What’s Wrong with My Plant?

My Garden Life
September 19, 2022
Table of Contents
Like all living things, houseplants grow, change, and adapt based on their environment. Removing a plant from its natural habitat and growing it in a pot sets the stage for any plant to face challenges. You may find yourself asking “what’s wrong with my plant?” a few times over the course of the life of your houseplants.
Some problems are common among many plants grown as houseplants. Knowing the signs and symptoms to watch for can help you identify how to bring your plant back to good health. Here are some common problems you might have with your houseplants and what you can do to fix them.

Problem: Plant Leaves Turning Yellow

Cause: Overwatering leads to plant root rot.

potted sansevieria plant with rot causing the leaves to drop off
Solution:
Too much water and roots can start to rot, too little water and a plant starts to dry out. In both cases the problem is the same – water is not being taken up by the plant – and this can result in plant leaves turning yellow as the foliage dries out.
The best way to find out if yellowing leaves are caused by root problems is to remove the plant from its pot and inspect the root system. Rotten roots may be mushy, wet and have an unpleasant, ammonia-like odor. Carefully remove and dispose of the affected roots.
Repot the plant into a sterile pot with a drainage hole and use fresh potting mix.
Try to get your plant on a schedule of watering thoroughly (until water runs out the bottom of the pot). Then, allow the top inch or two of soil to dry before you water again.

Cause: Dry or underwatered roots result in yellow leaves.

two potted spathiphyllum plants with leaves drooping from lack of water
Solution:
Remove the plant from its pot and inspect the roots. Plant roots that are too dry may appear shrunken and brittle. It’s not necessary to repot a plant that has gotten too dry. Place the plant back in its pot and give it a thorough watering. The plant will use some of the water to replenish itself so check the soil again in a couple of days. If the top inch of soil is dry, give it a little more water.
Most plants can get along with watering just once a week but if you have a plant that continues to yellow and wilt from dryness you may need to water it more frequently. By feeling the soil with your finger and checking the moisture, you should eventually figure out a watering schedule that works best for your plant.

Cause: Plant isn’t getting enough light.

pothos plant with pale yellowing leaves caused by a lack of sunlight
Solution:
Plants need light to make the food they need to stay healthy through a process called photosynthesis. If a plant isn’t getting enough light the leaves can start to turn pale green to yellow. Try moving your plant a little closer to a window or adding artificial lights to increase the light level.

Cause: Low temperatures can cause plant leaves to turn yellow.

potted dracaena fragrans plant with several yellow leaves
Solution:
Drafty locations, whether by a window or near an air conditioning vent, can chill a plant and cause it to develop yellow leaves. In extreme cases the leaves can turn black. Move your plant away from the source of cold drafts.
If your plant spends the summer outdoors, be sure to bring it back inside before freezing temperatures set in.

Cause: Nutrient deficiency can cause yellow plant leaves.

potted pachira plant with yellow, discolored leaves caused by nutrient deficiency
Solution:
A plant suffering from nutrient deficiency will usually develop specific patterns of yellowing of a leaf. For example, iron deficiency appears as yellowing between the leaf veins. Check our article to learn about five of the most Common Nutrient Deficiencies in Plants to decide if your plant’s yellow leaves might be the result of a nutrient deficiency.
Nutrient deficiency in houseplants is usually easily remedied by applying a fertilizer designed for houseplants. Use the fertilizer according to the package directions.

Problem: Brown Tips on Plant Leaves

Cause: Dry air can lead to brown leaf tips and edges.

small potted palm with many dry, dead-looking fronds
Solution:

Dry air is a common cause of dry leaf tips in plants, especially those that have tropical origins and prefer high humidity. If possible, grow your humidity-loving plants in a bathroom or kitchen where humidity levels are usually higher.

Mist plants with water once or twice a day to raise the humidity level immediately around a plant. Smaller plants can be placed on a shallow tray filled with small pebbles and water. As the water evaporates it raises the humidity level around your plants.

Because the brown areas of a leaf are dead and won’t recover, you can trim away the brown areas to tidy up your plant’s appearance. If most of a leaf is brown you can remove the entire leaf.

Cause: Water quality can lead to brown spots and brown tips on plant leaves.

close up view of a potted anthurium plant with brown leaf tips
Solution:
Tap waters that have fluoride can cause brown tips in some plants. The fluoride is carried through the plant and accumulates at the leaf tips. As the concentration increases, the fluoride can “burn” the plant tissue. Several popular houseplants are especially sensitive to fluoride. They include spider plants, all species of Dracaena, peace lilies (Spathiphyllum) and prayer plants.
Avoid brown leaf tips caused by fluoride, or other chemicals in tap water, by watering plants with filtered tap water (be sure the filtration system is designed to remove fluoride), using distilled water or capturing rainwater.

Cause: Dry soil can result in brown leaf tips and edges.

potted chlorophytum, spider plant, with lots of browning leaf tips, on a table in front of a decorative wall
Solution:
If you’re forgetful about watering and your plant often gets to the point of wilting and yellowing, the frequent dryness can eventually lead to the leaf cells dying and turning brown. Keep your plant on a watering schedule that prevents it from experiencing extremes in soil moisture levels.

