How to Revive a Dying Houseplant

The most common reason for a dying houseplant is root rot due to overwatering. Most species of houseplant require the top inch of soil to dry between bouts of watering. If the soil is constantly saturated then the roots begin to rot which causes the leaves to turn yellow and drop off and the plant dies back.

Here is a summary of common symptoms and causes of dying Houseplants…

Symptoms of Dying Houseplant:Reasons for a Dying Houseplants:
Houseplant Leaves Turning Yellow (and drooping):Root rot due to overwatering or slow draining soils. Dry soil, too much or not enough fertilizer, sun scorch of low levels of light can all cause yellowing leaves.
Houseplant Dropping Leaves:Usually a sudden and drastic fluctuation in temperatures is the primary cause of dropping leaves. Low humidity, underwatering or overwatering are also common causes.
Houseplant Dying in Winter:Many species of houseplant drop their leaves in Winter even if they are not deciduous due to low levels of light and cold temperatures, but should recover in Spring. Overwatering in Winter can cause a houseplant to die back.
Houseplant Dying After Moving:Houseplants take some time to acclimatize to their surroundings. Any sudden change in temperature, humidity, levels of sunlight and air flow can cause houseplants to die back.
Houseplant Leaves Turning Brown:Most often underwatering, root rot from overwatering or too much direct sunlight.
Houseplant Leaf Tips Turning Brown:Low humidity is by far the most common reason for brown leaf tips. Underwatering and too much fertilizer can also be factors.

Keep reading to learn why your houseplant is dying and how to implement the solutions to revive it…

Houseplant with Leaves Turning Yellow

  • Symptoms. Yellowing, often drooping leaves which can also turn brown.
  • Causes. Overwatering, underwatering, too much sun, not enough light, a lack of nutrients or too much high concentration fertilizer scorching the leaves yellow, cold temperatures.

Overwatering and Underwatering

The most common reason for houseplant leaves turning yellow is because of root rot due to overwatering and slow draining soils. Most houseplants need the soil to dry slightly between bouts of watering. If the potting soil is constantly saturated, the roots rot which turns the leaves yellow with a dying appearance.

Most houseplants originate from either desert climates, such as cacti and succulents, (and therefore adapted to tolerate drought) or tropical humid climates such as calathea, orchids, ficus and almost all other leafy houseplants which all need well draining, porous soil.

Too much moisture around the roots from overwatering or slow draining soils excludes oxygen from the soil which prevents the roots from respiring and interferes with the root’s ability to draw up moisture and nutrients.

If the roots cannot uptake moisture and nutrients the leaves react by turning yellow and drooping, sometimes with brown spots.

Rather confusingly, houseplant leaves also turn yellow and wilt due to underwatering. This is usually as a result of watering the soil too lightly so that only the top inch or so becomes moist (without reaching the roots) or perhaps if there is too much time between each bout of watering.

Once the soil dries out completely it can also turn hydrophobic which means it repels water off the surface and down the side of the pot, rather then infiltrate the soil and reach the roots.

How to Revive Yellow Leaves due to Underwatering or Overwatering

  • For desert houseplants such as cacti and succulents, always allow the soil to dry out completely between bouts of watering. Allowing the potting soil to dry out completely before watering mimics the cacti and succulents natural cycle of drought followed by a deluge of rainfall that they typically experience, in their natural habitat.
  • To establish the correct watering schedule, feel the soil at the bottom of the pot through the drainage hole in the base. If the soil still feels damp, delay watering for a few days until the soil feels dry, then give the soil a through watering. This ensures that you are watering your cacti or succulent at the correct frequency for your plant in the specific conditions in your home (according to temperature, humidity etc).
  • Ensure cacti and succulents are planted in the correct potting medium. Desert dwelling houseplants are adapted to growing in gritty, poor soils with excellent drainage and relatively low nutrients. Ordinary potting soil retains too much moisture and results in a yellowing (and black) rotting appearance due to root rot.

Read my article, on how often to water succulents for more specific information).

For leafy foliage houseplants that are native to the tropics (orchids, philodendrons, spider plants and most other house plants)…

  • Only water when the surface of the soil feels dry. Most plants cope much better with underwatering then overwatering so always wait until at least the surface of the soil is dry, if not the first inch of the soil. This ensures the plant has enough water to meet its requirements whilst reducing the risk of root rot.
  • Empty saucers, trays and decorative outer pots of excess water. If water pools around the base of the pot then the potting medium stays too damp for the plants roots to tolerate, promoting the conditions for root rot which turns the leaves yellow.

(Read my article on watering orchids as they often require their own specialized potting medium in conjunction with the correct watering schedule).

Once you have corrected the watering conditions then the plant may recover. Cut back any yellowing leaves with a sharp pair of pruners as these indivual leaves do not turn green again if the cause is overwatering.

