Health problems in African Violets almost always show up in the leaves first. But it’s not always easy to tell what’s wrong when your Saintpaulia starts changing colors. We’ve created this quick guide to help you diagnose discolored African Violet leaves. It will introduce you to the common culprits and tell you how to get your Saintpaulia back on track.
Discolored African Violet leaves often come from lighting or watering issues. Too much or too little sun or moisture can damage your plant’s foliage. A nutrient imbalance may cause similar issues, so be careful with your fertilizer dosage. Your African Violet might also need fresh soil or a new pot.
Many of these problems can look very similar, especially at first. You can’t rely on the color of the leaves to identify the issue. Instead, you’ll have to consider all of your African Violet’s care conditions. Location, soil type, pot size, and many other factors can impact the health of a Saintpaulia’s foliage. Here are some typical reasons for discolored African Violet leaves.
The simplest explanation for African Violet leaves turning yellow or brown is that they’re getting worn out. This isn’t a health issue – it’s part of the plant’s natural life cycle. Every Saintpaulia leaf will one day wither up, change colors, and fall off the plant.
If only the outermost layer of leaves is turning brown, don’t panic. This is the oldest growth, and it’s likely just undergoing natural aging. You can remove the leaves as soon as they start fading – regular pruning is good for African Violets.
Over time, this will leave the stem of your African Violet bare. It will only get more obvious as the plant grows taller. If you want to correct this unsightly look, we have some tips in this article.
Too Little Water
Watering is a houseplant owner’s most frequent task. That means it’s one of the most common things to get wrong. If you forget to give your African Violet enough water, you’ll soon see the results in its foliage. Dehydrated Saintpaulia leaves turn brown and crispy, with the change usually beginning at the edges. The leaves may also get limp and curl in on themselves.
Check the soil to confirm your diagnosis. Saintpaulias prefer their roots to be mildly damp. Dry, caked soil that’s shrinking away from the container edges points to underwatering. You can also use a moisture probe to check the conditions at the bottom of the pot.
The solution to dehydration is simple. Give your African Violet a thorough watering, soaking the soil all the way through. It should revive soon, though the dead parts of the leaves will stay dead.
Watering too much is even worse for your African Violet than watering too little. Wet, marshy soil prevents the roots from getting enough oxygen to function properly. That stops them from sending water and nutrients up to the leaves.
This causes some of the same symptoms as dehydration, with the added danger of root rot. Decaying roots can kill your African Violet with shocking speed. That’s why watering properly is one of the most important things you can do for your plant.
Leaf yellowing is often an early sign of overwatering, especially if it starts with the lowest leaves but quickly spreads upward. The foliage typically gets limp and soft, unlike the dry, brittle texture that comes from underwatering. If root rot sets in, the stem may turn mushy, and slimy brown spots could appear on the leaves.
Once again, the potting mix offers valuable clues. If it stays wet for days at a time or never really dries out at the top, it spells trouble for your African Violet. When the roots are infected, the soil can develop a murky or sour smell.
Reviving an overwatered Saintpaulia usually requires repotting it in fresh soil. You should use a coarse, well-aerated potting mix, as we describe in this article. While you have your plant out of the pot, trim off any squishy, smelly, or discolored roots. This will help keep the infection from spreading. Remember to disinfect your pruning scissors with rubbing alcohol before each snip.
Wild African Violets live in rainforests, where sunlight falls in shifting splashes instead of a steady stream. They’ll be most comfortable in dappled lighting that reminds them of home. If you accidentally let your plant get more than an hour or two of direct sunlight, its leaves will scorch.
Sun damage looks like ragged, dark brown spots, often with a dry and crunchy texture. Less intense burns may be a lighter khaki brown. This looks similar to the results of underwatering, but check the pattern of the spots. If they’re clustered on the upper leaves and on the side of the plant facing the window, sunburn is the most likely cause.
The only cure is to move your African Violet to a spot where it’s out of the sun’s rays. You can remove the damaged leaves, since they won’t return to their old appearance. But remember that any healthy sections are still feeding your plant. You may want to wait for your Saintpaulia to start growing healthy foliage before clearing off the dead stuff.
