How to Save an Indoor Palm Tree with Brown Leaves

why are my indoor palm tree leaves turning brown

I can report that indoor palm leaves turning brown is a very common problem for us houseplant enthusiasts, so if yours is suffering, you are not alone! It has happened to my indoor plam before and in this article I am going to share with you the steps I took to revive my plant to its former glory!

The leaves and leaf tips of indoor palm trees turn brown because of drought stress, low humidity, and temperatures lower than 55ºF. The lower leaves turn brown and die back as the palm tree matures.

However, I have found that palm tree leaves turn yellow and brown as a result of underwatering, overwatering, and poor drainage or because of a sudden drop in temperature.

I must also caution that too much sun can scorch the leaves yellow and brown. My indoor palm turned brown due to harsh sunlight and low humidity.

The steps I took to save the palm tree were to recreate the conditions of its native environment by increasing the humidity, watering when the first inch of the soil dries out, and maintaining a stable temperature range of 65ºF to 75ºF (18ºC to 23ºC).

All the popular indoor palm tree species (Parlor palms, Areca palms, Kentia palms, Majesty Palms, Ponytail palms, etc.) are from humid tropical climates, and I can assure you their leaves turn brown for the same reasons.

Keep reading to learn the steps I take to save indoor palm trees…

Why is My Palm Tree Leaves and Leaf Tips Turning Brown and Crispy?

Indoor palm tree with brown leaves and leaf tips due to low humidity and underwatering.
This is my friend’s Indoor palm tree that had brown leaves and leaf tips due to low humidity and underwatering.
  • Symptoms. Leaves turn brown and crispy with a dying appearance.
  • Causes. Low humidity is the most common reason, followed by underwatering and hydrophobic soil—low temperatures and too much sun are contributing factors.

Palm trees are native to tropical environments and prefer high levels of humidity.

The humidity in our homes is often as low as 10% (but can vary widely due to climate) and can drop even lower due to indoor heating in the Winter and air conditioning in the Summer.

When I lived in New York my palm tree would suffer from low humidity in the Summer due to air con and in the Winter due to dry air from my indoor heating!

The low humidity can sap moisture from the palm trees leaves more quickly than the roots can draw up moisture which results in the leaf tips initially turning dry and crispy.

Chronically low humidity (if the palm tree is in the direct air current of air conditioning for example) can result in entire leaves turning brown, crispy and dying back as it did in my case.

Another common cause that I come across is If the soil dries out too much between bouts of watering or the soil is watered too lightly then this can also contribute to the drought stress that results in leaves turning brown, although they may turn yellow and brown depending on the extent of the drought stress.

What I have found happens is if the soil dries out completely then the soil can shrink away from the side of the pot and the surface of the soil becomes hydrophobic which means that water is repelled off the soil surface causing it to trickle down the side of the pot.

If the soil is hydrophobic, then water cannot infiltrate properly and reach the roots where it is needed, which results in brown, crispy leaves that die back.

Temperatures Colder than 55ºF (12ºC) Causes Palm Tree Leaves to Turn Brown

Temperature extremes and fluctuations can also be contributing factors to a palm tree’s leaves turning brown.

Palm trees are native to warm climates, and most species of houseplant palm trees do not tolerate cold temperatures particularly well.

If the temperature in your home is lower than 55ºF (12ºC) or drops suddenly, even if it is in the preferred temperature range, I have witnessed this being the reason for brown leaves.

Also, I would bear in mind that if the leaves are in contact with the glass of a window, then the temperature of the glass (particularly at night) can be substantially colder than the ambient temperature of the room, which can be another significant cause of brown leaves.

How to Save it…

To save my palm tree with brown leaves, I recreated some of the conditions of its native environment by increasing the humidity, watering regularly, and protecting it from temperatures cooler than 55ºF (12ºC).

  • Increase the humidity by misting the leaves daily or using a humidifier. Misting the leaves is an effective way to counteract the dry air indoors and reduces the rate of water loss from the leaves. This alleviates the stress that causes brown leaf tips. I personally used a humidifier when I lived in New York to counteract the dry air from air con and indoor heating as I found misting was insufficent.
  • I submergedmy palm tree’s root ball in a basin of lukewarm water for 10 minutes. If the soil has dried out too much, then in my experience, simply watering it is not going to soften the soil enough for the water to infiltrate properly and become evenly moist. By submerging my pot in water, the water can properly absorb into the soil and re-hydrate the soil so that is evenly moist and the roots can access the moisture they need. Once the soil has been soaked the soil’s structure should improve and you can water the palm normally. Ensure the water is lukewarm as cold water can shock this tropical plant.
  • Always water palm trees with a generous soak, so that excess water trickles from the base of the pot. Watering too lightly is a common mistake I see as it only moistens the soil surface and the water does not reach the roots. Watering thoroughly ensures the soil is evenly moist to prevent the drought stress that causes the leaves to turn brown.
  • Keep indoor palm trees in rooms with a stable temperature range of 65ºF to 75ºF (18ºC to 23ºC). This is the preferred temperature range of the palm tree in its natural habitat. I avoid temperature fluctuations by locating my palm tree on the other side of the room from sources of heat and avoiding cold, draughty areas of the house such as window sills, and my palm tree looks much better for it.

Once I addressed all the environmental problems that caused my palm tree leaves to turn brown then my palm can start to recover in the following weeks.

Should I Cut Off Brown Palm Leaves?

Once the palm tree’s leaves have turned brown and crispy, they do not recover and turn green again. So I recommend cutting any individual brown leaves or leaf tips back with a sharp pair of pruners. Cutting any brown leaves back helps to stimulate the growth of new healthy green leaves.