However if your houseplant has been in damp soil for too long and most, or perhaps all the leaves have turned yellow then it is likely that the plant has rotten roots and it is likely to die back, in which case the only possible case for saving the plant is to propagate any leaves or plantlets that still look healthy.

With the right conditions, propagating houseplants is relatively easy and a good source of free plants.

If your houseplant is yellow due to underwatering…

Houseplants that are watered fairly regularly can still turn yellow due to underwatering, if the potting has been allowed to dry out completely and bake hard as the soil can become hydrophobic (repels water).

Scratch back the top inch or so of the soil after watering to see if you can detect whether the moisture is able to infiltrate the soil properly.

If it feels dry submerge it in a basin of lukewarm water for around 10 minutes. This allows the soil to properly absorb the water so that the roots can access the moisture.

Submerging the soil for like this changes its structure and it should be able to absorb water properly then next time you water your plant.

Too Much or Not Enough Sunlight

Most desert plants such as cacti or succulents can tolerate full sun and typically can be kept on a south facing window sill without any problems of scorching.

However most leafy foliage house plants (calathea, orchids, peace lilies etc.) are native to tropical forests where they grow in the shade of a tree canopy. This makes most houseplants perfect for growing indoors as they do not need full sun and therefore are more adaptable as to where they can grow in the home.

However as they are adapted to the shade, the leaves tend to be more sensitive to direct sunlight which can scorch the houseplant’s leaves yellow with a shriveled, dying appearance.

Therefore most houseplants prefer the balance of bright indirect light as the bright light provides the plant with enough energy to grow without scorching the leaves.

Too much shade typically results in poor, drooping growth that can turn yellow.

How to a Scorched Yellow Save it..

The vast majority of houseplants require the balance of bright, indirect light rather then full sun. So to save it replicate its preferred conditions by moving it to a nice bright room but keep it away from windows sills with intense direct sunlight.

Once you have done this leave the plant for a few months (caring for it as normal) and assess the damage.

Cut back any yellow, scorched leaves back to healthy growth as these scorched do not turn green again. Trimming the plant back should stimulate new growth.

If your houseplant is leaning and turning yellow due to, too much shade then move it to a brighter room and apply fertilizer at half concentration in the Spring and Summer. This should provide it with the energy to grow again and restore its appearance.

Low Nutrients or Too Much Fertilizer Causes Yellow Leaves

If your houseplant has been in the same pot for many years the roots can exhaust the soil of available nutrients. Without enough nitrogen the houseplants leaves turn yellow with poor growth and a dying appearance.

Yellowing leaves can be due to the plant out growing its pot and the roots become matted and pot bound as they look for more nutrients and available moisture.

It is also important to note that a lot of houseplants (such as ficus or orchids) are sensitive to fertilizer and either need houseplant fertilizer applied at half the concentration stated by the manufacturer or require a specialized fertilizer.

If too much fertilizer is applied, then salts can accumulate in the potting around the roots. The excess of salts creates osmotic pressure which prevents the roots from uptaking water, resulting in wilting leaves that turn yellow.

How to Save it…

Check the pot to see if the roots are pot bound, in which case repot your houseplant to a pot ideally just one size larger (if the pot is too large it can risk excessive water retention).

Ideally repot house plants in the Spring or Summer as plants tend to be more resilient to the stress of repotting.

Repotting with new potting soil should provide the plant’s roots with more space to access nutrients and moisture which should help to address the nutrient deficiency in the soil that caused the yellowing leaves.

Apply a general houseplant at half strength in the Spring and Summer and the plant should perk up.

If you have applied too much fertilizer (either used the fertilizer too often or in too high concentration) then the only solution is to flush the potting soil by leaving it under a faucet (tap) for 10 minutes or so. This should dissolve the excess salts in the soil, which should the allow the roots to function properly.

Temperatures Cooler Then 50°F (10°C)

Most houseplants are native to warm tropical regions.The reason most houseplants are cultivated from the tropics is because they are comfortable at typical room temperatures of 65°F to 75°F (18°F to 24°C) and can often tolerate indoors heating.

However if they are exposed to temperatures cooler then 50°F for too long due to cold draughts from open doors and windows or cold rooms in Winter then they can often turn yellow and brown.

If the leaves are in contact with windows then the glass can often be much colder then the ambient room temperature. The leaves that are touching the window can often turn yellow due stress from the cold temperatures.

How to Save it…

Houseplants are selected and cultivated due to their ability to thrive at room temperature, so if your plant is currently in a cool or draughty area of the house that fluctuates significantly in temperature throughout the day or regularly gets below 50°F then move the plant to a warmer more hospitable room.

Once the plant is in more favorable conditions, then it should revive in the following weeks. How as most houseplants originate from tropical regions (and there therefore used to tropical temperature) if it has been exposed to severe cold then it can be too difficult to save.

