Symptoms of Under Watering, Yellow Leaves & Leaf Loss

Yellow Hibiscus Leaf
Yellow Hibiscus Leaf | Source

The Simple Explanation

So, you have discovered that your houseplant has some yellow leaves or may be losing leaves, and like many you may be concerned that you are killing your green buddy. In search of some answer about what has gone awry you have ended up here looking for answers. The short answer, and most general one you will receive from asking those in the know for the cause of yellow leaves, and leaf loss on your plant is under watering.

Think of your plant as being a company, the plant leaves as workers, and think of the water you give your plant as money the company pays the workers for what they produce. If the company runs short on water, or sticking to our analogy money, it has to lay off some workers because it can no longer pay them to produce. Like a company plants will always lay off the least productive workers first, which in the world of plants are those leaves that are nearest the base of the plant, these leaves are usually the oldest, sometimes smallest, and have not gone that extra mile in search of more light and or water, they are not the innovators of our little corporation.

This may explain a lot for some of you, but may just be cause for more questions for others because there are other reasons for yellow leaves, and sometimes even those caused by under watering can be deceiving.


The Detailed Explanation

Sticking with our analogy of under watering, know that when a plant is under watered and goes into the mode of cutting back, it begins to send out signals to reduce the amount of resources sent to the leaves it plans to get rid of. There are often instances that you will find a plant still has green leaves but is wilted a bit. When you water, the plant may recover, but some damage has already been done due to those signals sent out to cut off the less productive leaves. Sometimes the yellowing will show up in cases like this after the plant has received the proper amount of water, I call this "rebound yellowing". This can confuse people because the damage appears when the plant seems otherwise healthy, many times it is thought that the plant is sick, or some believe that the plant is still lacking water and consequently they water again then causing over watering. Also some plants react to changes in watering slower than others, so some will show symptoms of distress within a week, others can take several weeks to display signs of a problem.

In general if the yellow leaves on your plant are solid yellow, and fall or pull away from the plant easily (depending on the plant type) you have under watered the plant at some point.

If the yellow leaves on your plant are stipled yellowing, mosaic yellowing, yellow or light green with dark green veins, and the leaves are still well attached to the plant then you probably have another issue.



Other Causes of Yellow Leaves

Some of the other causes of yellow leaves:

  • Spider Mite (See thoughthole hub Webbing on houseplant; you might have Spider Mite for more info)
  • Chlorosis; Chlorotic plant leaves will be very light green or yellow and have very deep green veins. Chlorosis is caused by iron deficiency. More on chlorosis can be found to the right.
  • Over watering; some plants will develop yellow leaves from over watering, but generally the yellow leaves in these cases will be a mosaic type of yellow not solid, and they will not come off easily. For more information about over watering check the link to the right.
  • Seasonal Changes; Yes some interior plants will react to changes in season. In my experience I have seen this happen several times with Ficus trees.
  • Chemicals; some plants react badly to chemicals in the air like paint fumes and floor treatments. Plants affected in this way will drop their leaves, which may or may not turn yellow. In my experience Ficus trees are highly reactive to chemicals as well.
  • A plant acclimating to a new environment; for a newly purchased plant this is common. Most Houseplants are grown in ideal conditions and are then moved out, into homes and offices that generally have much less light, and airflow available. This is cause for a layoff as not as many leaves are needed for the photosynthesis process. The plant will stop once it is in balance with its new environment.

*For more on Ficus see the Caring for Ficus Link to the right.

Succulents Can be a Good Choice for an Under Waterer.

Preventing Yellow Leaves on Houspelant

The answer to avoiding yellow leaves may be somewhat obvious if you have determined that the cause of your yellow leaves is due to under watering. Water your plant properly. The most common under watering scenario is just forgetting to water the plant. If that is your problem then you may want to make yourself a watering schedule ( I suggest weekly) to check the plant for moisture and water accordingly. You may need a saucer on a plant to hold a little excess water to get it through the week especially if it is in an area with high light or heavy air flow. Beware of the danger of over correction, that is turning from an under waterer to an over waterer. There is a balance to be met in plant care as with many things in life, there really is some skill involved in caring for a houseplant. If all else fails and you have a significant investment in your plants along with funding there are also watering services available.

If by chance some of the other causes seem to fit the yellowing you have experienced look into those topics they all have different cures. Knowledge is the key.

Remember this, some yellowing of leaves is normal, especially if you have a new plant acclimating to its new much lower light environment, and if you see yellow it does not necessarily mean your plant is doomed. It merely means that the plant is sending out some signals that something has happened or changed, let the signals teach you.


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Been a bit too thrifty with water application? Your thoughts are welcome here.

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