which you can see on the photo edges, are much healthier so one might conclude that something just went wrong with this succulent.

However, upon closer investigation there is white cottony build up in the center of the plant, which is a mealybug infestation.

Mealybugs are very capable of crawling and infesting nearby plants, so I would be willing to guess that any plants nearby are probably dealing with some mealybugs as well.

Below are a bunch of Pachira aquaticas, many of which have discolored and distorted growth.

The lightening or silvering of the leaves on these plants, combined with the distorted growth, make me wonder if the plants are suffering from thrips.

Look for plants stretching due to lack of light

All plants can etiolate or stretch in an effort to find more light, but succulents are the ones I see doing this the most in stores. Here you can see 3 photos below of the same type of succulent.

The first photo shows a pretty healthy, compact plant.

The second photo shows a plant that is beginning to stretch and lengthen to find light.

The third photo shows a plant which is VERY stretched and light starved.

Avoid the clearance rack, with the exception of orchids….

Most clearance rack plants are there because they aren’t doing well and have been in the store for a long time. That is with the exception of some of the orchids on clearance.

Orchids are often on clearance because the flowers have fallen off, not necessarily because there is anything wrong with the orchid itself.

If you are looking to buy a discount orchid, here’s what to look for:

  1. Healthy, vibrant leaves
  2. Roots that are plump and not brown and mushy in lots of places (usually orchids are in clear pots so checking the roots can be easily done)
  3. Check out the dried flowers at the base of the plant and try to envision what that flower might look like to help decide whether you’d like to buy that orchid
  4. Avoid plants with severely wilted leaves, yellowing leaves, rotting leaves/stems/crowns, or unhealthy roots

Here’s the clearance orchid I purchased the other day. 🙂

How did I decide this was a healthy plant:

  • the healthy looking leaves and stem
  • the new leaf growing in
  • how the aerial roots are plump with vibrant green new growth on the tips
  • how the roots inside the pot are plump and silvery green.

The silvery color does mean that plant is thirsty, but there is no discoloration or rotten appearance.

When this baby blooms again, I’ll add a photo here! It’s a great find on clearance for 5 USD.

None of these have to be deal breakers

Now I am going to contradict everything I’ve said in the rest of this article.

You could buy any one of these plants that have pest, disease, or culture issues and potentially make it work successfully.

There are plenty of plant people who enjoy buying plants that are struggling because they find it fun and rewarding to rehab the plants and watch them grow into a beautiful, healthy specimen.

These people get lots of plants for great deals because they are often discounted or even free.

There are also many of us that are at the beginning of our plant journeys and do not want to start off with a plant that is struggling.

AND there are many of us who do not want to risk bringing home a plant with pest or disease problems because we don’t want to infect our other plants.

The truth is that even the healthiest plant can bring pests or disease home, but the chances are reduced by trying to pick a healthy specimen.

Whatever your motivation, I hope you find a plant that brings joy to your life.

Happy growing and happy plant shopping!



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