Cause: Extreme temperatures can cause leaf browning.

large potted arboricola plant with foliage that is growing into the glass window of an office building
Solution:
A plant with foliage touching a window is at the mercy of the temperature of the glass. The intense sun can cause the glass to get hot and burn the leaves. Cold temperatures can turn the leaves from brown to black. Either can result in the death of plant cells. Be sure your plant is far enough away from a window that the leaves are not touching the glass.
Leafy plants in a window with a southern or western exposure can be subject to extremely hot conditions that can cause leaves to turn brown and die. Save these locations for cacti and succulents that can handle intense sun and move leafy tropical plants out of the direct sun.
Plant stands are a great way to display your tropical houseplants. You can easily reposition a plant stand to provide your plant with the ideal light.

Cause: Too much fertilizer can cause plant leaf tips to turn brown.

a crusty ceramic pot with a succulent plant that is suffering from accumulated salts in the soil
Solution:
Be sure to follow product directions when applying commercial fertilizers. You want to supply the right amount to meet a plant’s needs when it is actively growing. More is not better.
Plant growth often slows in the winter months, when light levels are lower. You should reduce or even stop fertilization during those months.
If you are forgetful about watering and your plant often gets dry to the point of wilting, this can also cause the fertilizer to become concentrated in the soil. When there’s not enough moisture, the fertilizer won’t be diluted. Water your houseplants on a schedule to prevent the soil from getting extremely dried out.
Tip: A white crust forming on the soil surface or around the rim of the pot is a sign that salts from fertilizer are building up. If the accumulation is severe, repot your plant with fresh potting soil. Be sure to clean any residue from the pot before returning your plant to the pot. Double check the instructions to confirm you are applying the right amount of fertilizer and reduce frequency if needed.

Problem: Plant Has Insect Pests

close up of arboricola leaves infested with scale insects
Cause: Most of the insects that infest indoor plants are quite small. They often live in areas of the plant where they’re hard to spot such as under the leaves or hidden in nooks of the stems and leaves. It’s easy to overlook insects when you bring a new plant home. Because they reproduce quickly, just a few insects can eventually lead to a damaging infestation. The signs of insects infesting your plant can be any of the following:
  • Insects are clearly visible on the plant.
  • Distorted plant growth; curled leaves.
  • Yellowing leaves.
  • Leaves have a speckled appearance.
  • Sap and sticky areas on the leaves and pot.
  • Fine webbing between the leaves and stems.
  • Gritty, dirty appearance to the undersides of leaves.
  • Mottled yellowing of leaves.
  • Fuzzy white areas on leaves or around the leaf nodes (where leaves join the stem).
Solution:
If your plant displays any of these symptoms, you first need to find which insect you are dealing with. Check our list of Common Houseplant Pests for tips on how to identify and control insects that might be infesting your plant.

Problem: Houseplant Diseases

hand holding a dracaena leaf to display fungal spots on the foliage

Cause: Diseases of houseplants can be bacterial, viral or fungal. It may take some research to name what disease is affecting your plant, but general signs that your plant may have a disease include:

  • Mushy stems, roots or leaves.
  • Roots that have a rotten or ammonia-like odor.
  • Mold growing on soil, stems or leaves.
  • Plant wilting (can be a sign of root damage by disease).
  • Yellow or brown spotting of the leaves.
  • Distorted or stunted new plant growth.
  • Powdery white or dark substances on the leaves.
Solution:
Plant diseases can be difficult to treat and cure so it’s best to try to prevent them in the first place. Here are tips for preventing houseplant diseases:
  • Water soil at the base of the plant, trying to keep the stems and leaves dry.
  • Remove excess water from the saucer; don’t let the pot sit in water.
  • Always repot plants using fresh, sterile potting mix. Don’t reuse old soil.
  • Don’t crowd your houseplants together. Make sure air can circulate freely around each plant.
  • Avoid overwatering your plants.
  • Make sure your plants are getting adequate light.
  • Sterilize a tool’s blades with alcohol after trimming a plant.
  • Keep plants pest free. Some fungal diseases live on secretions left by insects.
  • Remove any dead leaves or flowers that fall to the soil surface.
  • If you’ve discarded a plant due to disease, don’t reuse that plant’s pot until it’s been properly sterilized.

Problem: Wilting Plant

Man inspecting roots of a Zamioculcas zamiifolia plant removed from its pot

Cause: If a plant is wilting the most obvious place to look for a problem is the roots. The plant could be too dry, too wet leading to root rot, or rootbound and unable to uptake enough water.
Solution:
Remove the plant from the pot to inspect the health of the roots. Repot to a larger pot if needed and refresh the soil with a sterile, well-draining potting mix. Get the plant on a schedule that avoids extremes between the soil being too wet or too dry.

