What causes brown tips on house plant leaves?
One of the major problems with houseplants is that they can’t tell you if something is wrong, similar to pets. But pets change their behaviour – when we had house rabbits, we could tell when they were a bit…off. Which is useful, because rabbits don’t tend to put their illness on display until they’re about to die – it’s one of the downsides to caring for a prey animal. An obviously wounded bunny would be an easy target for a fox.
Shut up about bunnies, idiot. Back to plants.
Houseplants also exhibit largely the same symptoms for many different problems. It’s also quite hard to tell if your course of action is helping, so you need to keep a close eye on your patients.
There are basically ten reasons that your plant will get brown leaf tips. Sorry, I know that ten is a lot. The reasons are:
- Improper potting medium
- Needs repotting
- Damaged root system
- High salt content in the soil
- Lack of humidity
- Lack of light
- Pests (well, not really, but since a lot of people assume this, we’ll cover it).
Ok, let’s go through all of these one by one, so that you can hopefully eliminate all but one reason, and thus stop your plant’s leaf tips going brown.
(btw, there’s one overlying reason your plant has brown tips, which is that it can’t absorb water into its roots effectively or efficiently. But there are many reasons for why this is happening, and I don’t want you to just blindly drown your plant every time a leaf tip browns).
I’ve recently had to separate two Yucca because (I suspect) one of them was drinking all the water and the other wasn’t getting enough.
They’re famous Yucca. You may own them. You know the ones you can get from Ikea for £20 and there are two together, a big one and a little one? (if you haven’t a clue what I’m on about here is a link to a picture of them)
If you have these, separate them. The little one is a MURDERER. When I repotted them, the little one was about twice as heavy as the big one. I’m mad.
I’ve had to cut most of the leaves of the big one. The little one is full and healthy and bright vibrant green, rather than a brown sad sack like the other one.
One tip that I’ve made up (well, I’ve not seen it anywhere else, but maybe it’s because it’s kind of obvious…) is to make sure you don’t fill your pot right to the top with your potting medium. It makes it really difficult to tell if you’re watering the plant thoroughly or if it’s just filling the pot then leaking over the sides.
Also when the water does inevitably leak over the sides of a too-full pot, it’ll be soil-y and gross. Or, in the case of my Snake Plant, will lose all of the moss that it’s been carefully potted in. Nm. I have new pots coming at the end of the month so Snakey can have a new, less full pot.
So yes, first port of call is to check that your plant isn’t bone dry. Stick your finger in the soil or use a moisture meter. Don’t just assume that your plant is dry and water it regardless, because that can lead to issue number 2…
I have a whole post on overwatering, because I was a serial overwaterer for years.
Actually, I swung dramatically between over and under watering. So much so that my plants didn’t even bother to develop brown leaf tips – they just died.
Overwatering can produce brown leaf tips, but they tend to be more yellow, so look out for yellow leaves. Other signs of overwatering are rotten roots (take your plant out of its pot and give its soil a sniff – if it smells rotten, you’re properly watering a bit too zealously).
Another issue that arises from overwatering is fungus gnats. If you have brown or yellow leaves and tiny flies trying to swim in your glass of wine then you’re probably overwatering.
If you can’t tell if you’re over or under watering, then there is a broad rule of thumb, but it’s pretty brutal:
If your plant’s leaves are going brown and falling off, then you’re probably underwatering. If they’re going brown or yellow but are still firmly attached to the stem, then it’s probably a case of over watering.
Improper potting medium
I have to hold my hands up here and confess: I’m extremely lazy when it comes to potting mix.
I buy cacti and succulent mix for my (surprise surprise) cacti and succulents
I buy orchard mix (I think it’s basically tree bark) for my (wait for it) orchids.
Everything else goes in houseplant potting medium.
If I have any.
If I don’t have, then they go in whatever soil I have in the shed. It says that it’s suitable for indoor plants, but it says that it’s suitable for, er, everything. From indoor plants, to flowering plants, shrubs, fruit trees, vegetables, everything. So probably not the best for anything.
A jack of all trades, master of none.
Still, nothing’s died so far.
But don’t be like me. You can add sand to potting mix for plants that like quick-draining soil. Orchid mix would be good for any plants with photosynthetic roots, or roots that like a bit of aeration (which from a quick google search seems to be just orchids, but that’s ok, there are literally thousands of species).
I’m guessing that this is linked with underwatering – if the plant is too big for its pot then the soil won’t be able to hold as much water.
Some plants don’t mind being in a little, some will break free as soon as they can. In general, a plant needs repotting once its roots start popping out of the hole in the bottom of the pot (no drainage holes? Read this article before proceeding plz).
If you’re unsure, gently lift the plant out of its pot. If the roots are encircling the soil so much so that you can see more root than soil, it’s probably in the best interest of the plant to be repotted.
Don’t repot your plant into a massive pot – you’ll probably end up with brown leaf tips due to overwatering instead. An inch or so bigger will do.
Damaged root system
To prevent root damage causing brown leaf tips, follow these two simple rules:
- Be gentle
Roots are delicate and can snap easily. When repotting, ease the soil out from the roots, and try not to snap them. This can be difficult, especially if the roots have snuck out through the drainage holes, but just do your best.
Some plants, like hoya, have sticky roots that can get stuck to terracotta pots – in fact, many people say not to plant hoya in terracotta at all. If it’s a bit late in the game for that. Just soak the plant and pot in warm water before easing it out. Hopefully, the roots will detach from the pot.
2. Avoid root rot
Yep, fucking overwatering again. Stop doing it.
