Why Plants Are Shipped The Way They Are

Written byJen Greene

Animal lover, plant enthusiast, and addicted to the sunshine and warmth in San Diego.

March 3, 2021

Bless the internet. Thanks to people all over the world connecting online, the spread of information and online sales has skyrocketed. Pile on a great big heaping serving of global pandemic, and this past year has been absolutely bonkers for online sales, including online plant sales. 

But with the increasing number of people ordering things online comes an increasing number of people who are ordering things, such as plants, for the first time. Plenty of folks have seen something super cool on Instagram or Pinterest, then turned to the internet (often Etsy) to try and find it for sale. With nearly everyone stuck at home last spring and summer for our lockdowns, the only way many people could hunt for their wishlist plants was through online sales. With this came lots and lots and LOTS of confusion, though. 

Here’s a bit of background on shipping plants, how to acclimate your plants, and hopefully some answers to the “why” questions you’ve asked yourself when unpacking something lately. 

healthy booby cactus roots

Shipped Bare Root – What’s the Deal?

Why do some sellers (like me) ship bare root, and some don’t? Do the plants do better one way or the other? Why does it matter?

The easy answer for why some sellers only ship bare root: we’re legally required to in our state. 

Each state is a little different in their requirements, and not all of them require things being shipped bare root, but most do. Bare root means pretty much no soil on the roots, preferably with the roots washed clean. This is to prevent the spread of various soil-based pests, such as Japanese Beetle Grubs, and should be a welcome sight for you the buyer as it also means no mealy bug, scale, or spidermite eggs hiding in the soil! When it comes to plants being imported to the US from another country, absolutely no soil can be included unless it is specifically permitted – again, this is to prevent pests from hitch-hiking with your rare and exotic plants.

If you’re ordering from a seller who ships their cacti and succulents in soil or in the pots, be very wary and be sure to quarantine the plants after arrival. For tropical plants, sellers that are legally shipping and transporting their plants should have a nursery stock license that includes permitting for the plants being shipped. On top of the requirements for soil treatment, bare root, or other precautions, some states are completely forbidden from shipping certain plants entirely! California is fairly strict, as is Florida, generally because the mild climates are particularly nice for many pests. I learned to my dismay that California is quite strict on plant shipments from Michigan due to certain soil pests, and that the agricultural department will examine your box, remove any and all traces of soil from the plants, then send them on to you in flimsy packaging. In my case, it was a shipment of jewel orchids, most of which died (likely due to the removal of root protection and zero cushion in the box afterward).

What do you do with a bare root plant after you receive it? 

Cacti should be placed in dry soil and left to their own devices – this is doubly so if the cactus was shipped with the type of dry, probably dead roots common for importation. If you really can’t help yourself, you can mist the soil so that it’s slightly damp, but then it should be left alone to send out new roots. The only time this is not quite the case is for plants that have tiny bits of soil clinging to their roots, or rocks or perlite, and you can see the fresh white little baby roots clinging to things. In that case, a light watering (just a little to moisten the top layer of soil) is adequate for a while. If you have plenty of bright sunshine and the weather is warm, you can add more water a few days later, but generally you should add very very little water to your new cactus. They need to be kept on the dry side so they send out new root growth and get established for you. Keep them dry for at least a week, if not more, after first potting them. 

Succulents are a mixed bag; if they’re nearly rootless because they’re imports, then you should nestle them on some damp soil, and leave them alone. Let the soil get dry, only misting them slightly if they really look pathetic and wrinkly. As with cacti, you want to encourage them to send out new roots to seek moisture, which is why they need to be kept dry. If they have easy access to water, they won’t make roots. Other succulents shipped with some roots attached can usually benefit from a drink after being potted up, although water with a light hand initially. This means only lightly watering the top of the soil, not enough so that the water runs out of the bottom of the pot (it might anyway if the soil is very dry). This gives the plant enough of a drink that it can recover from the stress of shipping, but not enough water that it doesn’t keep seeking more by sending out root growth. Within a week or two, you should be able to slowly increase watering to match similar plants in your collection. 

