Dracaenas are generally easy to care for and don’t require a lot of special attention. However, you might sometimes notice a discolored leaf here or there–or a more serious issue with lots of yellowing or brown leaves. While some amount of leaves may change color and drop off as your Dracaena grows, it can sometimes be difficult to determine if discolored leaves are an indicator of an underlying issue.
There are many reasons that Dracaena leaves may be discolored, but the main reasons are watering too much or too little. Other reasons may be problems with pests or the type of water it’s receiving, or that it has been over-fertilized or exposed to excessive sunlight or temperatures that are too hot or cold.
To determine what is causing your Dracaena’s leaves to change colors, you need to assess all the different symptoms and the growing conditions. Leaf discoloration is one of the most common issues that Dracaena owners face, and it can be frustrating to try to diagnose what’s wrong with your plant. This article will cover the various reasons a Dracaena’s leaves might be changing colors, plus how to treat the underlying condition and avoid it happening again in the future.
What’s Up With Dracaena Discoloration?
Healthy Dracaena leaves are firm and green. Depending on the type you have, there may be some color variations, but it is easy to tell a color variation from an unhealthy leaf. Variations will be regular and consistent across the leaves, while leaf discoloration is scattered and inconsistent. Parts of your plant that are yellow, brown, or black probably indicate an issue with your plant’s health.
Healthy leaves use chlorophyll to absorb sunlight, which the plant then converts to energy. The chlorophyll gives plants their distinctive green color. If there’s a lack of chlorophyll in the leaf tissue for any reason, yellowing occurs. This condition is called chlorosis. Root damage, overwatering, and nutrient deficiency can all cause chlorosis.
Chlorosis isn’t the only reason that leaves change colors, but it’s one of the most common. If leaves are brown or black, or the discoloration is uneven, it may be a different issue. Leaves sometimes change color and fall off naturally as the plant ages, as well.
Distinguishing between normal and unhealthy leaf drop can be somewhat tricky. Your Dracaena can’t tell you what it needs, so sometimes, you have to take some guesses and experiment to see how your plant reacts.
As Dracaenas get taller, the foliage toward the bottom of the stem tends to drop off, and new growth is focused at the top of each cane. A healthy Dracaena will naturally shed the lowest and smallest leaves as it grows. They’ll turn yellow and then fall off, but the rest of the plant should look healthy. If that’s what you see your Dracaena doing, it’s most likely fine, and you don’t need to be concerned.
Why Your Dracaena May Be Yellow, Brown, or Black
Below you’ll find a list of the most common reasons that the leaves on your Dracaena are turning yellow, black, or brown. Read through the entire list before you try to make a decision about what to do for your specific plant.
Reason 1: Overwatering
Overwatering is likely the single most common reason for a Dracaena houseplant to develop discolored leaves. Even experienced plant owners can lose track of when they last watered or may be a little heavy-handed with the watering can.
Dracaenas are adapted for long periods of dry weather, so the best way to replicate that indoors is to make sure the soil can dry out before you water again. Let the top 50% to 75% of the soil get dry between waterings. I find that using a moisture meter, or inserting a wooden skewer (like a chopstick) are the best ways to determine the moisture level a few inches beneath the surface.
Plant roots need to have access to a certain amount of oxygen to stay healthy, but air can’t circulate when they’re surrounded by too much moisture. If the condition continues, fungi and bacteria attack the roots, resulting in root rot. Root rot is difficult to eradicate once it sets in, so it’s best to avoid letting it happen in the first place.
If you continue to overwater your plant, the first sign of root rot you’re likely to notice would be yellow and wilting leaves. If left untreated, your plant may start to develop brown or black spots and become soft and mushy. These are signs of a more severe case of root rot that can kill your plant.
If you’ve overwatered your plant, it’s important to evaluate the situation and decide how bad it is. For a slightly overwatered plant, simply keeping it in a warm spot and waiting for the soil to dry out may be just fine. However, if the soil is very soggy or the plant has been sitting in water for a longer time, you will need to take more drastic action.
How To Try to Save An Overwatered Dracaena:
- Remove it from the pot and remove as much of the waterlogged soil as you can.
- Check the roots for rot, and trim off any dark, soft, or slimy areas of the root ball with a pair of sterilized garden shears.
- Pot the plant again in fresh, free-draining potting mix in a new or sterilized container to avoid spreading any unwanted fungi or bacteria.
We have a detailed article on the subject of root rot and Dracaenas. To read more about the step-by-step process to help a Dracaena recover from overwatering, read How to Save Your Overwatered Dracaena from Root Rot.
Reason 2: Underwatering
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Dracaenas can develop leaf discoloration from being too dehydrated. Usually, this happens because the plant owner gets a little too used to Dracaanea’s easy-going nature and neglects it for too long.
Dehydrated Dracaena leaves can get wrinkled and turn yellow or brown. Unlike with an overwatered Dracaena, the leaves would feel dry and light. Some leaves might become crispy or die off.
Since both underwatering and overwatering can cause leaves to change color, the easiest way to see the likely cause is to check the soil. Don’t just depend on your memory of when you last watered or the appearance of the soil. You’ll need to use your finger, a wooden skewer, or your moisture meter to check what’s going on below the surface.
The solution to an underwatered Dracaena is pretty simple: water it! Be sure not to overcorrect and water too much, as that can stress your plant even further, but give it a thorough soaking if the soil has been dry for a while. (Just make sure the excess water can flow freely from the drainage hole.) It should start to perk up shortly and suffer no long-term effects.