Be aware that roots do need air, so check that the soil around the roots hasn’t become too compacted. I aerate the soil using the very sophisticated method of gently stabbing (insofar as one can gently stab) the soil with my moisture probe when I’m checking the moisture levels.
What do I do about a damaged root system?
Er, there’s no a lot you can do. Like a damaged leaf, the plant can’t recover rotten roots. What you can do, is gently cut away any rotten parts of the root system – they’ll be soggy and smell of rot. The plant will grow new roots, given time and appropriate watering. Remember to err on the side of caution – your plant can survive drought for much longer than it can survive being drowned (much like a human).
High salt content in the soil
This is a fairly common cause of brown leaf tips, but pretty easy to remedy.
Make sure you don’t leave your plants sitting with water in their saucers that has been through their soil.
One of the benefits of top watering is that it washes away minerals left over from fertilising (even if you haven’t fertilised your plants, the soil may be treated prior to your purchasing it) or that are present in your tap water. If your plant is left sitting in this water, it will reabsorb the salts.
If your brown leaf tips problem persists, consider watering your plants with filtered or rain water.
In general, you shouldn’t need to fertilise your plants for the first year that you have them since the soil they’re potted in will have adequate nutrition. Like overwatering, overfertilizing will quickly kill your plant, by poisoning it and burning it’s roots.
If you think you’ve overfertilised your plant, or you suspect that a plant you’ve been given has been overfertilised, then you have a couple of options.
- Repot it. Remember that repotting can be stressful for the plant, so only do thin is you think it’s the only option. Remove as much as the soil as you can from the roots and pot it in fresh potting medium.
- Flush out the soil. Keep running water through the soil, being sure to let all of the water drain through the holes in the bottom. Set your plant down on a draining board for a couple of hours to ensure it can’t reabsorb any of the water.
Lack of humidity
Aaaand we’re back to water.
If this feels repetitive, it’s because plants require little else than light and water BUT NOT TOO MUCH.
You can buy a humidity metre from Amazon for under a tenner so you know what action to take. If your humidity is ok (say, 40-50% or over) then you should be able to keep your plants at optimal humidity (fewer brown leaf tips, yay) simply by grouping them together, so that they create their own microclimate.
Many people place their plants on pebble trays (put some pebbles on a tray with side high enough to put some water in the bottom and hey presto, you have a pebble tray. Don’t let the water touch the pot though), but it’s not a proven method of increasing humidity.
Also misting, which is also a thing that plant people disagree on.
If you live in a dry climate and your plants are suffering, then you may have to invest in a humidifier. Check out my gift post for the two I recommend, which I chose because Kaylee Ellen recommended them. I have a medium humid house (I have a dehumidifier, actually), so I don’t have one myself.
Can temperature cause brown leaf tips?
Sharp drops in temperature can cause the tips of your plant’s leaves to go brown, but I’ve found that the majority of my brown leaf tips are due to the leaves touching the windows.
I have a dracaena that had a major growth spurt this summer, and all the leaf tips were growing brown.
I asumed it was due to my, ahem, sporadic watering schedule, but once I had that under control the tips were still browning. The cause? The quick growth meant that the leaf tips were touching the cold window and killing the leaf tips. My bad.
I’ve since moved the Dracaena, and that thing is growing like a weed. It’s a Marginata Tricolour, so the sides the leaves are deep fuschia and I love them.
Lack of light turning leaf tips brown
So yeah, if you have your plant too close to the window it may develop brown leaf tips, but also if your plant is too far away from the window it’ll erm, develop brown leaf tips.
Sometimes it’s about compromise. I put up with a couple of brown leaf tips on my Yucca because it really loves being next to my patio doors. It gets a tonne of bright, indirect light which it needs, and a few brown leaf tips won’t kill it (the other Yucca it used to live with, however, did try to kill it, so they’ve been separated).
Could pests be turning leaf tips brown?
I’ve not read anything to suggest that there’s a specific pest that can turn the tips of your plant’s leaves brown, but pests can be forewarning things like overwatering – for example fungus gnats will come in droves if the top of the soil is always moist.
What should I do about my brown leaf tips?
Once part of a leaf has gone brown, that’s a sign that the cells have died and no more water is going to be able to access that portion.
In general, it’s best to just cut your losses, grab a pair of scissors and snip off the brown parts of the leaves. It won’t hurt your plant at all, because that part of the leaf is no longer bringing in any energy – it just looks unsightly.
With my Yucca, I snipped off the brown leaves/leaf tips. Whilst doing it, I also washed the leaves with soapy water, to help maximise the surface area of each leaf, since dust adversely affect photosynthesis.
However, I didn’t bother with the Dracaena. Since it was the cold window that did the damage, only the very tip of each leaf was browned, and since the leaves are so long and skinny anyway, you can’t really tell unless you get up really close.
If you only take ONE thing away from this long-ass post, let it be this:
Just because the tips of your plant’s leaves have gone brown doesn’t mean you need to water it.
That’s it. That’s the most important thing.
In fact, if you switch ‘the tips of your plant’s leaves have gone brown’ with ‘your plant’s leaves are wilting’ or ‘your plant is dying’ the same also applies.
The only thing watering a plant will solve is a thirsty plant. And don’t just assume your plant is thirsty.
When I went to take the picture for the featured image I realised that I’d moved the Dacaena again and it was back with its leaf tips touching the window again, albeit a different window. Oops. I do not deserve all the incredible growth this plant has worked hard to achieve this year.
Thank you, Dracaena, I do appreciate you, even though I don’t show it.
Btw way, I bought the Dracaena a year ago as a tiny cutting from a greengrocer and it barely grew last year (due to the constant oscillation between under and over watering I subjected it to), and now look! She’s a monster!