How to Tell if a Cactus is Dead – 5 Signs

Cactus grow slowly and it takes time to realize any new changes. This plant is remarkably hardy and you may also not easily tell when it is in trouble. When grown indoors, a few blunders in the care routine may result in the premature death of a cactus. So, how do you tell if your cactus is dead?

A change in color, shriveled appearance, squishy texture, falling over, and odor are the main signs of a dead or dying cactus. It is uncommon for cacti to grow back after dying but you can save the plant if you intervene quickly especially when its root system is still healthy.

How to tell if a cactus is dead

Cacti are one of the longest-living plants and they can clock 10 to 200 years in the right growth conditions. Many cactus plants die silently as a result of overwatering, underwatering, severe pest infestation, infections, and improper lighting. In the wild, cacti may die due to the extremes of heat, dryness, and soil salinity.

It may be possible to save the plant but many gardeners fail to tell when the cactus is in a critical condition. Here are common signs that indicate that a cactus is dead or dying.

  • Change of color: Healthy cactus usually have a vibrant green color. If the cactus is turning yellow, brown, or gray, this could be a sign that the plant is dying.
  • Shriveled appearance: If the cactus is starting to look droopy or wrinkled, this could be a sign that everything is not well.
  • Soft or mushy texture: A healthy cactus should be firm and solid to the touch. If the cactus feels soft or spongy, this could be a sign that it is rotting or has become diseased.
  • Falling over: If the cactus is leaning on one side and looks generally unhealthy, then it is a sign that its roots are rotting or gravely damaged and can’t perform their functions anymore.
  • Odor: If the cactus has a foul smell, this could be a sign that its parts or the whole plant are decomposing.

If you notice any of these signs, it is important to thoroughly inspect the plant and take quick action to try to save it. This may involve adjusting its care routine, like reducing or increasing watering, adjusting lighting, applying pest control measures, or repotting the cactus in the fresh soil mix.

How to save a dying cactus

If you think that your cactus is dying, there are a few measures you can take to save it:

1. Inspect and treat for pests

Pests such as mealybugs and scale on cactus can cause irreversible damage and even death of the plant. They cause wounds on the plant as they suck the sap thus exposing the plant to bacterial, viral, and fungal infections. Poor growth, brown spots, or white fuzz on a cactus are common signs of pests.

Washing off the cactus with a strong strand of water or a spray of rubbing alcohol may help get rid of insect pests on the cactus. Be sure to test your diluted isopropyl alcohol on a small part of the plant before using it. Rubbing alcohol in high concentrations may burn or kill the plant.

2. Adjust the watering schedule

Overwatering or underwatering can both kill a cactus plant. Make sure that you are watering the cactus on a regular basis, but be sure not to overwater it. Cacti typically need to be watered once a week, depending on the type of cactus and your local climate.

If you suspect that you overwatered your cactus then stop watering until the soil gets completely dry. And if you haven’t watered for more than three weeks, then water your plant and place it in a cool place with indirect sunlight until when it shows signs of recovery. Make sure the soil is draining well.

3. Check the lighting

Cacti need plenty of sunlight to thrive, but they can also become unhealthy if they receive too much direct sunlight especially new plants from a shade or greenhouse. Light is essential in the process of photosynthesis and a cactus that doesn’t receive enough of it will lack important sugars and die or become stunted.

Make sure that the cactus is getting the right amount of light for its specific needs. New or young plants from a shed should be acclimatized before introducing them to direct sunlight. Sunburn can sometimes be mistaken for cactus corking and by the time you realize it the damage is already irreversible.

4. Repot the plant

If you follow the above steps and the cactus does not show signs of improvement, it may be necessary to repot it in fresh soil. Root rot, in particular, is hard to treat and the only solution is to remove the damaged parts and replant the cactus in the new soil mix.

  • If you suspect root rot, then remove the cactus from the soil and inspect the roots.
  • Cut away all the dead or damaged roots and other parts of the cactus using a sharp, clean knife.
  • Rinse the cactus in clean water and let it dry out for a few hours then carefully repot it in fresh soil. Be sure to use a pot that has drainage holes and is spacious enough to accommodate the cactus root ball.
  • Water the cactus thoroughly, but be sure not to overwater it. Allow the soil to dry out slightly between watering.
  • Cacti need plenty of sunlight to thrive, so be sure to place the cactus in a sunny location where it can receive plenty of direct sunlight.

Final Thought

It is not common for cacti to grow back after dying. Once a cactus has died, it is usually necessary to remove it and replace it with a new plant. However, in some cases, it is possible for a cactus to regenerate from its roots if the root system is still healthy. This can occur if the cactus has suffered from a disease or pest infestation that has damaged the above-ground portion of the plant, but the roots are still alive.


  1. Death Valley National Park CA, NV: Cacti / Desert Succulents
  2. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center: Ask Mr. Smarty Plants
  3. “Focus on Plant problems,” University of Illinois Extension

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