How to Revive a Dying Calathea


How to revive a dying calathea

I love Calatheas, and they are one of my favorite houseplants due to the exquisite coloration of their leaves! However, when I first started growing them, I had persistent problems with the leaves turning brown.

So, I did my research to pinpoint the causes and conducted a few experiments to test which solutions worked best to save my calathea.

In this article, I share with you all the tips and secrets I learned through my first-hand experience of looking after my calathea plants!

Most often, dying calathea usually occurs when the soil around the root ball is dry due to not watering often enough or watering too lightly. This causes the leaves to droop and turn brown and crispy, giving the plant a dying appearance.

I discovered that low humidity saps moisture from the calathea’s leaves and causes the margins to turn brown and crispy causing them to die back.

To revive calathea plants we need to recreate the growing conditions in their native rainforest tropical habitat with high humidity, consistently moist, yet well-draining soil and locate calathea in bright, indirect light, with warm temperatures away from full sun.

Keep reading to learn what is causing your calathea to die back and how to revive it…

Why are My Calathea Leaves Drooping or Turning Brown and Crispy?

  • Symptoms. Leaves tips turning brown and crispy drooping or wilting and perhaps curling. Whole leaves can turn brown with a dying appearance.
  • Causes. Low humidity due to draughts, heat or air conditioning, not watering frequently enough, watering too lightly, and too much sun.

So for us to save our calathea, we have to learn how they grow in the wild, so that we can recreate some of these conditions indoors…

Calathea (also known as a ‘prayer plant’) is a native of the South American rainforest where it thrives in hot and humid conditions with soil that stays consistently moist due to frequent rainfall.

Our modern houses tend to have low humidity at the best of times, but for the calathea, which is adapted to higher humidity, this can cause signs of stress very quickly with brown tips to the leaves.

I discovered this is what was wrong with my calathea (it had characteristic brown, crispy edges). It was actually exacerbated by my indoor heating in the Winter and I also noticed the air conditioning in the Summer having an impact!

Who would have thought my apartment was nothing like a humid tropical jungle?!

I learned that the potting soil of the calathea should stay consistently moist (but not saturated) to emulate the moist soil conditions of its native environment.

As I found out, in practice this is quite hard to achieve if you don’t have a method for watering.

If the soil is allowed to dry out between bouts of watering then the calathea typically droops and turns brown at the leaf margins, with severe drought stress causing the leaves to turn brown entirely and the plant to die back.

A common mistake is to water the calathea too lightly which only moistens the top inch or so of the soil.

This means that water does not infiltrate the soil properly and the roots at the bottom of the pot cannot access the moisture they require causing the plant to die back.

We also need to remember that our calathea also grows under a canopy and grows well in filtered light or bright, indirect light rather than full sun.

Therefore too much direct sunlight can cause the calathea leaves to fade, scorch, and contribute to the drying effect that causes the leaves to turn brown and die back. I’ve seen this happen when calathea are placed on window sills.

How I Revived My Dying Calathea with Drooping, Brown Cripsy Leaves

  • The first thing I learned was to water my calathea with a generous soak, so that excess water trickles from the base of the pot. This ensures that the water has infiltrated the soil so that it is consistently moist throughout and the roots can access the moisture they require to keep the plant healthy and prevent drooping leaves.
  • Water your calathea as often as required so that the soil feels moist (but importantly not saturated). Exactly how often you should water your calathea to keep it healthy varies according to your climate and the conditions in the home. The method that I devised through trial and error that really worked was to water my plant with a generous soak and feel the top inch of the potting soil with my finger. When the top inch felt as though it was nearly drying out, I’d water my calathea. This achieved the balance of watering to keep my plant healthy and avoid it turning brown whilst voiding problems such as overwatering.
  • Keep the calathea out of the way of draughts from air conditioning, forced air, or any other air currents as this is contrary to the calathea’s preferred humid conditions. Air currents sap moisture away from the leaves causing them to turn crispy. Find a nice, relatively still place for your calathea in bright, indirect light.
  • To counteract the dryer effects of air currents and to replicate the humidity of the rainforest I recommend spraying the leaves of your calathea with a mist once every 3 days or so. The dryer your climate or house is, the more frequently you should mist the leaves. Alternatively, you can use a humidifier or place the pot on a tray filled with water with pebbles keeping the pot out of the standing water. The water in the tray evaporates and creates a humid micro-climate to suit the calathea.
  • Locate your calathea in an area of bright indirect light as any sun at this point can exacerbate the drought stress and conditions that caused the drooping, brown, crispy leaves. An area of bright, indirect light helps the calathea maintain its variegated colors (if it is a variegated variety) and prevents the leaves from scorching. I personally have kept mine in my bathroom which has frosted glass to diffuse direct sunlight. You can also use a sheer curtain in front of a window, which I sometimes do.

