The ZZ plant is known for its toughness and tolerance for neglect. However, there’s a limit to both of these.
And an underwatered ZZ plant will eventually struggle if you don’t give it water for months at a time.
The good news is, the plant recovers fairly quickly from underwatering and dehydration.
But you don’t want to allow this trend to keep happening as it can eventually damage the roots.
What are the signs of an underwatered ZZ plant? Discolored leaves, curling and wrinkled leaves are all symptoms of underwatering in ZZ plants.
The soil will also be very dry while the plant will wilt and droop. Its roots can become dry and brittle as well.
So, while the ZZ plant can tolerate some periods of dryness, you don’t want to overdo it. It still needs watering every 1-2 weeks.
How Does a ZZ Plant to Become Underwatered?
ZZ plants are known for their toughness, resilience and ability tolerate neglect. This includes withstanding periods of dryness.
But like all plants, there’s a limit to this.
You can’t just leave your ZZ plant without water for 6 months or an entire year at a time.
In most cases, the main cause of an underwatered ZZ Plant is the owner forgetting to water it. This can be due to their busy lifestyle, heavy work schedule, chores, family life and the kids.
In addition to forgetting or going on vacation, another sneaky reason why ZZ Plants go underwatered is the weather. Plants lose more moisture when the weather suddenly gets very hot.
As such, this can easily happen during summer is you maintain a watering schedule that’s designed for cooler climates.
Finally, the plant gets underwatered because it uses the moisture up.
The ZZ Plant will use up the water in the soil when the roots absorb it.
It does this because it needs the water the support itself. And one of the more important processes here is photosynthesis.
During photosynthesis, your ZZ Plant uses the sunlight it collects through the leaves to combine water with oxygen to create starches.
These starches or sugars is the food is produces, which in turn it uses as fuel or energy.
The energy created from photosynthesis is what allows the plant to grow, get taller, push out shoots and new leaves. It is also what allows it to keep leaves healthy and allow them to keep growing and maintain their lovely colors.
The excess water is then lost by the plant through the pores on its leaves through transpiration.
It does this to regulate moisture since too much is not good for the plant. Transpiration also helps your ZZ Plant regulate its internal temperature among other things.
This is why water is very important to plants.
And the ZZ Plant is no exception.
An underwatered ZZ Plant can be the result of a mismatch between the amount of water you give it and the amount it needs to support its growth and other needs.
Signs of an Underwatered ZZ Plant
Very Dry Potting Soil
One of the telling signs of a dry, underwatered or dehydrated ZZ Plant is the soil.
You can easily tell by touching the surface of the soil. if this feels very dry and the potting mix starts crusting up or separating from the edges of the pot, then it needs water.
You can likewise stick your finger into the soil down about 2-3 inches from the top to feel how much moisture there is in the soil.
If that depth feels dry, then it is time to water.
However, the downside to this symptom is you can’t tell how bad the lack of water is unless you pull out the plant from its pot.
If the entire root ball is dry all the way down, then it means it is underwatered.
Still, you cannot tell up to what extent and if the plant has been left in that condition for how long.
That said, it is a very good start to identify an underwatered ZZ Plant.
Most people associate yellow leaves with overwatering. However, this phenomenon can happen with underwatering as well.
That’s because the ZZ plant needs water to maintain its health including leaf color.
Without it the leaves can turn yellow as the plant conserve its resources, including water, to survive.
When doing so, it will only focus on the essentials.
Water is what transports nutrients from the roots to the rest of the plant. So, without it or if there is very little water, the nutrients will not reach the leaves.
And nutrient deficiency is one reason for yellowing leaves in ZZ plants.
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Brown Leaves and Leaf Tips
The most common physical sign that your ZZ plant is underwatered is brown leaves and tips.
Browning is due to lack of water.
And because of this, the moisture is not able to reach the farthest points of the plant which are the edges and tips of the leaves.
Therefore, these are what turn brown first.
But if the underwatered state continues, then you’ll see the browning spread to cover entire leaves.
