Troubleshooting

Decoding Leaf Changes in Your Houseplant

Kinda like leaf-peeping, but in your house and potentially worrisome!

While we rejoice in the changing colors of leaves outside when fall comes around, when we see a brown or yellow leaf on our houseplant, we can go spiraling into a pit of despair! Leaf changes can certainly be a symptom of a bigger problem, but they can also be part of the plant's natural growth pattern or simply reflect a plant adjusting to a new spot or condition.

Let's take a look at the most common changes and troubleshoot! We'll try to put your anxiety at ease—or at least arm you with the knowledge to understand the possible underlying issues. 🥴

What Are the Symptoms?

Let's face it—sometimes you're not even sure what you're looking at when it comes to leaf changes. That's where we come in. This section will help you identify and describe the symptoms.

Expanding Dark Brown Spots [1]

Have you identified a spot on your plant? If you've been watching it carefully, have you noticed it growing in size or seemingly multiplying?

The dark brown spots, or areas, may be in the middle of a leaf or on the edges. These spots tend to be larger areas with an irregular edge, not a nice neat circular shape. They may also look “wet” or saturated in the middle, which could indicate signs of a bacterial issue.

Concentric Brown and Yellow Spots [2]

Instead of larger spots of varying shapes and sizes, these spots will appear a bit more uniform and consistent across the plant's leaves. These smaller brown spots can often have a concentric bullseye pattern with varying shades of yellow or brown within one spot, which could indicate a fungal issue.

Tiny Brownish (Possibly Reddish) Speckling [3]

These spots can sometimes look reddish or brown and resemble something like freckles spreading across the leaf. This is a fairly common symptom identified on Fiddle Leaf Figs, especially on their new growth. This is an indication of something called edema (or oedema) and is a rupturing of cells from excess water.

Edema can occur when you have an inconsistent watering pattern (like long periods of drought followed by large quantities of water). Basically the leaf cells don't have the flexibility to expand with the drastic influx of water, so they burst. This symptom can show up in various ways on any houseplant, but is particularly apparent on FLFs.

Yellowing or Browning Tips and Edges [4]

It is very common to see leaves turning yellow just on the edges or tips on many houseplants. These edges may gradually change from yellow to brown, crispy, and possibly curled.

Luckily, yellowing tips or edges are usually related to a water issue and generally nothing too serious. But if you adjust your watering and more yellow areas are popping up, you may want to look out for other possible causes.

Entire Leaf Turning Yellow [5]

This isn't just the edges—you've noticed an entire leaf (or leaves) turning yellow! When your plant's leaves are turning yellow, you may be facing a wide range of issues—it could be under or over-watering, but sometimes it simply comes down to age. You'll know it’s old age if the leaf in question is older and the plant is shedding just one at a time.

Large Grey or Bleached Patches [6]

If you're examining your prized houseplant and notice a large gray patch on their best leaf, it's understandable to freak out a little, but this is one of the easier issues to diagnose. If the patches look quite large, dried out, and somewhat "bleached", this likely indicates your plant is being burned from too much direct light.

Unfortunately, the leaf in question cannot recover its flawless appearance, so you may choose to prune it away. But the spot itself should remain contained if you address the light situation. It's purely a matter of preference if you decide to prune.

Yellowish Mottling All Over [7]

What is mottling, you might ask? Yellow on its own is scary, of course, but if you notice yellow with a weird static-y pattern—this is mottling. This type of yellowing usually occurs in streaks or spots across entire leaves. Sadly it's not natural variegation—in fact, it can be a sign of a virus in your plant. 😱

Major Leaf Drop [8]

It's never fun to lose leaves on your houseplant. One or two is nothing to be concerned about in any capacity—after all, it's completely normal to lose leaves eventually. However, if you're facing major leaf drop, you'll want to identify the cause.

Some plants are known to do this when they're moved to a new spot (or brought home from the nursery) and trying to adjust to the environmental change.

What Are the Potential Causes?

Okay, you've identified the symptom. Now, to diagnose the cause. Identifying leaf changes is the first step, but it's not always a clear-cut indicator of the problem. Often it can be a process of elimination to really zero in on the root (!!) cause.

A Watering Issue

Many plant problems come down to an issue with watering. You may be giving your plant too much love by checking on them and watering too frequently. Contrary to our intuition, overwatering is much more common than under-watering. Most houseplants can survive with less water than you'd think—some even have built in water storage systems.

Watering issues are especially common when the season has recently changed or is in the process of changing.

Your plant’s watering needs change when the seasons change since they are either getting more or less sun throughout the day which translates directly to how quickly the soil is drying out.

Rootbound

If your plant is rootbound, they may react with some leaf changes. This can come as a particular shock because your plant was thriving up until this point. But you've cared for them so well, they've outgrown their home! Once the plant well and truly has no space left, they can quickly take a turn for the worse. They have pushed out everything around the roots—soil, which would normally retain moisture and provide nutrients and airspace, which provides oxygen and swift drainage. Thankfully, you can address this by simply repotting your plant in a (slightly) bigger pot.

