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5 Reasons Your Plant's Leaves Are Turning Yellow & What To Do About It

Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us."
Image by Studio Firma / Stocksy
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July 20, 2020

Noticed some yellow leaves on your maidenhair fern? Does your ficus Audrey suddenly have golden hues? These yellowing leaves are the result of chlorosis—a condition where leaves don't make enough chlorophyll to produce their natural green color. Some yellowing leaves here and there are totally normal, but if you're noticing them in high numbers it could be a sign of a larger plant care issue. Here are five possible reasons for your plant's yellow leaves and what to do about each one:

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1. It isn't getting enough water.

Most of the time, if your plant's leaves turn yellow, it's a sign that you're either underwatering or overwatering it. Plants need water to survive, and if they're not getting enough of it, they'll drop leaves in order to conserve their supply.

What it looks like:

Maryah Greene, the founder of Greene Piece likens the leaves on an underwatered plant to potato chips: crunchy, crispy, and potentially curled around the edges. "An underwatered plant will tell you when it's thirsty by having its leaves faint, curl, or develop a few brown spots on the ends of the foliage," adds Hilton Carter, plant designer and author of Wild Interiors and Wild at Home.

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What to do about it:

The best thing to do for an underwatered plant is to—you guessed it—add water. Be sure to completely drench the plant's roots during each watering as opposed to giving it smaller drinks more frequently. And keep in mind that you don't want to drown your plant either, so give it the soil test before every watering: Stick your fingers into the top 2 inches of the soil. If they're completely dry to the touch, it's time to water.

2. It's getting too much water.

"If your plant is overwatered and does not have proper drainage, the roots start to drown, which causes yellowing and rapidly dropping leaves," says plant coach and urban farmer Nick Cutsumpas.

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What it looks like:

An overwatered plant's leaves will look mushy and might droop. "You may also see mold or fungus gnats in the soil because they love the excess moisture," says Cutsumpas.

What to do about it:

It's harder to correct for overwatering than underwatering. If your plant is overwatered, stop watering it for the time being and make sure that your pot has a drainage hole. (If it doesn't, you'll want to drill one yourself or swap it out for one that does; proper draining is key!) If yellow, mushy leaves continue to develop, it's time to check your plant for root rot. Take it out of its container and feel the roots. If they are dark and mushy, the plant could be a goner.

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3. It's getting too much light.

Harsh sunlight can cause chlorophyll to break down in leaves, especially if your plant prefers shadier conditions.

What it looks like:

Burnt leaves look crispy like underwatered ones, and they can also have brown spots.

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What to do about it:

If your plant is sitting directly on a windowsill, move it farther into the room so it receives less light. This is especially important if you have south- or west-facing windows, as they tend to get more light than north and east-facing ones.

4. It's experiencing sudden temperature changes.

Dry, wet, cold, or hot air can all mess with the way plants photosynthesize and grow. "Your indoor plants can be sensitive to temperature changes, and prolonged exposure to cold drafts from windows or nearby air conditioners can cause extra stress," Cutsumpas explains.

What it looks like:

If your plant is exposed to quick changes in pressure or temperature, its leaves will likely look similar to those of an underwatered plant.

What to do about it:

If you suspect a temperature issue, move your plant away from air conditioners, open or drafty windows, or any doors that lead to the outside. Moving forward, do your best to keep its environment at a temperature between 65 and 75 degrees and a humidity level of 40 to 50%.

5. Its soil nutrients are off.

In order to form chlorophyll, plants rely on certain nutrients in the soil, such as iron and manganese. Nutrient-poor soil, therefore, can cause leaves to turn yellow.

What it looks like:

"You can usually tell if it is a nutrient issue if the yellowing leaves are accompanied by deformities or other abnormalities," says Cutsumpas. Some of these include slow growth or rapid leaf loss.

What to do about it:

Fertilize your plants once a month to ensure they're getting the nutrients they need.

Are yellow leaves ever normal?

Most plants will develop a few yellow leaves naturally as they age. "I like to equate it to shedding hair," Greene says about the yellowing process. "We get split ends over time, and that's just wear and tear. Once you cut those split ends, your hair is going to grow much faster." So a few yellow leaves here and there aren't anything to worry about, but if you see them pop up week after week, it could be a sign that something's off.

Can yellow leaves turn green again?

No, unfortunately, and you're going to want to clip them off and start fresh. To continue with the split end metaphor, Greene says, "Once you have those split ends, they're not just going to seal back up. The same goes for plants: Once the leaves turn yellow, they'll never go back to being green. The best thing you can do is cut those off to promote new growth."

The bottom line.

While some yellow leaves are normal every now and then, they can also signal that your plant isn't getting the right amount of water, light, or nutrients it needs to thrive. These yellow leaves will not grow back to health, so it's best to clip them off and consider what your plant is telling you about what it needs moving forward.

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Emma Loewe
Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor

Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.

Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 articles on mbg, her work has appeared on Bloomberg News, Marie Claire, Bustle, and Forbes. She has covered everything from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping to a group of doctors prescribing binaural beats for anxiety. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.