Tropical plants or houseplants are the complete opposite of your xeric plants, generally speaking. You’ll need to unpack them, gently remove the sphagnum moss or paper towels packed around their roots, and pot them into soil then water thoroughly. For many species, soil or moss that is on the slightly dry (rather than soggy) side is easier for you to manage as the recipient. Overly wet material around the roots can quickly turn a plant from happy to rotted, but it’s a very fine balance to maintain. If the soil, moss, or papertowels around your plant’s roots is still wet, you’ll still want to pot it into moist soil, but you’ll want to pay attention to flushing the soil or material around the roots thoroughly. A good flush, with the water running through the top of the pot and out the bottom drainage holes, helps flush and remove any built up stagnant water around the roots (which leads to rot). The more delicate species that are shipped in their pots are plants you’ll want to leave in those pots for at least a week or two to minimize stressful events. Let the plant get settled in your home first, and then when you’re confident there’s minimal shock and the plant is beginning to show new growth, that’s the time to repot it into new soil. 

Echeveria Tippy Korean Import

A small korean import that is pale and somewhat stretched from a long period of time in transit. This needed several days of slow exposure to sunlight before it was “hardened” enough to be in sunlight again regularly. 

What is the best packing material or method?

Something that’s been… interesting… to watch is the folks coming over to cacti and succulents from the tropical plant community. What is absolutely essential for shipping tropical plants is overkill at best for a xeric plant, and may even smother or create problems at worst.

Tropical plants need to be packed with material to cushion their delicate leaves, which is often stuffing or plastic fluff wedged thickly all around the leaves and stems. Packing peanuts can also work, but unless they’re densely placed, their jostling can rub delicate leaves. The pots or base of the plant is usually wrapped in paper or just directly taped to the sides of the box the plant is shipped in, ensuring that the heavy root base can’t be shaken or dropped in a way that crushes the top of the plant. Even with all of these precautions, tropical plant foliage often arrives with some cosmetic damage, and it’s not unexpected for older leaves to yellow and drop off during or immediately after the trip.

Cacti and succulents, however, are made of sterner stuff.

I’ve received hundreds of plant packages at this point, including several cactus seedlings that were basically wrapped in paper towels and loosely dropped into a padded envelope (the cacti were absolutely fine). Similar to tropical plants, the biggest thing is ensuring the plants don’t jostle and move around too much in their box. The main goal is to protect the flesh of the plant from damage due to rubbing or hard drops, so wrapping them in paper towel or toilet paper is a common method. The layer doesn’t need to be particularly thick; it’s simply to pevent the hard edges of paper or packing material from banging up the plant bodies. In the case of cacti with long sharp spines, it’s also to protect anything else in the box from the cacti (and your fingers when you unpack them!).

The importance of weather and temperature on shipping 

There’s no amount of careful packaging that will save a plant that’s being shipped in weather below freezing and left out in the snow and ice. Not cacti, not succulents, not tropical plants, and probably not even if the seller uses styrofoam insulation and a heat pack. The reverse is also true: extreme heat in the 100F+ range is likely to melt just about any plant that’s left out and exposed. 

The similarity in both extremes is that it’s the exposure after the carrier drops the package off that is most likely to be the problem. While the package may be sheltered in a vehicle or building most of the time during transit, as soon as it stops on your porch or patio and is exposed to weather, every minute left out is more likely to result in the package freezing or roasting. During extreme weather events, sometimes packages are left in warehouses or areas that are not climate controlled, which can also lead to damage. During the massive winter storm in February this year, many boxes were held up in warehouses and froze. When it comes to shipping in the dead of winter or height of summer, you will always be running a risk. 

During transit, the package is usually moving and sheltered nearly the entire time, which prevents the cold or heat from really penetrating the box the plants are in. Cacti and succulents can tolerate pretty extreme ranges, although they need to be quite dry to put up with the extremes. When a cactus or succulent is packed into a dark box for days on end, it can’t metabolize any water, so the roots need to be quite dry to prevent rotting. It makes sense when you think about it – just about anything would rot and turn to mush after 3 to 6 days in a dark box with no temperature stablization and kept sopping wet. Being kept dry, however, keeps the plant in a dormant state and at worst, may cause some minor root die-off. That is much easier to handle (along with a dehydrated plant) than rotting away. 