The Lower Leaves of My Palm are Turning Brown and Dying Back

If just the lower leaves of your palm tree are turning brown then I can assure you that this does not indicate there is anything wrong with the palm tree’s environment and the plant should be perfectly healthy.

In my experience, the lower leaves of palm trees turn brown naturally as the plant matures.

The palm tree redirects its energy into new growth which is higher up and therefore more likely to be exposed to more light. The newer leaves are therefore more able to contribute energy (by photosynthesis) to the palm tree.

The lower leaves then turn brown and die back as they are typically larger and require more resources to sustain whilst contributing less to the plant compared to the newer leaves.

I personally prune any brown leaves back to the base of the plant with a sharp pair of pruners to improve the appearance of my palm tree.

Why is My Palm Tree Turning Yellow and Brown?

  • Symptoms. Leaves turn yellow and brown with a wilting, dying appearance.
  • Causes. Overwatering and poor drainage or even underwatering. Cold temperatures are also likely a contributing factor as can too much sunlight.

What I have discovered is that the most common reason for palm trees turning yellow and brown is because the soil is too damp from overwatering or drainage. Whenever someone tells me their indoor palm is dying, I always check to see if the soil is damp first.

However, (rather confusingly) underwatering can actually have the same symptoms with the leaves turning yellow and brown and dying back.

This reason both underwatering and overwatering cause the same symptoms (yellow and brown leaves) is because the yellowing brown leaves indicates that their is not enough moisture and and nutrients been draw up by the roots.

As I previously highlighted, indoor palm trees need good drainage and require the top inch of the soil to dry between each bout of watering.

Overwatering excludes oxygen from the soil which prevents the roots from respiring. If the roots cannot respire then they cannot function properly and uptake the moisture and nutrients that the palm tree requires.

If water and nutrients are not supplied to the leaves then they turn yellow and brown.

But you should keep in mind that overwatering is not the only reason for the soil to become too damp for the palm tree to tolerate.

A classic mistake that I see with indoor plans is if there are any saucers, trays, or decorative outer pots without drainage holes in the base, then excess water pools at the bottom of the pot causing the potting medium to become intolerably saturated and result in root rot.

If the soil is too dense and compacted then this can reduce the rate at which the potting soil dries out, promoting the conditions for root rot.

However, if you leave it too long between each bout of watering then there is not enough moisture to sustain the leaves which causes them to turn yellow and brown.

Another commonality that I have observed is that the, temperature is outside of the palm trees’ preferred temperature range which can contribute to the stress that results in yellow and brown leaves with cold temperatures being a more prominent problem.

It is also important to note that most species of indoor palm trees need bright, indirect light. Too much sunlight can scorch the leaves initially yellow which then dry out and turn brown before dying back.

Always locate your palm trees in bright indirect light rather than full sun.

(Read my article, How to Care for Potted Indoor Palm Trees).

Save Your Indoor Palm Trees with Yellow and Brown Leaves

The first thing I would do is to establish whether the cause of the yellow and brown leaves is because of underwatering or overwatering. The way I do this is to feel the soil at the base of the pot through the drainage hole.

If the soil feels dry then you know underwatering is your problem whereas if it is saturated then overwatering is the probable cause. (Keep in mind temperature can also be the cause).

I also lift the plant up to assess the weightwhich is a good way to distinguish whether it is over or underwatered.

If the soil is dry and underwatering is the cause then follow the same steps for the solution to palm tree leaves turning brown listed nearer the top of this article as the solutions are the same for both afflictions.

If the soil feels damp, then here are the the key steps that I take for rehabilitation:

  • Always wait for the first inch of the potting soil to dry before watering. This creates the optimal balance of soil moisture to meet the watering requirements of the palm trees whilst mitigating the risk of root rot. I feel the soil with my finger to check when it’s dry as I find this is more accurate than the moisture meters or any other method.
  • Always empty saucers, trays, and decorative pots of excess water regularly to allow for good drainage.
  • If the soil has been firmed in too much after repotting or it is particularly slow draining, then repot your palm tree. I see all the time people repot their indoor palms and firm in the soil around the roots with too much enthusiasm, which can harm your tree. In this scenario, I would Re-pot the palm tree in my favorite potting mix of 75% potting soil to 25% perlite or horticultural grit. This improves drainage and creates a porous structure to allow for good root respiration.
  • Repot the palm tree in a terracotta or clay pot rather than plastic or ceramic. Terracotta and clay are my favorite pots for indoor palms as they are naturally porous, which allows the potting soil to dry out evenly between each bout of watering, creating more favorable conditions and mitigating the risk of root rot (plastic and ceramic pots are impermeable, which can retain too much moisture).

Once the potting soil has a chance to dry out (from an overwatered state) then the roots can begin to function properly again which should alleviate the stress that caused the leaves to turn yellow and brown.

The leaves that have turned yellow and brown do not recover and turn green again so I would cut these leaves with a sharp pair of pruners back to healthy growth to help stimulate new growth.

(Read my article on how to revive a dying indoor palm tree).

Key Takeaways:

  • Indoor palm tree leaf tips turn brown due to low humidity and cold temperatures. Dry air saps too much moisture from the leaves causing them to turn brown and crispy. Palm trees are native to warm tropical environments. Temperatures cooler than 55ºF (12ºC) cause the leaves to turn brown as a sign of stress.
  • Indoor palm leaves turn yellow and brown as a result of underwatering, overwatering, or too much sunlight. Too much direct sunlight scorches leaves yellow which then turn brown and die back.
  • To save an indoor palm tree with brown leaves, increase the humidity with regular misting, only water when the top inch of soil feels dry, move the tree to an area of bright indirect light, and maintain a temperature range of 65ºF to 75ºF (18ºC to 23ºC). Cut any brown leaves back to healthy growth with a sharp pair of pruners.

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