Houseplant Dropping its Leaves

  • Symptoms. Leaves dropping suddenly, or perhaps leaves dropping in Winter.
  • Causes. Most often the cause is a combination of sudden temperature fluctuation, low humidity, not enough light or perhaps underwatering and overwatering. Moving houseplants can also cause leaves to drop.

To revive a houseplant that is dropping leaves it is important to recreate the conditions of its natural habitat with increased humidity by misting regularly, water when the top inch of soil has dried and avoiding temperature fluctuations.

Leaves Dropping in Winter

A certain amount of leaf drop is expected for most houseplants in Winter in reaction to the lower light intensity, fewer hours of sun and cold temperatures and some houseplants are even deciduous loosing their leaves as part of the seasonal cycle.

However it is also important to note that you should reduce the frequency of watering in Winter whilst the plant is in a state of dormancy, or it can develop root rot and drop its leaves.

Temperature Fluctuations and Low Humidity Causing Leaf Drop

Houseplants are usually tropical in origin and prefer stable room temperatures with around 10F cooler at night (and some humidity) as this is the typical daily temperature cycle that they experience in their natural habitat.

One of the biggest reasons for houseplants dropping leaves is because indoor heating is often used in the evening and raises room temperature at night, which is contrary to the houseplants preferred cycle of temperatures.

This is particularly a problem if your houseplant is next to the source of heat whether it be a radiator, fireplace, or in the current of forced air.

High temperatures lowers the humidity and saps moisture from the leaves and water from the soil, which causes the leaves to drop as a survival strategy to avoid loosing any more water.

Draughts from open windows or doors or air conditioning also cause drastic changes in temperature and dries out the air to the point a houseplant can drop its leaves.

How to Save it…

  • Keep houseplants out of any air currents and ideally on the other side of the room from any sources of heat. House plants typically like room temperatures so ideally do not place them on a cold window sill.
  • The air indoors can be too dry for tropical leafy houseplants, so mist any remaining leaves every few days to mimic their natural habitat and reduce the rate of water loss. You can also use a special plant humidifier which can create the optimal conditions for your houseplants to prevent them losing their leaves.

Once the houseplant has more favorable conditions, it can grow new leaves in the Spring and Summer. I would recommend using a general, all purpose houseplant fertilizer at half concentration (some species of plants are sensitive to fertilizer, so always use at half strength) to help stimulate growth of new foliage.

Not Enough Light

Whilst some houseplant’s leaves turn yellow in response to a lack of light others simply drop their leaves. If they are in deep shade the plant does not have enough energy to support its leaves which causes them to droop downwards and fall off.

Most houseplants thrive in bright, indirect light rather then deep shade or full sun.

Move your plant to a brighter area (avoiding direct sunlight) and the plant should perk up and grow new leaves in the Spring.

Underwatering and Overwatering Causing Leaves to Drop

Letting the soil dry out for too long is another very common cause of leaves drooping. Most houseplants (other then the desert dwelling succulents and cacti) prefer the first inch of potting soil to dry out between bouts of watering.

Overwatering to the point the soil is consistently moist can result in yellow leaves that drop off, due to root rot.

To establish a good watering schedule, feel the soil to an inch depth and only water when the potting soil starts to feel dry. This meets the moisture requirements of the plant without risking root rot.

If the plant has been chronically underwatered or watered too lightly (the potting soil should be evenly moist after watering) then submerge the root ball for 10 minutes in a basin of lukewarm. This should re-hydrate the plant and the structure of the soil should improve.

Moving Houseplants Causes the Leaves to Drop

Houseplants often drop their leaves as a sign of stress when they are moved from one location to another due to the sudden contrast in light, temperature, humidity and air flow. Plants drop their leaves if they have not had enough time to acclimate to its new surroundings.

The greater the contrast in conditions the more likely the plant is to drop its leaves, therefore it is generally recommended to only move houseplants if necessary.

How to Save it…

Keep in mind whether the houseplant has been moved too near to a source of indoor heating, in the path of air conditioning or near draughty areas with open windows, that could be causing too much stress and relocate accordingly.

Mist the plant to to create a humid micro-climate which replicates the conditions of its natural habitat. This should reduce the stress of moving the plant and reduce water loss from any remaining leaves.

Keep the plant watered any ensure it stays at around room temperature and it should e able to grow new leaves in the Spring and Summer.

House Plant Leaves Turning Brown or Brown Leaf Tips

  • Symptoms. Leaves can be scorched brown, or turn brown and die back. Brown leaf tips can develop, even if the rest of the leaf is green.
  • Causes. For brown leaf tips the primary causes are low humidity, too much fertilizer or underwatering. For brown leaves too much sun can scorch leaves yellow and brown, and the lower leaves often turn brown as the plant matures. Cold temperatures and overwatering can be contributing factors.