Lack of sunlight also causes discolored African Violet leaves. Sun-starved leaves typically fade to a pale yellow. They’ll also tend to grow longer and thinner, with lots of space between the petioles. This condition is called etiolation, and it’s a sign that your plant isn’t getting enough energy.
To get your African Violet growing in a healthy pattern again, give it some bright, indirect light. These plants often thrive in east-facing windows. South-facing or west-facing rooms can also be good, but you’ll need to keep your Saintpaulia at least 5 or 6 feet from the nearest window. Another good option is to use grow lights.
Fixing your plant’s lighting won’t get rid of the etiolated growth. However, it should enable your African Violet to produce healthy new leaves.
One quirk of African Violet leaves is their sensitivity to temperature. If there’s water sitting on the foliage, and it’s more than a few degrees colder than the air, it can cause ugly brown speckles. They’ll be clustered near the middle of the leaves, where droplets tend to pool.
The only fix for leaf spotting is waiting for the damaged leaves to age out. But you can prevent this issue by using only room-temperature water when hydrating your African Violet. Some growers sidestep the issue by watering their Saintpaulias from the bottom or using self-watering pots.
The good news is that if you slip up, leaf spotting won’t cause serious harm to your plant. It just makes your African VIolet a little less pleasant to look at.
African Violets don’t need a huge amount of fertilizer, but a regular, moderate dose is essential for their health. A lack of nutrients can turn their leaves yellow, slow their growth, and prevent them from blooming.
Too much nutrition is also a problem. When minerals from fertilizer build up in the soil, they can prevent the roots from taking in enough water. This leads to crunchy brown edges on your African Violet leaves.
To make sure your African Violet is getting the right diet, apply a ½-strength dose of balanced houseplant fertilizer every 6 weeks. Avoid mineral buildup by tapering off the fertilizer as autumn sets in. And every 1-2 months, flush the soil by slowly pouring a large volume of distilled water into the pot and letting it drain from the bottom.
If your African Violet gets too large for its pot, the roots will start interfering with each other. This chokes off the supply of water and minerals to your plant. As a result, the leaves get shriveled and discolored, usually beginning at the tips and edges.
This looks very similar to the leaf discoloration from excess fertilizer. But you can identify the problem by looking at the size of the plant. An African Violet’s foliage should be about 3 times as wide as the pot it’s in. If it’s much larger than that, you’ll need to move your Saintpaulia into a bigger pot.
To stay ahead of this problem, transplant your African Violet into new soil every 6 months. This also refreshes the potting mix, which can get degraded and depleted over time.
Another possible cause for discolored African Violet leaves is an invasion of marauding bugs. Some common African Violet pests include:
- Cyclamen mites. These microscopic villains attack the young leaves on your African Violet, turning them gray or brown at the center. The foliage may also curl up, get stunted, and develop unusually long hairs.
- Mealybugs. A mealybug infestation will cause shriveled, yellowing leaves, and may also lead to the growth of dark sooty mold. The round white bugs are easy to recognize, and so is the wispy, fluffy-looking residue they leave behind.
- Thrips. One of the most widespread types of African Violet pests. Thrips can turn the edges of Saintpaulia leaves brown and rotten. They may also create streaks and blotches on the flowers, or chew on the anthers and spill pollen on the petals.
- Aphids. Aphids cause similar damage to mealybugs. Plus, they litter your leaves with their discarded exoskeletons.
If your African Violet is infested, quarantine it and spray the leaves with a mix of warm water, neem oil, and a little bit of gentle dish soap. It will take several rounds of this treatment to get rid of your pests. If that doesn’t work, you may need to try a stronger pesticide. For a few suggestions, read our full article on African Violet pests here.
Discolored African Violet leaves are usually the first indicator that your plant is in trouble. Take them as a signal to evaluate your care habits. Once your Saintpaulia is getting what it needs to thrive, it will start making healthy new leaves again. The damage won’t go away, but your African Violet will replace it with fresh green foliage before too long.