Humidity

Many of our houseplants are native to the tropical rainforest, where you shouldn't be surprised to hear it's quite humid. While they can generally adapt to lower humidity, if it's really very dry, our plants tend to get grumpy. We want to keep our plants as happy as possible—so if they're showing their displeasure with leaf changes (think yellowing leaf tips), try increasing the humidity.

Leaf Burn

There are two types of leaf burn common to houseplants: fertilizer burn and sun burn. While we already touched a bit on sun burn, to re-cap: when your plant is exposed to the hot sun, it begins to evaporate more moisture from the leaf surface than the plant can replace. Leading to bleached areas or large grey patches on leaves. 🥵

In addition, when you use fertilizer, there’s always a risk of over-fertilizing your plant. You may start to see symptoms such as a crusty topsoil, stunted growth, and those burned looking leaves. Synthetic fertilizer in particular can burn a plant's roots, which inevitably leads to leaf burn as well.

Inconsistent Temperature

Let's face it, no one likes a draft. Not even houseplants! If you have a plant too close to a window or door that's not sealed all the way or right next to a heating or A/C vent—they may start complaining with some leaf changes. The dry heat coming out of a vent or the cold from a draft can take a toll on a plant. The temperature fluctuations confuse the plant and may put them into shock or stress. This is often signaled by a general wilting of the whole plant (or just the side closest to the offending draft) and yellowing leaves.

Age

Hey, plants get old, too. Sometimes, leaf changes are just a part of the aging process. Some leaf drop is inevitable; and some wear and tear on those beautiful leaves is expected. You may be saddened by the loss or changes in leaves, but it can be a welcome reminder that the plant you're taking care of is a living thing and they're gonna change!

Tap Water

Tap water is typically fine to use in most cases. However, some areas have more minerals like chlorine and fluoride in the tap water. Unfortunately, "Hard" and "Soft" tap water can be troublesome for many plant babies. I mean, can you really blame them? They were expecting clean rain water and they got something else entirely.

While for the most part, your plants can adjust and won't complain, some plants are just extra sensitive to anything but distilled water and will show this with their yellowing or browning leaf tips.

Pests

An issue with pests can befall even the most careful plant parent among us. And pests can most certainly be the cause of leaf changes in our plants—you can expect anything from yellowing leaves to major leaf drop and beyond.

If you suspect your plant has pests, isolate them immediately to prevent the buggers from spreading to your other plants.

And then get your hands on some neem oil to rid yourself of those creepy-crawly creatures!

Root Rot and Disease

The reason we warn so vigorously against over-watering is that it leads to root rot. And root rot not only causes yellowing, wilting leaves, but ultimately it can be the death knell for your plant.

Roots that have been sitting in waterlogged soil can no longer absorb any of the nutrients they need to thrive. And on top of that, that soggy environment is the perfect breeding ground for disease, particularly fungal pathogens that will quickly begin to rot those stressed and suffering roots.

Nutrient Deficiency

Over time, your plant absorbs the nutrients in their potting mix, especially during their active growing seasons. A plant can make nutrient deficiency known through their leaves—sometimes general yellowing (but not necessarily wilting) or looking pale, particularly between the veins. A good indoor potting mix is chock full of nutrients on day one, but eventually, you'll need to replenish that mix with additional fertilizer.

Or you may determine the plant is ready to move into a bigger pot—in which case you'll replace the potting mix entirely.

How Can I Fix It?

Ok we've made it through symptoms and possible causes. What about solutions?

Adjust Watering

To see how much water your plant is getting, always check the soil. You can use a finger to see if it's still pretty moist or starting to get dry. Over time, you'll even be able to tell by picking up your plant to see if they need watering based on heavy the whole thing feels! And if you want to get fancy with it, moisture meters can come in handy to take the pressure off our "intuition." 🧐

If you've checked your soil and notice that it's over or under-watered, it's time to adjust. Pay close attention to the watering needs of your plant. We've said it before, but we'll say it again:

Overwatering is the fastest way to kill a plant.

If your plant's soil is totally soaked, you can take some steps to fix it:

  • Let the soil drain. Never let a plant sit in standing water. Always dump out the excess water that accumulates in drainage trays or cachepots.
  • Wait to water. For the vast majority of houseplants, you need to let the top inch or so of soil (if not more) dry out before watering again.
  • Attempt to wick out the moisture. If the soil doesn't seem to be drying out on its own, you can try to "wick" the excess moisture out of the soil by placing the whole pot (with drainage holes) in a tray or container with dry soil. This new layer of dry soil can then soak up some of the excess moisture from the waterlogged areas around your plant's roots.
  • Poke holes in the soil. This is also known as aeration. Poking holes in the soil with stakes or chopsticks creates pathways to increase airflow around the roots. And helps the soil dry faster.
  • Check the roots. If you suspect you've been overwatering for quite some time, you may need to check the roots for root rot. If you see any signs of rot (black, mushy roots instead of healthy white roots), you'll have to trim those areas back.