Problem: Plant Leaves Dropping

potted ficus benjamina in a window with many fallen leaves on the table surrounding the pot
 
Cause: If your plant is growing and otherwise healthy, losing a leaf every now and then is natural. All plants tend to drop older leaves as they grow. But if your plant is shedding leaves there is probably a bigger problem.
Solution:
Your plant may have outgrown its pot and the roots are so compressed they can no longer support the amount of foliage above ground. Repot your plant into a pot an inch or two larger than its current container.
Low light can also lead to leaf drop. Move your plant to a location where it can get more sunlight or increase the light on the plant by adding artificial light.

Problem: Weak and Leggy Plant Growth

potted escheveria plant on a table with foliage straining to reach light coming through closed window blinds

Cause: Weak, leggy growth is usually the result of a plant’s attempt to get more light.

How to Fix Leggy Plants – Solution:
Move the plant to a place where it can get more sunlight or increase the light around the plant by adding artificial light.
If the plant is near a window and leaning towards the light, give the pot a quarter turn every time you water it. This will allow all sides of the plant to receive light and help keep it growing straight.

Problem: Plant is Dropping Flower Buds

hand holding a miniature rose bud that is prematurely browning and dropping from the plant
Cause: There are many reasons a flowering plant might drop its flower buds. The ultimate cause is anything that causes the plant stress. Supporting flowering and seed production takes a lot of a plant’s energy. So, in the interest of survival, most plants will resort to dropping flower buds first as they attempt to conserve enough energy to save themselves. Stressors that can cause a plant to drop flower buds include:
  • Poor lighting – either too much sun or too little.
  • Lack of water resulting from root damage or simply insufficient watering. Overwatering can cause roots to rot, underwatering can cause roots to shrivel and die – in either case the foliage and flower buds are not able to get water from the roots.
  • Insect pests that feed on the foliage and flower buds can cause enough damage that the buds wither and fall off.
  • Temperature extremes – an environment that is too hot or too cold for your plant.
  • Moving plants to a new location. For example, if you buy a flowering plant in the middle of winter and don’t keep it warm on the way home, the sudden exposure to freezing temperatures can result in flowers dropping off on the days that follow.
  • Low humidity can cause some flowering plants to drop their buds.
  • Nutrient deficiency can weaken a plant and leave it unable to support bud and flower development.
Solution:
Try to keep your flowering plant as stable as possible to avoid the stress that can lead to dropping flower buds:
  • Place flowering plants in a location where they will receive bright, indirect sunlight.
  • Keep flowering plants on a consistent watering schedule. Check the soil with your figure. Don’t water until the top one to two inches of soil is dry to the touch.
  • Keep a close eye out for insect pests on the plant’s leaves and flower buds. Treat infestations immediately to try to prevent further damage to the flower buds.
  • Keep your flowering plant out of direct sunlight that might cause it to dry out too quickly, overheat, or get sunburned.
  • Don’t place flowering plants in drafty locations or near heat or air-conditioning vents.
  • Put your plant on a regular feeding schedule during periods of active growth. Plants weakened by nutrient deficiency will struggle to develop buds and flowers when the basic nutritional needs are not being met. Choosing a fertilizer designed for flowering houseplants can increase the number of flowers produced.

Problem: Plant is Not Flowering

large potted schlumbergera plant with just two flower buds in a small window
Cause: Chances are your plant isn’t getting certain conditions met that are necessary for developing flower buds.
Solution:

Enough light is critical for all plants to flower. Make sure your flowering plant is located where it can get the most light the plant can tolerate.

Some plants depend on a specific amount of light or temperatures over a period to trigger blooming. Research to find out if your plant might be day-length or temperature-dependent for flowering.

Prevent your plant from becoming nutrient deficient by keeping it on a regular feeding schedule. Poorly nourished are unlikely to spend energy on producing flowers.

General Tips for Preventing Plant Problems

woman with houseplants lined up on a livingroom table cleaning the leaves of one of the plants
Inspect any new plant you are considering for general health and signs of pests or diseases. This is especially important if you already have houseplants at home. You don’t want to introduce insect pests to your other plants.
Select plants that are well suited for your home. Plants that are stressed because they aren’t getting the light, environment or care that they need are more susceptible to damage by pests and diseases. In general, stressed plants won’t thrive. It pays to do a little research on what plants will grow best in your growing conditions.
Inspect plants occasionally with a magnifying glass to look for insects. Finding insect infestations early will make control easier.
Keep in mind that indoor conditions change through the seasons. Plants that rely on natural light from a window can be affected by the lower light of winter. Or a window with a large tree nearby might let in more light in winter than in the summer when the tree is leafed out. Heating and cooling systems affect air temperatures and alter the environmental conditions for your plants.
Don’t worry if a leaf occasionally falls from your plant. Some leaf loss is quite natural. Older leaves eventually turn yellow, brown and drop as a natural part of plant growth.
When it comes to sunlight and plants, too much of a good thing can be bad for some houseplants. Learn how to recognize Sunburned Houseplants and what to do if your plant has a sun injury.
close up of ficus lyrata leaves that have been sunburned

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