As this persists, more and more leaves will turn brown.
Droopy, Wilting Plant
Plants consist of 90% water. And water supports the ZZ Plant allowing it to stand upright and maintain its beautiful form.
When underwatered, the lack of “filler” in its stems and leaves will cause the plant to start wilting and drooping.
Additionally, water provides the pressure to keep it from sagging.
Curling and Wrinkling Leaves
Water is essential in the leaf sprouting and development process. Your ZZ Plant needs sufficient water to push out new leaves and allow them to grow and reach their mature form.
So, in an underwatered ZZ Plant where there’s little water, you’ll see leaves get wrinkled.
Also, leaves will curl to reduce their surfaces area.
In doing so, they decrease the amount of moisture that’s lost to transpiration.
Dry, Brittle Rots
When an underwatered ZZ Plant becomes dehydrated, its roots will get very dry and brittle.
To see this, you’ll need to unpot the plant can look at the roots.
However, the drier the roots, the more dangerous it becomes because any pulling or tugging can easily cause the brittle roots to break or snap.
When this happens, your plant loses roots which are what absorb water and nutrients from the soil.
How to Revive an Underwatered ZZ Plant
Now we come to the most important part of the article, how to revive an underwatered ZZ Plant.
The good news is that unless you leave the plant for nearly a year or more without water, it is unlikely to experience any serious damage.
That’s because the ZZ plant is drought tolerant.
As such, it can withstand long periods of dryness in the desert.
This is tanks to its fleshy rhizome which stores both water and nutrients very efficiently.
Still, it is important to supply moisture to an underwatered ZZ Plant to make it look healthy and green.
Check the Soil
The first stem in reviving an underwatered ZZ Plant is to check the soil.
This is an important step because it helps confirm that the plant is indeed underwatered and not overwatered.
Many of the signs of overwatering are similar to underwatering. So, you never want to misdiagnose one for the other since it can result in very harmful consequences.
An underwatered or dehydrated ZZ Plant will have very dry soil.
This will be true even when you stick your finger as deep as you can into the soil. If the soil past 3 inches from the top or even halfway down feels dry, your ZZ plant needs water.
Remove Damaged Leaves
Once you’ve confirmed underwatering is the problem it is time to remove the damaged leaves. You can do this before you soak the plant in moisture or after.
It won’t really matter.
But you do want to remove the damaged leaves, including the yellow, brown and other affected foliage.
These will not become healthy again. Nor will they turn lush green again.
So, it is best to prune them.
Pruning will encourage new growth.
Additionally, it allows the plant to stop using up resources to try and save or heal these damaged parts. Instead, it will focus all its energy on new shoots, leaves and allowing the healthy leaves to grow.
Make Sure You’re Using the Right Potting Mix
Sometimes, watering issue is not due to watering too often or not watering enough. Instead, it is caused by the soil mix you use.
The ZZ plan needs soil that retains moisture but also drains well.
And you don’t want to use soil that either holds too much moisture or drains too much of it.
A heavy soil mix will flood the ZZ plant’s roots causing it to get easily overwatered even if you don’t overdo the watering. That’s because the soil will hold most of the moisture.
On the other hand, overly sandy soil will drain too much moisture increasing the risk of underwatering your plant.
Therefore, picking a soil mix with a good balance of the two is best.
You can use a combination of:
- 2 parts potting mix
- 1 part perlite
- 1 part coarse sand
If you prefer using peat moss, then mix equal parts of peat moss and perlite.
In case you notice that soil is draining too much which is why your ZZ Plant is underwatered or often ends up with insufficient water, it is a good idea to switch the potting mix to one of the recipes above.
Check the Pot’s Drainage
In addition to checking soil drainage, you always want to use a pot with drainage holes at the bottom.
This will prevent water from pooling at the bottom of the soil which will keep it wet.
Instead, the holes will allow the excess moisture to drip out so that there is no waterlogging or overwatering.
That said, if your ZZ plant is underwatered, there may be too much drainage going on too.