Check Placement

The placement of a plant is key. Plants have specific needs when it comes to lighting. Make sure that your plant is in a spot that will meet their needs.

If your plant is too close to the sun, they will burn. Too far, they won't be able to thrive. It's all about finding that sweet spot for your plant baby. However—be intentional as you experiment. Your plant will appreciate small, incremental moves over drastic changes from low to no light into bright direct light all at once.

Some plants really don't like to be moved at all, so while it may be better for them in the long run, they can react by dropping a bunch of leaves in the short term.

Avoid Drafts

Like we mentioned earlier—plants aren't huge fans of sudden temperature changes! If your plant is near a heating or A/C vent or a drafty window, you'll want to adjust the placement to make sure they are still getting enough light but are far away from any drafts. You might also have success by using some kind of deflector to shield the plant from the offending draft.

Check Roots

A good way to check on the health of your plant is by taking a peek at the roots. If you notice roots poking out from drainage holes or wrapping around the perimeter of the pot, they are searching for more space (rootbound) and it's time to repot! If you notice a bit of root rot—don't panic (yet). Trim it off, repot, and hope for the best! 🙏

Increase Humidity

If you suspect your plant might appreciate a boost in humidity, there are a couple things to try, but first we have to debunk a couple of the most common suggestions.

You may have heard of a pebble tray. This is a tray that you fill with pebbles and water in hopes of increasing the humidity around a plant. Unfortunately, while the water does evaporate, it evaporates quickly out into the whole room and ultimately its effect on your plant is quite minimal. And the same goes for misting—it's little more than a fleeting spritz of water. The impact is negligible.

While misting is a nice ritual for checking in on your plant, it doesn't increase the humidity.

Methods that do work include locating your plants in more naturally humid places, like the bathroom or kitchen, or grouping a bunch of humidity-loving plants together. But the only way to truly guarantee increased humidity is to get a humidifier! This also helps you and your dry skin in the dead of winter! It's a win-win situation.

Try Distilled Water

Some plants don't like the extra stuff that comes in tap water—minerals like chlorine and fluoride are often present in tap water. If you've eliminated other possible causes for your plant's displeasure, you might be dealing with a particularly sensitive species. You don't necessarily have to jump immediately to using bottled water or anything crazy like that (no judgment here! we've been there...).

A simple fix is to fill up a large bucket or even your normal watering can and let it sit out for 24 hours. The minerals will evaporate out and your sensitive little plant will thank you for it! If you have a method for collecting rainwater and keeping it clean, that works, too.

Flush Soil

Salt and mineral build-up from excess fertilizer or mineral heavy tap water can cause problems for your plant. But you can prevent this build-up by regularly flushing the soil.

The easiest method of flushing soil is in a shower or deep sink, depending on the size of your plant. You'll definitely need to have pots with drainage holes to do this. You'll also want to make sure that the drainage holes are not clogged or blocked by anything. The continuous flow of water from the shower head or spray nozzle will help you flush out any build-up. Repeat multiple times if you're actively trying to reverse over-fertilization.

Neem Oil

Ah, our best friend, neem oil! We love it so very much. If you're facing pests or disease, neem oil can help in like 99% of the cases. It can even help deter a reoccurrence if you start a regular regimen.

It's available in various forms, but we recommend getting your hands on pure neem oil that you can dilute yourself. It lasts much longer in the concentrated form and you can easily control the dilution for either treatment or preventative measures.

Try Fertilizing

Eventually a plant will need more nutrients. If the potting mix is completely depleted of nutrients and your plant isn't growing as it normally does, you can add fertilizer to give your plant a bit of a boost. However, we might recommend repotting the plant entirely if you also notice any signs that your plant has outgrown their home.

When you're fertilizing, do make sure to dilute it properly and err on the side of "less is more".

NOTE: We've kept this one until the end because it's super important that you've ruled out every other possibility before you try to "fix" something with fertilizer. If you fertilize an otherwise suffering plant, you may just magnify the problem.

Trimming Leaves

As soon as you've identified a problem, you can always trim off any damaged or diseased leaves. Typically, you'll want to trim off dead leaves or those that are more than halfway damaged or dying. It's a good idea to prune off dying leaves because it will help the plant focus on new growth and healthy foliage. You should always sterilize your tools before you trim any plants and between each plant as you work. If you skip this step, you may unknowingly spread disease or pests!

For leaves that are only partially affected or have minor discolorations like yellowing leaf tips, it's up to you whether you can accept the less-than-perfect leaf or not. If you choose to act, you’ll want to be sure you've addressed the problem first—otherwise you'll just be trimming more and more leaves. But if you have successfully solved the issue, you can certainly trim away the discolored portions. Do your best to follow the shape of the leaf to help them look natural. Also, try to cut just short of the discolored edge so it doesn’t expand.

Embracing Change

It can often feel hard to accept changes and the loss of your plant's glorious green leaves. But when there's no evidence of a major underlying issue and your plant is thriving in every other way, sometimes a little imperfection reminds us that these are living things that age and change, just like us! 🍂

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