Skip to content

How To Diagnose & Save Your Sick Houseplant, Stat

Veronica Peerless
June 18, 2017
Photo by Zocky
June 18, 2017

Houseplants bring the outside into our homes, are great for our well-being, and can help purify the air. But sometimes their lush, green leaves turn crispy and yellow or end up with blotches and spots. Every plant (and home!) is different, of course, so you may need to do some detective work to get to the bottom of your houseplant woes.

Here are five common houseplant problems, with some pro tips on how to fix them.

1. Its leaves are yellow.

It’s normal for lower leaves to age and turn yellow, but lots of yellow can be the result of overwatering (especially on succulents) or underwatering. Your plant may not be getting enough light or nutrients, or maybe it’s in a cold draft, perhaps from an air-conditioning unit. Its position could also be too hot or bright—ferns, for example, like cool, shady spots.

How to save it: Adjust your watering regimen. If that doesn't work, move the plant into a brighter spot, away from a radiator or air conditioner.

2. The tips or edges of its leaves are brown.

This is often a sign that the air is too dry. Many houseplants hail from humid rain forests, so they struggle in our centrally heated homes. Alternatively, it's possible that you're watering too much or too little.

How to save it: Raise the humidity around your plant by placing the pot on a wide, shallow dish (the same width as your plant's foliage), filled with gravel or pebbles and topped with water. If that doesn't work, adjust your watering regimen.

3. It's wilting or collapsing.

If this is the case, you're probably overwatering. Unfortunately, overwatering is a more serious problem than underwatering, as roots tend to rot in soggy soil. There's also a chance your plant is in a spot that’s too hot or sunny, which many houseplants can’t handle. If the roots are poking out of the pot, your plant is pot-bound and has outgrown its vessel, which can also cause wilting. Lastly, if your plant has been outside in summer, vine weevil grubs (white, 1-centimeter-long, comma-shaped insects) may have eaten the roots.

How to save it: If you’ve underwatered, plunge the pot into a bowl of tepid water for half an hour. If you’ve overwatered and the compost is very soggy, dry it out by wrapping the root in kitchen paper to absorb excess moisture. If the roots have turned brown and mushy, you won’t be able to save your plant. Move your plant to a cooler, less sunny spot if needed, and if it’s pot-bound, replant it into a larger pot.

Photo: Kara Riley

4. It's dropping leaves or flower buds.

Plants can suffer "transplant shock" when placed in a new home. This often happens with fiddle-leaf figs in particular. Plants can also drop their leaves and buds if they’re too wet or too dry at the roots. The air could also be too dry.

How to save it: Wrap up your plant before you bring it home, especially in cold weather. Try to avoid moving your houseplants around, especially ones with flower buds. Do a bit of research on the conditions your plant likes, and once you’ve found a spot where it’s happy, leave it there!

5. Its leaves have spots or patches.

Brown patches often mean the plant has been scorched by bright sunlight. Water splashed on the leaves can also cause spots, especially on hairy-leaved plants such as African violets. Watering with cold water can also cause these spots. However, brown or black spots, often surrounded by a yellow ring, are leaf spot, caused by bacteria or fungi.

How to save it: Water your plants with tepid water and don’t splash it on the leaves. If your plant has leaf spot, remove the affected leaves and treat with a fungicide.

Care tips that apply to most houseplants.

Avoid these issues moving forward with these plant-care tips and tricks:

1. Put your plant in the right spot.

Do a bit of research on your plant and find out what conditions it likes. Most houseplants (with the exception of cactuses and succulents) like a bright position that is out of direct sunshine, so a couple of feet from a window is ideal.

2. Water with care.

Overwatering is the No. 1 cause of plant death. Water only when the top 1 to 2 centimeters of compost is dry. Be sure to use tepid water, and water less in winter.

3. Love your plants!

A few minutes a week spent checking on and caring for your plants will mean that they’ll not only survive but thrive.

Looking for new plant pal to cultivate into vibrant life? Check out these low-maintenance, air-filtering options.

Veronica Peerless author page.
Veronica Peerless

Veronica Peerless is a freelance writer and editor, specializing in gardening. She is a contributing editor at and edits a section of the Garden Design Journal. She is a keen gardener and is always on the hunt for unusual houseplants for her home. She blogs at