My husband and I recently moved out of our home and into our van. One of the first stops on our USA adventure will be to see the graceful and magnificent giant sequoias in California.
As I pruned and repotted our houseplants to fit into our tiny new home, I thought about the difference between my nascent plants and their millennial tree cousins. What’s to stop my potted plants from growing forever with proper care? Can plants die of old age?
The short answer is, similarly to humans, plants die of other factors before they get a chance to die of old age. These include parasites, drought, and over-watering, amongst other reasons.
However, plants that are annual or biannual have a natural lifespan of two years or less. Therefore in this instance, it is possible to say that these specific annual or biannual plants, technically do die of old age.
Plant vs Human Senescence (Aging)
Plants are modular, meaning they have discrete layers of tissues with specific functions. Plant tissue types are dermal, vascular, and ground tissue, and they carry out different tasks within the plant.
In addition, plants have meristems, organized bundles of undifferentiated tissue (like stem cells). Cells of the meristem can differentiate to produce all types of plant cells during the plant’s life. The main meristems are close to the tips of the shoot and root.
On the other hand, humans are unitary, meaning we are programmed to have two arms, two legs, ten fingers, etc. These will (hopefully) always grow in their correct places. Plants do not have a regulated form in this way, so they can always grow new leaves or branches and appear young, not wrinkly like old humans.
Thus, a plant is never “fully grown”, and “dying of old age” is more of a human concept.
Regulation of Senescence
External and internal factors can regulate the senescence of leaves, flowers, and fruits.
Extreme temperatures, drought, nutrient deficiency, insufficient light or shade, and infection can all lead to aging.
How your plant ages will be a combination of different factors. Disease can cause senescence in small, isolated parts of your plant.
Internal factors that might decrease your plant’s longevity include age, plant hormones, and reproductive growth.
Ethylene may be responsible for senescence and is activated when your plant is too cold. Your plant may age faster in a drought, inducing Abscisic acid (ABA).
Seeing the human in plants. We, as humans, tend to give everything around us human attributes. It is said that this activates parts in our brain involved in social behaviour and drives our emotional connection with plants.
Do Plants Feel Pain?
Although it may seem like it, plants do not have pain receptors, nerves, or a brain; therefore, they do not feel pain like we do.
Do Plants Cry?
Plants do not cry in the same sense that humans do. Humans tend to cry as a release of emotion, whereas plants “cry” (release fluid) to protect themselves from harmful bacteria and fungi.
Can Plants See You?
No, plants do not have eyes. Plants do have photoreceptors throughout their stems and leaves. This means that they can sense light through their photoreceptors and transmit information about the light quality of the environment.
Can Trees Die of Old Age?
As with all plants, it is challenging to find a sample that is dying of old age as there are so many factors that might start to kill a tree before it dies of old age. These include wind, disease, fire, and humans.
In 1964, a grad student named Donal Currey got his tree corer stuck in a tree. A park ranger helped him by felling the tree to remove the instrument. Later, Currey began to count the rings and realized that he had just felled the oldest tree ever recorded.
That tree was named Prometheus, and it was almost 5,000 years old when Currey and his unwitting accomplice chopped it down.
Which Plants Have the Longest Lifespan?
The longest living plants on record are Bristlecone pines (Pinus Longaeva), Yew trees, and Ginkgo Biloba. You can often find them in extreme climates. Bristlecones are resilient to bad weather and soil, and high elevations in California create the perfect living conditions.
Some people argue that clonal colonies create immortal plants. Aspen trees can live up to 150 years above ground, but the root system of its clonal colony is much older. Some root systems grow new trunks as the older ones die for millennia.
Signs Your Plant is Dying of Old Age
There are two leading indicators to check on your plant, which will tell you whether or not it is healthy; the leaves and the roots. However, it’s best to know the needs of each of your plants so you can increase their longevity.
Watch out for drying leaves as a sign that your plant needs some tender loving care. If all of your leaves are dry, maybe your plant needs more water.
However, make sure to look up your particular potted pet because I found out the hard way that when my Rosemary bush started to dry, it was because I was drowning it in water and the roots were rotting.
If only the bottom leaves are dry, your plant may need some fertilizer.
Wilting and Shedding
If your plant is shedding its leaves, you might be giving it too much or too little water, it may be too hot or cold, or it might just be a cry for help from a plant in need of a bigger pot.
If your plant breaks out in spots, this is not an indication of puberty but rather a disease. Mildew spots appear if you have overwatered, and yellow dots might mean you have an aphid problem.
Changing colours often signals the beginning of Autumn, but there could be other reasons why your plant’s leaves turn yellow or brown.
Yellow leaves point to a water problem, whereas brown leaves indicate that a plant is on its way out and could do with some humidity as soon as possible.
Soft, Squashy Roots
Overwatering will lead to soggy roots, which will hinder their ability to regulate their water intake. You will need to repot your plant in the correct soil if this happens.
Hard, Dry Roots
If the roots of your favourite potted plant look and feel stiff and dry, they need some more time.
Place your potted plants onto a plate to catch any excess water that drains out of the bottom after watering.
How to Extend the Lifespan of Your Plant
As we have explored, many factors affect the aging of your plants. You can carry out several practices to ensure that your plant is happy, healthy, and live to a ripe old age.
Create a Watering Schedule
Ensure that you know your plant’s water needs and avoid under-or over-watering it.
You can make sure you keep your plant healthy by creating a watering schedule and then set reminders on your phone.
Repot Your Plants
Sometimes we purchase plants that grow out of their original pot and need more space for their developing root system. It is essential to keep an eye out for that and repot when necessary.
If your plant looks a little unhealthy, perhaps it has yellowing or dry leaves; it might be time to repot it in some fresh soil for maximum nutrients.
Pruning, Grooming and Pinching
You can give your plant some love by trimming it. If your plant’s roots are under stress, pruning the leaves back and aid the plant by allowing it to focus its energy and resources on its roots.
If a plant is growing too big for its pot, you may want to consider trimming its roots.
Pinching will help your plants not grow too bushy, to the point where it gets too heavy to support themselves or so big that they cannot effectively convey nutrients along its entire length.
Can a Plant Live Forever?
The Yamaki Family in Japan cared for the white pine Bonsai tree for over six generations. I have never managed to keep a plant longer than a few years, but there is an argument that when you use a clipping of a plant to propagate a clone, this is a way to ensure that your plant lives forever.
I have grown a Rosemary bush from a clipping of my mother’s plant, and its connection to its mother plant is significant to me. Whenever I used some of its needle-like leaves in my cooking, I am instantly transported to my childhood, sitting in the kitchen doing my homework while my parents prepare dinner.
Through the window slants golden afternoon light, my mother’s giant Rosemary bush rustles in the light breeze, filling our home with its fresh earthy aroma.
Each plant propagates differently, so make sure to look up instructions before trying it out with yours. Some easy options for propagation are; Pothos, Tradescantia, Umbrella plants, and African violets.
Are Plants Technically Immortal?
This would depend on personal opinion. I wouldn’t say that plants are inherently immortal, but any plant that can reproduce by clones, I would consider essentially immortal.
How Old is the Oldest Living House Plant?
The world record for the oldest living pot plant is 247 years old! It is a prickly cycad that travelled all the way from South Africa to the UK and is on display in the Royal Botanical Gardens.
So, while it seems to be possible for plants to die of old age, it is unlikely that a plant coroner would ever rule this as the cause of death because so many other factors are bound to kill your plant first.
Human error, inclement weather, pests and diseases, or natural disasters such as flooding or drought could all be responsible for felling plants before they become wrinkly and old.