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Fittonia are one of those plants that I love but never, ever recommend.
Many of them are fine, and they’re generally easy to care for, but my GOD they’re fussy about humidity and they’re incredibly good at playing dead. If you’re five minutes late with the water, they collapse and look unrevivable.
There’s a tonne of other plants that would be much, much better for a beginner. I usually recommend Peperomia hope.
I’m gonna get into troubleshooting the leaf drop in a minute, but first, I’m gonna give you my top tip for keeping fittonia alive if you don’t want to invest in a humidifier.
Get a humidifier by all means, but if you only have a couple of plants it's not really worth it.
Instead, I highly HIGHLY recommend you keep fittonia in a terrarium.
I do have an article on making terrariums BUT you don’t need to do anything fancy. In fact, a large glass jar or cloche with the fittonia (in its pot) in will work really well.
Fittonia don’t tend to grow that big, so they can stay that way for a while, though I found that when I kept them in a big, planted terrarium under grow lights, they spread like freaking wildfire.
Let’s get onto leaf loss. There are, unfortunately, a few reasons why fittonia may be losing leaves. I’ll start with the most likely so you can check them off the list.
1 – Low humidity
I have a whole article on humidity and why it’s important but for today’s purposes please trust that fittonia need a lot of humidity to thrive. They can survive in ambient room humidity but they’ll lose leaves a LOT more easily and frequently, and sulk a lot more if you’re skimping on the watering.
Even something as simple as an upturned jar over the plant will help so much with maintaining high humidity.
65% humidity is fine, but our terrarium gets up to 90% and the fittonia love it, and show no signs of rot.
2 – Underwatering
If you tend to be more of an underwaterer than an overwaterer, be sure that the soil your fittonia is kept in is quite dense and retains a lot of moisture.
Fittonia collapse completely. Like, they look dead. And then you water them and a few hours later it’s like nothing happened.
There’s a bit of a disagreement amongst the house plant community about how bad it is to frequently let them get dry to the point of collapse. Some say you shouldn’t do it because it zaps the plant of energy and it will eventually not come back, others say it’s totally fine.
I like to sit right on the fence and advise people to try to remember to water fittonia before they collapse, but not to bet yourself up if it happens.
If you’re too late with the water though, all the fittonia’s leaves will wilt and then drop off. You might be able to salvage the roots with a bit of TLC but the leaves are toast.
For those of you overwaterers that love a house plant that prefers moist soil, you’ve hit the jackpot with Fittonias. I have an article on other plants that like to stay moist here.
3 – Overwatering
Whilst fittonia do like to stay in consistently damp soil, they will still succumb to root rot if they get waterlogged.
I understand that this sounds ridiculous, but fittonia are picky little madams.
Damp soil still allows oxygen to flow, but wet soil turns into mud, with no air pockets. Bacteria thrive in oxygen-less areas and cause root rot.
The problem with fittonia is that they’re often in a small pot – especially when you first get them – so they can dry out very quickly. My advice for getting watering right is to keep it somewhere where you spend a lot of time or go reliably every day (bedside table, kitchen table, coffee station) and check it every couple of day.
Set it in a saucer so you can easily bottom water it – that way you’re sure the soil will be evenly damp.
4 – Pests
Fungus gnats are common to fittonia because they love damp soil. A match made in heaven. However, gnats are unlikely to do much damage unless you have a massive infestation. Pests like aphids are more likely to cause leaf drop, or for leaves to dry up before they fully unfurl.
I have a frog in my terrarium that eats aphids, which is a great way to get rid of pests (though I accept not everyone has a frog), or you can treat plants with neem oil.
5 – Too much sun
In the wild fittonia live on the forest floor, so are used to very filtered, indirect light. They do grow very well under growlights but will burn quickly in direct sunlight. Grow lights are very bright, but more controlled and cooler than grow lights.
Even just a few minutes in the hot sun can cause fittonia to dry up and drop their leaves.
6 – Poor water quality
In general, plants that need a lot of water prefer filtered water. In the rainforest there is an abundance of clean water, so plants haven’t needed to evolve to deal with poor-quality water.
In contrast, succulents, which might not see rain for a year, will have a go at absorbing any water it can find, regardless of quality, because it doesn’t know when they’ll next get the chance.
There are some rainforest plants, like calathea, that are notoriously fussy about water. There are others, like Monstera, who don’t seem to care. Somewhere in the middle of that spectrum are fittonia and ferns. Some specimens are happy with tap water, others will develop marks, imperfections, and even drop leaves if they don’t get filtered water.
I have found that if you keep watering consistent and humidity high, they’re more forgiving on water quality. I used tap water with dechlorinator in it and it seems to work fine.
Leaf drop in fittonia is usually an issue with underwatering. Get into the habit of keeping it consistently moist and you shouldn’t have an issue. One of the benefits of covering it in a cloche or similar is that it will be way less likely to catch pests from another plant!