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Brown tips on house plants can be a bit unsightly, but they’re not usually a sign that there’s something drastically wrong – more that something is annoying your plant a bit
That being said, it’s always best to get to the root of the issue, just in case it snowballs and becomes a larger problem later
There are basically eleven reasons that your plant will get brown leaf tips. Sorry, I know that eleven is a lot. The reasons are:
- Water quality
- Improper potting medium
- Needs repotting
- Damaged root system
- High salt content in the soil
- Humidity issues
- Lack of light
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 from going brown.
I’m going to say this at the beginning, just so we’re all aware:
If you chop off the brown tips, the cut mark with also brown. So there’s really not point in doing it.
Poor water quality
The reason that poor water quality can cause brown tips on leaves, is that the plant has excreted excess water by the process of guttation, and on its way out, the wat has burned the leaf.
Tap water can get a bit of a bad rap in the house plant community, but in reality, not all tap was created equal.
My general rule of thumb is that if your water is fine for you to drink (and hasn’t had any water softeners added to it) then it will probably be fine for your plants.
Some plants are more tolerant of poor water quality than others, and you can usually tell who’ll be fussy and who won’t by researching their natural habitat.
Plants that come from the undergrowth of tropical rainforests and that don’t climb tend to be the pickiest when it comes to water quality. It makes sense – they evolved never having to think about water quality – they had ample amounts of very clean rainwater all the time.
On the other end of the spectrum is plants like cacti, which have evolved in very arid, dry environments. They had to make do with whatever drop of water came their way, and quality was not high on their list of priorities.
There are variations from species to species – Aglaonemas, for example, occupy a similar niche and habitat to Calathea, but are much more tolerant of sub-par water. Calatheas, on the other, turn their nose up at anything other than the most perfect filtered water.
Different chemicals in tap water affect different plants, but chloramine is a biggie. If chlorine is your biggest issue, then you can just add a couple of drops of aquarium dechlorinator to your water rather than shell out on a water filter.
Variegated plants can be unduly affected by water quality too, so plants like Calathea White Fusion are the WORST.
Plants can go for a surprisingly amount of time without water, BUT there comes a point when the neglect starts to show.
Overwatering gets so much publicity that people become terrified of it, and end up underwatering.
Over time, incongruent watering can cause brown marks on the leaf times – basically, the leaf is starting to die, from the most outlying region in. The difference between underwatering and water quality issues is that the area will be bigger if it’s an underwatering issue, and may affect other parts of the leaf.
Watering is simple – it’s all about trusting yourself. There are some plants that like to stay moist, but most of the tropical house plants that we have in our homes like to dry out before being watered.
Get into the habit of checking the soil of your plants a couple of times a week (I do Tuesdays and Fridays) and water them when the soil feels dry.
I’m one of those people that overthinks EVERYTHING so I just reassure myself that I learned the difference between wet and dry when I was a child, and the definition hasn’t changed yet.
Don’t bother with all this ‘water when the top inch is dry’ stuff. Too technical. Stick your finger in as far as it’ll go. If it’s wet at all, leave it.
Some people like to stick a chopstick in, and only water when the chopstick comes out clean (like how you tell when a cake is done!) but my soil is quite fibrous and clings to everything wet or not, so I just stick my finger in then judge the weight of the pot.
That sounds very technical but if you use plastic pots, you quickly become accustomed to the weight difference between a wet pot and a dry one.
Brown tips from overwatering is definitely a thing, and it tends to look the most dramatic of the lot.
I took this in a Sainsbury’s and MAN was that plant looking rough.
The reason these leaf tips look so bad is a combination of two suspected oversights:
- The plant is overwatered
- It’s sat in a draught/too cold
The yellow is so bright it looks like lava.
This presents as a fungal infection (due to the bright yellow rings around the leaf edges) and it may well have one, but we need to get to the roots first.
If your plant looks like this, follow these instructions:
1 – Remove all the soil from the plant and throw it away/flush it with hydrogen peroxide.
Root rot is caused by anaerobic bacteria that thrive when a plant has been overwatered. These bacteria plus a lack of oxygen are the direct cause of root rot. Overwatering creates the ideal habitat for the bacteria.
2 – Remove any brown, mushy stem/root matter. Leave the leaves – if they have green on them, they will help the recovery process
3 – If there’s a decent amount of root matter left, repot (go down a pot size if there are a lot fewer roots). If there are very few roots left, check out this post on rooting cuttings. I know that’s about propagating, but that’s basically what we’re doing.
Once we get new growth, you can remove the grim-looking leaves if you’d prefer.
This is basically over or under-watering again but specifically caused by your soil mix.
When we first get into house plants, we can tend to get a little bit carried away. We consume a tonne of content from people whose full-time job involves taking care of their plants.
It’s fine for them to recommend a super chunky, fast-draining potting mix because they have the means to water every day – it’s part of their job. I schedule my plant care from 9.00-9.30 during my work hours.
If you’re an underwaterer, it doesn’t make sense to use a super chunky soil mix. Instead, use something that retains a decent amount of water. Not too much, but more than those half-and-half bark/perlite mixes people love to mention.