Low Humidity and Underwatering Causes Wilting Brown Leaves

The most common reason for brown leaf tips is because of low humidity. Most houseplants are native to humid tropical environments. The air indoors is usually too low in humidity which dries out the leaves and turns the tips brown and crsipy.

Some houseplants are more adaptable and can tolerate low humidity better then other, but plants such as peace lilies and spider plants commonly develop brown leaves or leaf tips in response to dry air.

Brown leaves and brown leaf tips can also indicate that there is not enough moisture at the plant’s roots due to underwatering or hydrophobic soil.

How to Save it…

Mist the leaves with water (or use a plant humidifier) as often as every day to increase the humidity which should alleviate the stress that caused the brown leaves.

Ensure that the potting soil is evenly moist each time you water by giving it a good soak to the point excess water trickles from the base of the pot.

It is best to allow 1 inch of the potting soil to dry between bouts of watering but keep up the watering schedule consistently (do not let the soil dry out completely) to prevent the leaves turning brown and ensure your houseplant is not too close to a source of heat that could be drying out the leaves.

You can trim any brown leaf tips back with a sharp pair of pruners to improve the appearance of plant.

Brown leaf tip of a peace lily trimmed back with pruners to restore the appearance of green healthy leaves.
Brown leaf tip of a peace lily trimmed back with pruners to restore the appearance of green healthy leaves.

Too Much Fertilizer

A significant reason for leaves turning brown is also due to applying fertilizer too often or applying it in too high concentration.

A lot of species of houseplant are actually very sensitive to fertilizer and either require a specialized fertilizer (such as orchids) or the fertilizer should be applied at half concentration.

Special fertilizer made for orchids contains the right nutrients at the right concentration.
Special fertilizer made for orchids contains the right nutrients at the right concentration.

It is much easier to revive a houseplant due to a lack of nutrients rather then too much fertilizer which is why you should err on the side of caution for most houseplants.

How to Save it…

Too much fertilizer can either burn the roots o your houseplant or cause an accumulation of salts in the soil.

To dilute the salts and alleviate the stress, place the potting soil under the faucet (tap) for 10 minutes or so to flush out the accumulated salts.

Avoid using any more fertilizer until the following Spring and either use a general houseplant fertilizer at half strength or use a specialized product.

Leaves Turning Brown and Dying Naturally

Some houseplants also have lower leaves turn brown and crispy as the plant matures. This is because the plants is redirecting its energy into growing more leaves that are receiving more light and the larger leaves at the base die back.

This does not mean the plant is dying and is a normal part of the plants cycle. Cut any brown crispy leaves back to the base with a sharp pair pruners.

Houseplant Dying in Winter

The most common reason for a houseplant to die back in Winter is because of overwatering. Houseplants should be watered less often in Winter as they enter a state of dormancy and therefore do not require much moisture.

If you water the plant as often as you would in Summer then it is likely the soil is too damp which promotes the conditions for root rot.

This can cause a variety of symptoms such as wilting, dropping leaves that turn brown and yellow (depending on the species and the extent of overwatering).

Reduce the watering and ensure that the first inch is dry before watering again. It may take a week longer for the soil to dry between each bout of watering compared to the Spring or Summer due to the reduced demand for moisture in Winter.

I would also recommend misting the leaves every few days to counteract the dry Winter air and ensure that the houseplant is not next to a source of heat or on a draughty area such as a window sill.

Indoor heating can dry out the air too much or even dry the soil too quickly if it is too near to your houseplant.

Some leaf drop or yellowing leaves is expected in Winter due to lower light intensity and the plant can revive in the following Spring.

However if the houseplant has been significantly overwatered then it is unlikely to recover.

Key Takeaways:

  • A dying houseplant is usually because of root rot due to overwatering and slow draining soil which causes plants to turn yellow droop and die back. Temperatures lower then 50°F can cause leaves to turn yellow and brown with a dying appearance.
  • Houseplants drop their leaves in response to a sudden temperature fluctuation or low humidity. Most houseplants prefer stable temperatures of around 65°F to 75°F during the day and 10°F cooler at night. If the temperatures suddenly increases or decreases the contrast can cause a plant to lose its leaves.
  • The reason for brown leaf tips is usually low humidity. Most houseplants are native to humid, tropical environments and prefer high humidity. Dry air saps too much moisture from the leaves causing the tips to turn brown as a sign of stress.
  • The reason for houseplant dying in Winter is usually due to overwatering. Houseplants go through a dormant period in Winter and require watering less frequently. If the potting soil is too damp in Winter the roots start to rot which causes the leaves to turn yellow, droop and die back.
  • To revive a dying houseplant it is important to recreate the conditions of its natural environment by maintaining a temperature range of 65°F to 75°F, mist the leaves of any leafy tropical plants, find the right balance of bright indirect light and water when the top inch of the soil feels dry.

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