Why Plant Leaves Get Brown Tips?

Could you tell me why plant leaves get brown tips? I probably get asked this question more than any other plant question except for “can you identify my mystery plant so I can stop killing it.” Many people think the tips of plant leaves turn brown because of too much or too little water. Over or under watering may play a small part but is probably not one of the main reasons. Here’s what I think:

1. Too Much Fertilizer: Too much fertilizer is worse than too little. Plants should only be fed when they are actively growing and producing new leaves, which is usually in the Spring and Summer for most plants. If the plant doesn’t absorb the food, the salts in the food collect in the soil burning the roots and causing unsightly brown or black tips on the leaves. I always recommend diluting the fertilizer to ½ the recommended strength.

2. Never Use Water That has Passed Through a Water Softener: This is a salt issue again. Water that comes out of a softener has a lot of salt in it which causes the same issue as too much fertilizer.

3. Household Water Has too Many Chemicals: Although it’s fine for us if the water we drink has chlorine or fluoride in it, many plants don’t like it, especially dracaenas and palms. Using water full of chemicals is often the cause of  brown tips. The least expensive way to handle the problem is to let the water stand out over night before using it. That gives the chemicals a chance to dissipate and  no longer be in the water. You can also spend the money and buy distilled water.

4. Low Humidity: Many houseplants originate in the humid jungles of Asia and South America. They are accustomed to and require much higher humidity than we have in our homes and offices. Here are a few easy ways to increase the humidity around your plants:

  1.  Place a small room humidifier near your plants.
  2. Group plants together and create a mini greenhouse effect
  3. Place plants on a wet pebble tray. Be sure the water stays below the bottom of the pots and the plant sits on pebbles and not directly in the water. The pebbles should be pea size and the tray should be at least as wide as the plant. As the water evaporates, the humidity in the air increases.
  4. Misting Plants: I don’t recommend misting plants. Leaves that are constantly wet tend to develop bacterial and fungal diseases that are more serious problems than lack of humidity. Also, it’s not very efficient. The mist evaporates so quickly it rarely increases the humidity for enough time to be beneficial.
  5. Anyone have some other suggestions for increasing humidity, please let me know.

If your plant gets brown tips, you can usually trim them off. Use a sharp, wet scissors and try to cut in the shape of the leaf. This works with most plants, though with some, like a Peace Lily or Prayer plant, the leaves get very yellow when you try to trim them so it’s often better to just cut the whole leaf off.