Instead, I recommend you use a store-bought house plant potting mix, with perhaps a bit of perlite mixed in. If you want to make your own, use more coir and worm castings than is recommended. Remember, if the soil is taking too long to dry out, then you can always add orchid bark later on.
A repot is required
Again, this is underwatering by any means.
Rootbound plants are not an issue to the plant. The roots get compacted, sure, but the plant doesn’t care AS LONG AS the roots still get access to water and nutrients.
The problem with rootbound plants is that the roots displace soil (which is where the water is retained) so the plant has no access to water.
You have a few options:
- Put the plant in a bigger pot
Repotting the plant into a bigger pot is the standard thing to do here, and seems obvious, but what if you don’t have a bigger pot? Or don’t have room for a bigger pot? Or the pot is special to you?
- Trim the roots
A lot of plant people are horrified by this. I don’t do it but I have no issue with people who do. I have an article all about it here.
- Soak the plant
This can be a great option for people that like a bit of routine in their life. Every week, take the plant and soak it in a bowl of water for half an hour. Done.
By the way, this is for if a plant is VERY root bound – as in, you can’t see any soil. If the roots start browning water less often, if they look dry, soak more. Every month add fertiliser to the bowl of water. Done.
The root system is damaged
It doesn’t really matter how perfect your watering is, if the roots are struggling, your plant won’t be able to take up water and nutrients.
If the plant is left to dry out too long, then the roots will shrivel up and die. If the plant is overwatered, the roots can rot. It's really up to you to have a look and see which it is.
To be fair, if the plant doesn’t have a decent root system, then it doesn’t matter what caused it – what matters is growing more roots (and then adapting your behaviour afterwards to correct your mistake).
If you have a very small root system, but whatever the issue was seems to have corrected itself and the roots seem healthy, then I recommend taking off as much soil as you can, wrapping the roots in moss, putting the moss-wrapped root ball in a plastic bag and keeping an eye on it for, say, a month (you can put the plastic bag in a cover pot to keep the plant upright).
Before you run off and do this, remember that some plants naturally have small root systems. Only do this if your plant has brown tips and you’re pretty sure nothing else is causing it.
High salt content in the soil
This can happen if you haven’t repotted your plant in a while, and you use chemical fertilisers.
This is quite easy to remedy by simply removing some old soil and adding in some new stuff, but you can also flush the soil – I have an article here on flushing house plants without overwatering them.
Low humidity can cause brown spots on plant leaves, but they don’t tend to be confined to the leaf tips.
However, humidity that’s too high CAN cause brown leaf tips – increased humidity can cause increased guttation – the permanent drop of water on the tip of your plant’s leaf can actually cause a little stain after a while.
Another humidity-adjacent issue is misting. Water on the leaf can, again, slide down, get caught on the tip and leaf a brown mark, OR can cause general brown marks on the leaf.
Too hot of a temperature and sunburn can cause brown marks on the leaf, but it’s not confined to the tip – it’s usually the bit that’s closest to the sun/light.
A case in point:
However, as we touched on before cold can cause brown leaf tips. Cold damage can travel up the leaf at a remarkable rate though, so it doesn’t stay confined to the tip for long.
If you can’t decide whether the plant has cold damage or root rot, unfortunately, it can be both. If the plant has gotten cold enough to be damaged by it, then any water in the soil in likely to be sitting around, rotting the roots.
House plants don’t tend to grow in the cold, so won’t be using very much water – just enough to keep basic functions going. Also, there’s no heat to evaporate the water either.
A very common cause of brown tips on house plant leaves is when the leaves are touching a cold window/wall. Just move them away a bit.
We’ve already touched on sunburn, but lack of light can cause brown tips on the leaves, but not directly. Light issues can cause fungal issues, pest issues, and root rot because the plant isn’t getting enough energy to grow quickly enough to use the water in the pot or fight off any pests or dieases.
Pests don’t TEND to cause black spots on the leaf tips, but I’m including it because I have a mark on my Golden Pothos from thrips damage, and if I do, you might too, so I may as well show you:
I can tell it’s thrips because all those little black dots are poop. Thrips poop. Grim.
I hope this was as helpful as it can be.
It can be a pain diagnosing what specific ailment has caused the brown leaf tips on your plant, but I encourage you to give it a go.
Little tiny brown marks on the very tip of the leaf, like this Dracaena below, are usually a water quality issue, but are unlikely to be harming the plant. If you hate them with a passion, then by all means switch to filtered or rain water (not distilled unless you’re using a complete fertiliser – I recommend one for hydroponics) but if you don’t mind them, it’s all good.
I’ve had my Dracaena for about four years and she’s totally fine. Same with the peace lily I showed at the top of the article.
Has anyone seen that post on Facebook (it’s also Reddit famous) about a poor woman who couldn’t understand why the holes she CUT INTO HER MONSTERA LEAVES WITH SCISSORS kept going brown around the edges.
To their credit, the comments were extremely sweet and she posted an update laughing at herself.
Right, I’m done.