I was asking myself why plants die from over-watering and the simple answer was that they can't get enough oxygen through their roots. But this made me ask myself why they need oxygen in their roots since oxygen is a product of photosynthesis and plants even release oxygen through their leaves.

With this seeming surplus of oxygen, how can plants "suffocate" when their roots dont get enough oxygen from the soil?

  • $\begingroup$ They are mostly susceptible to stagnant water. Stagnant water gives rise to anaerobic bacteria, which use sulphur reduction and other kinds of energy chemistry. That's why anaerobic pond silt has an eggy sulphur smell. That anaerobic biochemistry can start to thrive after 2-3 days. The roots can handle low oxygen for a while, but beyone a few hours of zero oxygen pushes them into some kind of toxic cell state, which breaches the root's defenses and causes the roots to be rapidly attacked by bacteria. They benefit hugely from nitrogenated, oxygenated water. $\endgroup$ Jul 21, 2018 at 5:41

2 Answers 2


Plants need oxygen but don't have a heart

Complex animals all have a circulatory system of some sort to get oxygen throughout the body for respiration. Plants also do respiration even though they are net producers of oxygen through photosynthesis.

Plants also have a bit of a circulatory system, but for the most part it isn't nearly efficient enough to deliver oxygen everywhere in the plant: plants don't have anything like circulating hemoglobin-filled cells we are familiar with in vertebrates, and although fluids flow in plant circulatory systems, they aren't circulating quickly like you are familiar with in your own body. This means that plants need to get oxygen near to where it is needed.

Roots, in particular, consume oxygen

The problem of a plant not getting enough oxygen through its roots isn't because the whole plant gets oxygen through the roots, it's because the roots themselves need oxygen to function. Roots do a lot of 'heavy lifting' in a plant, literally: they are pumping ions across membranes to pull in water, to concentrate other nutrients that the plant needs for survival and growth, and to pressurize the plant enough for those nutrients to make it up into the leaves. Those processes take energy, and in turn they need oxygen.

Additionally, photosynthesis isn't taking place in the vicinity of the roots: plants are both taking in CO2 and releasing oxygen from their stomata in the leaves and stems.

If roots cannot get enough oxygen, for example due to overwatering, the roots themselves are damaged, and this harms the plant as a whole.


Because there are always exceptions in biology, it should be noted that some plants are indeed adapted to wet environments and have better systems for promoting the diffusion of oxygen including increasing the amount of air space in the roots, where oxygen diffuses more quickly than through aqueous media. Other plants use fermentation in their roots to survive temporary hypoxia.


Colmer, T. D. (2003). Long‐distance transport of gases in plants: a perspective on internal aeration and radial oxygen loss from roots. Plant, Cell & Environment, 26(1), 17-36.

Drew, M. C. (1992). Soil aeration and plant root metabolism. Soil Science, 154(4), 259-268.

Justin, S. H. F. W., & Armstrong, W. (1987). The anatomical characteristics of roots and plant response to soil flooding. New Phytologist, 106(3), 465-495.

Laan, P., Tosserams, M., Blom, C. W. P. M., & Veen, B. W. (1990). Internal oxygen transport inRumex species and its significance for respiration under hypoxic conditions. Plant and Soil, 122(1), 39-46.

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    $\begingroup$ Great answer. This answer to a different question details differences in respiration vs. photosynthesis. Also note that anaerobic conditions around the roots can cause root rot, another pathway to death of the plant, which is related to the last adaptation you mentioned. $\endgroup$
    – cr0
    Jul 20, 2018 at 16:08

Plants are living things. And living things need oxygen to survive. While plants may produce oxygen as a byproduct during photosynthesis, they still require to undergo respiration, which requires oxygen.

  • $\begingroup$ But that doesn't explain why they cant use the oxygen they produce and have to absorb additional oxygen. $\endgroup$ Jul 20, 2018 at 9:30
  • $\begingroup$ This is because photosynthesis and respiration are decoupled, they don't have an additional module to harness the oxygen produced to respire $\endgroup$
    – Morgan Lee
    Jul 20, 2018 at 9:35

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