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When Diagnosing Houseplant Brown Spots, Location Is Key

Emma Loewe
August 27, 2020
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
By Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
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."
August 27, 2020

While browning leaves may look foreboding, they usually don't signal a major issue. Think of them instead like a little report card on how you're doing in the plant care department. They provide valuable feedback and can show you where your houseplant could use some help. When reading into what your plant's brown spots are trying to tell you, the location of the browning is the first clue.

While the cause of browning can differ depending on the type and location of your plant, here are some general rules of (green)thumb to remember.

If your plant's leaves are browning at the tips or edges: too little water.

If the browning is concentrated at the tippy tops of leaves or lining their outer edges, it could be a sign of underwatering, inconsistent watering, or too little humidity. This sort of browning will often affect multiple plant leaves and feel crispy and dry to the touch.

Rebecca Bullene, the founder of Brooklyn-based plant shop Greenery Unlimited, says that this browning is a plant's way of telling you it's stressed. "Plants get stressed just like humans do—and like with humans, their stress is cumulative over time," she explains. This means that the leaf browning you're seeing may not even be an immediate reaction to your recent watering routine but instead speak to the tiny stressors your plant has been putting up with for a while. Try watering more regularly and consistently and/or increasing the humidity around your plant moving forward and see if it helps over time.

If only one leaf has a lone brown tip, it could be a sign of sunburn. If that plant is sitting near a window, consider moving it inward slightly so it isn't getting as much exposure to full sun.

Finally, if the brown tips and edges are a common theme on the older leaves of a houseplant (which tend to sit farther down on the plant) that you've had for a while, it could just be a natural sign of aging. In this case there's not much to be done except appreciate your plant pal's long life.

If your plant's leaves are splotchy or browning in the middle: too much water.

Bullene says that unlike crispy brown edges, browning in the center of leaves is more often a sign of overwatering. "You're starting to see some of those cell walls burst because the plant is just not able to process the volume that you're putting into it," she explains. This is a problem you'll want to correct immediately since overwatering can lead to more serious problems like root rot over time.

The next time you water your plant, double-check to make sure that the first few inches of its soil are totally dry to the touch first. "I really encourage people to actually get comfortable touching the soil," says Bullene. "It's really hard to visually see how wet the dirt is. To know how things are going below the surface, you kind of need to use your other senses."

Again, remember that plants take a little while to show you what they need, so don't expect the leaves to turn green again overnight. The plant's new leaf growth will be a better indicator of how it's really doing.

The bottom line.

There are many things your houseplant's brown spots could be telling you, but their location can provide a quick clue. Browning edges often signal an underwatering or inconsistent watering issue, while browning insides are more likely due to overwatering.

Emma Loewe author page.
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director

Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director 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 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. 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.