This can happen from one of two reasons.
- There are too many drainage holes or the holes are too big at the bottom of the pot.
- You’re using terracotta or clay pots which allow moisture to seep out.
If you notice the former is the issue, then use a pot with just the right amount and size of drainage holes.
On the hand, you can switch to plastic pots which tend to hold in moisture better since they are not porous like clay or terracotta pots.
If the pot is the issue, then repot the plant into a more appropriate container.
Water the Plant from Above
Once you’ve ensured that both the pot and soil are not the problem or that you’ve fixed the problem on that end, it is time to replenish your underwatered ZZ plant.
The most common way to water plants is watering from above.
This involves a much simpler process. But many plant owners also make certain mistakes you want to avoid.
When watering from above, avoid watering over the entire plant such that the leaves end up all wet. If they don’t dry soon enough, it will increase the risk of fungal infections.
Therefore, it is important to water directly on the soil instead and avoid the leaves.
To rehydrate an underwatered ZZ Plant, water slowly to allow the liquid to penetrate the soil. Try to distribute where you pour the water so different sections of the soil get a somewhat balanced amount.
Avoid splashing or quickly just wetting the soil since what happens here is liquid will find the fastest way through the soil which are the creases then drip into the holes.
Instead, slowly pouring is better so the soil absorbs the moisture.
Continue pouring until the water starts dripping through the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot.
This is a sign that the root ball or all the soil is getting saturated.
Once this happens, stop adding water and set the pot somewhere it can drain. You can use a large sink or the bathtub.
It is very important to let the excess liquid completely drain before you return your ZZ plant to its original spot.
Water the Plant from the Bottom
A more complex but effective way to rehydrate your underwatered ZZ plant is watering from the bottom.
This takes a little more planning and time. So, you’ll need to practice patience.
You can use a large sink, container, basin or bathtub for this. The size of the “outer container” needs to be able to fit the pot and hold the plant.
So, the bigger your ZZ plant, the bigger the receptacle you’ll need.
For smaller ZZ plants, the sink or a basin will work.
Fill the bathtub, basin or sink with water until about 4 inches or halfway up the height of the pot. Then place the pot into the water.
This will allow the soil to absorb water at its own pace as the moisture will enter through the drainage holes of the pot.
The process can take anywhere from 10 to 30 or more minutes depending on how big the pot and plant are.
You’ll know when to take out the plant once the top 2 inches of soil starts feeling moist. Just stick your finger into the soil every 10 or 15 minutes. Again, the intervals will depend on how big the plant is.
If you have a small plant, it may just take 10 minutes for the entire root ball to get saturated.
For large ZZ plants, it can take 30 minutes or so to finish bottom watering.
Once the top 2 inches of soil feels moist, take the plant out of the water and let the excess liquid completely drain out.
Again, this is very important to avoid waterlogged soil.
Adjust Your Watering Schedule
Once you’ve revived your underwatered ZZ plant, it is time to plan how to avoid this from happening again.
While the plant can tolerate dryness and drought, allowing it to get dehydrated on a regularly basis will eventually damage the roots.
So, try to figure out a way to consistently water the plant.
And you don’t need to water it too often, which is why ZZ plants are very popular houseplants even for busy people and beginners.
The simplest way to check is to use a moisture meter.
You can just stick the probe into the soil once a week and see if it shows you that soil moisture is low.
A free option is to use a wooden stick and insert it all the way down until it hits the bottom of the pot. Once the water line on the wooden stick is between halfway to three-quarters of the way down the soil, it is time to add water.
You don’t need to water the plant before 50% to 75% of the soil has dried.
Thus, it just takes 2-3 seconds once a week when you insert the wooden stick and check how far the wet area of the stick is.
Many growers also just lift the pot to tell.
A heavier pot means there’s still water in the soil while a lighter pot means the soil is dry. This does take some experience.
Plus, I don’t recommend it for larger ZZ plants as you may hurt your back lifting the pot.