I have tested extensively different method for increasing the humidity for my calathea plants. I found misting works really well, but I found I had to mist every days in Winter (because of the indoor heating) which was annoying, so I tried a humidifier.

The humidifier worked much better and was a lot lower maintenance. My beautiful calathea leaves stayed nice and green and variegated.

I tried the method with a tray of water and pebbles, which I found effective for Spring and Fall but to be honest in the Winter some of my leaves were beginning to turn brown again. As soon as I got a humidifier the browning stopped, so in my opinion a humidifier is much better at increasing humidity for tropical plants.

Once you have adjusted the conditions and practices of care for your calathea plant so that it replicates the conditions in its native habitat, the drooping appearance of your calathea can start to perk back up in less the a week, but but the brown crispy parts do not turn green again.

For leaves that have turned completely brown, I advise cutting them back to the stem as they often do not recover. This helps to stimulate the growth of new leaves. For leaves that have turned brown and crispy around the edges, I just trim off the brown edge carefully with scissors, which works great! Just keep the humidity up and you calathea should continue to thrive.

calathea dying
My calathea here had slightly brown tips which I trimmed back. It was turning brown due to low humidity. I increased the humidity with a humidifer.

Why Are My Dying Calathea Leaves Turning Yellow or Brown

  • Symptoms. Leaves can turn yellow or brown at the margins or the entire leaf can turn brown or yellow with a wilted appearance and the plant can die back.
  • Causes. Watering calathea too often, pots without proper drainage, saucers, trays, and decorative outer pots prevent water from escaping from the base of the pot. Too much fertilizer can also cause leaves to turn yellow and droopy.

Rather confusingly a lot of the symptoms of overwatering are superficially similar to underwatering with brown or yellow leaves and a drooping appearance. Looking after our houseplants is a tricky endeavour isn’t it?!

What we must consider is that whilst calathea is a rainforest plant, it does not tolerate the roots being in saturated soil as this excludes oxygen entirely from the soil which is required for root respiration which interferes with the root’s ability to uptake water and nutrients.

This can surprisingly give the calathea the appearance of an underwatered plant, whereas more water may be compounding the problem. If the calathea is in standing water for too long this promotes the conditions for root rot which can kill the plant.

Afriend of mine had this eact dilemma, when they complained they calathea was getting enough water but turning brown and somewhat yellow. I checked the plant and discovered that whilst it was planted in a pot with drainage holes, it was placed in larger outer, decorative pot which did not have drainage holes, so the calathea was just sat in a swamp.

These factors prevent water from escaping from the pot and the roots are sat in boggy soil.

A range of symptoms can occur depending on how long the roots have been in overly damp soil, but my technique to distinguish between unhealthy plants that are underwatered or overwatered is by feeling the soil through the drainage hole in the base.

If the soil feels somewhat dry then under watering is most likely the problem. If the soil is damp the overwatering is the cause of your dying calathea. Bear in mind that low humidity can also cause these symptoms.

I learned that pplying fertilizer too often or in too high a concentration can also turn the leaves yellow.

My Tips for Reviving an Overwatered Calathea with Yellow or Brown Leaves

  • Scale back the watering. If the soil has been saturated then you need to scale back the watering immediately. The calathea prefers well-draining yet moist soil so allow the soil to drain whilst it’s experiencing stress from too much water around the roots.
  • The potting soil should retain moisture but also be well-draining. For calathea the best practice is to plant it in normal organic potting soil, and add some perlite for drainage, and increase the pore size in the soil to increase the oxygen levels so the roots do not suffocate. Around 3 parts potting soil to 1 part perlite is a good ratio.
  • As a matter of urgency, replant the calathea in a pot with drainage holes. If it does have a drainage hole, ensure that it is not blocked by compacted soil, roots, grit, or anything else that can prevent effective drainage.
  • Often the use of saucers, trays, and decorative outer pots is useful for preventing excess water from spilling in the home after watering calathea but they should be emptied regularly if they begin to pool with water as this prevents excess water from escaping and keeps the soil boggy causing the leaves to turn yellow or brown and die back.
  • Leaves can turn yellow and droopy due to excess fertilizer. From research, I’ve learned that calathea are not especially heavy feeders but can benefit from an ordinary houseplant fertilizer at half strength once per month in the Spring and Summer when they are actively growing. Scale back the use of fertilizer if the plant looks unhealthy and water with distilled water to wash away excess salt build-up if you have been feeding more than the recommended amount.

I’ve experimented with several potting amendments on m various calthea plants. All 4 plants had 3 parts normal houseplant potting soil, one had pine bark (orchid potting mix), one had grit, one had perlite and the other had sand.

What I found was that the pine bark, perlite and grit worked well, but the pine bark decomposed after 2 years so It needed to be replace more often. The calathea potted up with 3 parts soil and 1 parts perlite grew best. I have hypothesised the reason is because the perlite had a bigger particle size then the grit so my potting medium was more areatated which improved drainage and allowed oxygen to reach the roots.