Reason 3: Chemicals from Your Water
Although Dracaenas are not too fussy about most aspects of their care, they are sensitive to the chemicals used to treat tap water–particularly fluoride. Depending on the water quality in your area, this may or may not be a concern.
Chemicals in water cause a condition called leaf tip burn. As you might guess from the name, it affects the very tips of leaves, causing them to turn brown and crispy. While other conditions generally cause the leaf to get brown from the edges first or cause spots on the leaves, leaf tip burn is easy to distinguish.
There is no way to turn back the clock on leaf tip burn. However, you can trim the affected leaves to improve the appearance of your plant if you like. You can also flush the soil with distilled water to rid the soil of leftover chemicals residing beneath the surface.
To prevent leaf tip burn in the future, you will need to think about an alternate water source. It might be time to start collecting rainwater, or at the very least, setting your tap water out overnight to allow some of the chemicals to evaporate before using it on your plant. Some people purchase distilled water for plants, but that can get costly quickly.
Reason 4: Over Fertilization
Similar to the situation above, leaf tip burn can also be caused by a buildup of fertilizer salts in the soil. As the plant tries to push the salts out through the tips of the leaves, they cause the cells there to dry up and turn brown.
If you see a white crust on the top of your potting soil or around the top of the container, that’s a likely sign that salts are built up in the soil. Remove any visible salt, and then flush the soil with plenty of water to remove the buildup. You could also repot your plant, replacing the over-fertilized soil with fresh potting mix.
Dracaenas need very little (if any) fertilizer. They are usually able to draw the nutrients they need from the potting mix. If you decide to fertilize your Dracaena, though, it’s best to dilute the fertilizer to 50% of the manufacturer’s recommendation or use compost instead of chemical fertilizer. For more information on fertilizing Dracaenas, you can read through this article for the details: What Fertilizer and Compost are Best for Dracaena Houseplants?
Reason 5: Sunburn
Most Dracaenas don’t like being placed in direct sunlight where unfiltered sun rays are hitting their leaves. It’s possible to acclimate a Dracaena to full sun over time, but moving one from a protected spot to a full sun location will likely result in a sunburn.
A sunscalded plant will usually show pale yellow to light tan discoloration on the portions of the plant that received the most sun exposure. Burnt leaves then turn darker brown and dry up before eventually falling off. A severe burn over multiple hours, especially if combined with high temperatures, could cause leaves to turn black immediately.
You can’t fix sun damage once it has occurred, but it should be easy to prevent. Just be aware of the placement of your Dracaena and keep it out of bright, direct sunlight. If you are bringing a Dracaena home for the first time, keep an eye on its location for the first couple of days. Make sure it isn’t getting too much sun, and remember that light levels change with the seasons.
Reason 6: High or Low Temperatures
Dracaenas generally do well in the same temperatures that we prefer, which is part of what makes them great houseplants. But they can be sensitive to cool drafts or high temperatures. If your plant is near a drafty window or a heater in the winter, it may be experiencing temperature extremes that aren’t readily apparent to you.
A simple thermometer can help you understand the actual temperature your plants are experiencing, so you can relocate them if needed. In general, Dracaenas prefer to stay between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit, although a bit above or below this range should be tolerable. If you bring your Dracaenas outside for the summer, be sure to bring them back in before temperatures start to get cold at night.
Reason 7: Insect Damage or Disease
If your Dracaena’s leaves have spots or streaks of discoloration, that may indicate a pest problem or disease. Pests that suck the sap from leaves may leave behind brown spots where they have attached themselves. A fungal infection would create brown, wet-looking spots on the leaves.
Dracaenas are resistant to many of the more common insects and diseases that plague houseplants, but they are susceptible to certain insects. Scale and mealybugs are able to penetrate their tough leaves, and aphids can also attack some varieties.
If you suspect an insect or fungal issue, the first step is to inspect the plant carefully to determine if you can see anything on the leaves. Remove any heavily affected leaves, and treat the plant with fungicide or neem oil regularly. Neem oil treats most of the common insects but is not harmful to humans or pets. It also has anti-fungal benefits.
To avoid pests and diseases in the future, try to give your Dracaenas the best possible care. A healthy plant will be more resistant overall. Keep the leaves clean and dry, and inspect them regularly so you can catch any problems early.
What To Do with Damaged Dracaena Leaves
So what should you do if your Dracaena has some discolored or damaged leaves? Is there any chance for them to repair themselves? In most cases, damaged leaves won’t recover. The main exception is if your Dracaena leaves are wrinkled because they don’t have enough water. In that case, the leaves should recover after you water the plant.
Some people say that you should remove any damaged leaf, but that isn’t always necessary. If you hate the way the damaged leaves look, you can absolutely prune them off. But if you’re not bothered by the appearance and less than 50% of the leaf is damaged, it should be fine to leave them on. You can also trim off just the damaged part.
But if any part of your Dracaena is rotted, either stems or leaves, you should remove them. Decaying matter can attract disease and pests that would further damage the healthy parts of the plant.
Discolored leaves on your Dracaena aren’t necessarily a cause for panic, but you should address the situation right away to minimize the long-term damage to your plant. Use the clues available to determine which is the most likely cause of the yellow, brown, or black leaves, and move forward accordingly. Dracaenas are tough plants that can tolerate a lot, so your chances of your plant making a full recovery are good if you take action quickly.