For the reasons of the potential issues with transit, packages being held up in extreme weather, or delays, I time my orders (particularly those importing plants from overseas) for the mildest months of the year. Here in San Diego, that usually means March through June. Fall months can also work, but depends on the species ordered – rooting cacti over winter without supplemental heat or a greenhouse is nearly impossible and takes significantly longer than summer months. When ordering your plants, keep your weather, the plants’ growing conditions, and potential setbacks in mind! 

Tropical plants – these should always, always be sent via priority mail (2 day shipping or less), and either during the mildest months of the year or well insulated. Unlike cacti and succulents, tropical plants need their roots to be kept damp (but not necessarily soggy) during transit, which makes shipping them a delicate matter. They will always arrive somewhat stressed by the trip, but keeping the transit time low and not allowing them to sit exposed to sun or cold will help ensure they arrive safely and in good condition. 

Recently imported Thai Constellation & other monsteras. They had been pretty stressed by heat and had lost leaves and roots, I started them with water rooting rather than soil.

How to Care for Recently Shipped Plants 

a very generalized set of tips 


When you receive your new cactus, get it situated in the appropriate soil and pot but don’t water it right away (counter intuitive, I know). Unless it’s a tropical cactus, such as an orchid cactus or similar species, the vast majority fare far better if you pot them and leave them alone for at least a week before watering. This allows their little baby roots to come out and look for water, so they’re ready when it becomes available. If you’re trying to root an imported cactus, or one with no fine roots at all, you may want to wait even longer before watering – maybe giving it a tiny bit on the top layer, and then leaving it alone for weeks or even months. I talk about this more in my Titty Cactus rooting discussion. Keep your new cactus in a protected area at first, with plenty of indirect light or shade, then slowly (over the course of a few days or up to two weeks) move it into more direct sunlight and its final spot. 


If your succulent arrives with a root ball, get it potted up in appropriate soil and then give it a good dousing IF it’s warm-ish (above 65F) and you’ll have plenty of indirect light initially. Succulents generally benefit from some initial water after shipping, particularly if they were shipped with a dry root ball, and you should see them drink deeply and perk up significantly. As with the cacti, you’ll want to keep it protected at first, in indirect light, then spend a few days or a couple weeks slowly moving it to its final spot with increased sun exposure. 

If your succulent is a cutting, a bare stem, or an import (which are usually bare stem), then you should nestle it on or in some slightly damp soil, and let it alone. Even thirsty and sad, the succulent will need only a tiny bit of water before being left to get thirsty and send out new roots. If you water too much at this stage, it’ll actually take longer for the plant to send out new roots, and increases the risk that it never roots at all or simply rots away. These generally need more protection from direct light at first, so there’s a certain amount of playing it by ear to ensure your new plants get enough light not to stretch, but not so much that they burn. 

Tropical plants: 

These recommendations vary wildly depending on the plant you get and how delicate it is. If you received it with soil, I generally prefer to leave it in that soil for the first week or so, and either leave it in the pot it was sent with or place it in one that’s roughly the same size as the root ball. I rinse it thoroughly and place it somewhere with bright indirect light, but no direct sun exposure. I give it a few days or a couple weeks to see how it responds; does it drop leaves? Have some or all turn yellow? Start pushing out new growth? Do nothing? 

If it’s settling in well (new growth or no reaction that seems negative), I’ll repot in fresh soil and a “final” pot that I plan to keep it in. I also jump right to this step if it was shipped bare root or in moss – I just carefully clean off the sphagnum and pot it. If there’s few or no roots at all, I’ll use water rooting to get some established first. 

If it’s yellowing or dropping leaves, I’ll research and decide if it’s better off in the soil it was shipped in to minimize stress, or if fresh, dry-er soil could help. There’s no one size fits all! My goal is generally to keep stress to the absolute minimum until I see signs the plant is growing or at least stable. 

You may also like…