Therefore it was most effective at avoiding root rot, so in my opinion perlite and soil is the superior potting mix for calathea.

Once the calathea has been moved to a more suitable potting profile with well-draining soil, and pots with effective drainage then the calathea can recover, although recovery is usually slow.

Wait till you see signs of new growth and emerging leaves. Some of the leaves that have turned brown or yellow are unlikely to recover and I advise to cut them back at the base when new growth emerges.

However, if calathea has been sat in damp soil for long then it has likely developed root rot which is more likely to kill the plant, which highlights the importance of good drainage and it is why I did the testing with so many different potting soil!

How I Revive Calthea Leaves Curling due to Cold Temperatures

As we discussed, our calathea are tropical plants that live in the rainforest in Brazil, with consistently warm temperatures.

As our calathea plants have adaptated to a consistently warm environment this means that they can be very sensitive to cool temperatures which can cause the leaves to curl or a general loss of vitality in the plant with brown foliage, drooping leaves, or a dying appearance.

It is important to acknowledge that prayer plants (which look like claathea but are actually, botanically distict and called Maranta) do curl inwards every night (hence their common name prayer plant) as this is an adaptation to maximizing the leaves exposure to the sun throughout the day. This is perfectly normal, and not any side affects from adverse conditions.

As I said calathea are actually distinct from prayer plants so they do not perform nyctinasty (the night curling up). (It’s a common misconception and I have read several misinformed blogs online claiming they are the same).

The optimal temperature range for a calathea plant is 65 to 75 degrees F (18°C- 23°C) and calathea leaves can show signs of stress when exposed to temperatures cooler than 60°F (15°C).

Temperatures are fairly consistent in their habitat, so our calathea plants can show signs of stress due to temperature fluctuations in the home.

I had this problem when my calathea was near to my back door and it kept getting a blast of cold air everytime I opened the door! I’ve since learned by lesson and my clathea is in my bathroom.

Pro tip: To revive a calathea I highly recommend playing it in a bathroom as they have naturally high humidity, diffused light and they are often warm. Your bathroom is essentially similar to the calathea’s jungle environment! My tropical plants always look at their best in my bathroom.

Their sensitivity to cold temperatures keeps calathea out of the way of air currents from air conditioning, draughts, forced air, and sources of heat.

Also, be aware that if your calathea is on a window sill the leaves can make contact with the window which can be considerably cooler than the rest of the house and damage the leaves of the calathea.

Keep your calathea in a more stable temperature environment in bright, indirect light and the plant should show signs of recovery within a few days.

Revive Calathea with Scorched Leaves

As we discussed, calathea has adapted to growing under the canopy of a rainforest it does not tolerate direct sunlight very well which results in a scorched appearance.

Leaves can fade or even turn scorched yellow or brown when it has direct, intense sunshine.

Calathea leaves generally look their best when the plant is located in bright indirect sunlight as this ensures the plant has enough light for their interesting variegated patterns yet avoids adverse effects.

Pro tip: I have achieved this balance by locating my calathea in a south facing room which had lots of light, but I put up a sheer curtain to diffuse the light and the color of the calathea’s variagagtion is very pronounced.

Once the leaves have been sunburnt they do not recover in appearance, however, from experience the remaining damage to the leaf does not necessarily kill the plant.

So what I do is prune back any sun burnt leaves for aesthetic reasons back to the base to tidy the appearance. However, if many leaves and sun burnt badly then I relocate the plant to a location with indirect light and wait for new growth to emerge before cutting back a significant number of leaves.

Avoid this mistake!: I have seen people make the mistake of cutting back too many leaves at once even if they are damaged which can shock the plant too much!

The calathea may take some time to recover but with patience, the plant’s appearance can improve during the Spring and Summer months and the plant can revive.

(Read my article: How do you Care for Calathea Indoors?)

If you have any other questions of insights in claathea care then please leave a comment below! I love to hear from you!

Key Takeaways:

  • Calathea leaves can droop, with the leaf margins turning brown and crispy with a dying appearance due to underwatering and low humidity. Calathea is a tropical plant that requires high humidity and moist soil. If the soil dries out or the air is too dry then the calathea leaves wilt and die back.
  • Calathea can also die if their roots are sat in boggy soil as this excludes oxygen from around the roots preventing root respiration which suffocates the plants.
  • Too much sun and cold temperatures are also contrary to the preferred conditions of the calathea and cause the plants to die back.
  • To revive a dying calathea, ensure the soil is moist yet well-draining, locate the plant in bright, indirect light, and keep temperatures in the range of 65 to 75 degrees F (18°C- 23°C). Avoid air currents from air conditioning or draughts which can dry out the leaves and mist the leaves regularly.

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