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Brown Tips on Spider Plants: Causes and Cures

Brandon has always had spider plants around— different varieties, in fact. He's now got some in his bedroom and they are beautiful!

The spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) is a beloved houseplant for multiple reasons. To name a few, its adaptability to varying light conditions, its propagation style through hanging plantlets (i.e. baby spider plants), and most importantly its minimal care requirements. Unfortunately, the beauty of this plant could be diminished by brown tips on the leaves—though spider plants are not the only variety of indoor plants that are susceptible to browning tips.

In this article, we'll take a look at the causes and measures you could take to prevent the leaf tips of your spider plant from turning brown, and the same measures can more or less be applied to other indoor plants that suffer from the same syndrome.

A spider plant on my windowsill that once had brown tips.

A spider plant on my windowsill that once had brown tips.

Should I Cut the Brown Tips Off My Spider Plants?

No, you do not have to cut off the brown tips, but you could if you want to. Brown tips on their own do not harm or damage the plant. They are just dead tissue on the plant that dries off and in some cases becomes papery to the touch and drops off on contact. This is caused by an underlying issue that can be treated, but the old leaves are not going to fix themselves.

You could take a leaf (pun intended) from folk who care for plants in offices and chop off the brown tips. While doing so, cut at an angle replicating the natural tip of the leaves. The ends will dry up much like a wound that's sealed, but the extent of browning won't be anywhere near noticeable as the original browned tips.

Why Is My Spider Plant Turning Brown at the Tips?

There are quite a few possible underlying issues that lead to brown leaf tips, but all of these issues result in the tips of the leaves not receiving sufficient water that results in their death. Before taking a look at each of these issues in detail, here's a list of the possible causes:

  • Fluoride build-up
  • General salts (over-fertilizing)
  • Water stress (over or under-watering)
  • Low humidity levels and strong sunlight

Fluoride Toxicity

Fluorine naturally occurs in air and water, but fluoride salts when present in a high concentration can lead to a phenomenon known as fluoride toxicity in certain plants which results in brown leaf tips and edges. On a spider plant, the long slender shape of the leaves and its sharp tip results in just the tips turning brown without it often affecting the edges [1]. In low concentrations such as those found in natural water sources, there is no real harm done to the plants.

However, certain water departments across the globe add fluoride to tap water as it has been shown to reduce tooth decay. When spider plants are watered with fluoride enriched tap water it can lead to fluoride build-up in the soil over time. The fluoride from the soil enters the plant through its roots and eventually moves up finally reaching the tips of the leaves. Here it prevents photosynthesis and leads to the eventual death of leaf tissue through chlorosis (loss of green tissue) and then necrosis (death). The leaves either turn yellowish or brown and in many cases, they end up becoming dark brown and brittle.

Often you can find out the status of your water through a simple search online or by contacting your water suppliers (often termed water as a quality report). If fluoride is added to your tap water it is best not to use it for your spider plants. There is no real harm other than the browning of the tips, so if this is not that big of an issue you could go on using tap water, even though it is not ideal.

Solution: Water your spider plant with natural water such as rainwater or groundwater (provided that it does not have problems of its own). You could alternatively use distilled water. You may want to replace your potting mix at the same time if you want to immediately see changes to new leaves. Sadly fluoride (not fluorine) does not just evaporate from your water as chlorine does, so you cannot just let the water sit for a day or so before watering your spider plant.

You could also add calcium to increase the pH of the soil which results in less freely available fluoride that the plant takes up.

Myth: Perlite which contains fluoride is often blamed and it is commonly suggested that perlite leads to brown tips. This, however, has been shown to not be the case [2]. Furthermore, fluoride from perlite is washed out quickly.

Fertilizer Residue and Salt Build-Up

Fertilizer or salt burn is a pretty common cause of this issue. As obvious from the name this is a result of excessive fertilization and it tends to occur when one fertilizes according to the guidelines on the packaging. This sounds counterintuitive, but let me explain.

Most fertilizer guidelines are drafted for outdoor plants which grow quickly when compared to an indoor spider plant. Moreover, the roots of outdoor plants are spread wider and penetrate the ground deeper than most pots/containers. Fertilizers in excess damage roots whether indoor or outdoor but localized damage in outdoor plants does not have a broad negative effect on the plant, however, in a container, the entirety of the roots comes in contact with the added fertilizer, and when in excess all the roots are damaged and it is no more localized, resulting in brown tips due to the plant taking up less water than it needs.

Root damage happens in extreme cases, the more common cause is the fact that the roots take up the dissolved salts, and when the concentration is higher than what the plant requires the salts are not used up as they progress up the plant until they finally reach the tip. They accumulate at the tip and this eventually results in necrosis [3].

Some obvious signs: White spots on the top layer of the soil. Just don't confuse mold for salt. If you use non-treated porous clay pots, they may leech some of the salts and end up having white stains on the external surface. These stains could also be from the salts dissolved in hard water and they are not always salt residue from fertilizers. Take a look at the tray that collects runaway water. There should not be too many white stains unless you're using hard water.

The solution: Only fertilize indoor plants at the start of the growing season and use a concentration of a fourth to half that recommended. It would be best to spread this out over a few weeks. If the soil has excess fertilizer it helps to flush it out by watering through and letting the water drain out a few times.

Water Stress

Water stress is a term that covers both over and under-watering.

Over-watering can sometimes lead to the roots being constantly drenched. This can lead to root rot which in turn reduces the amount of water (and nutrition) that the plant can take up. Without sufficient water reaching the tips of the leaves they could dry out. Root rot is a serious problem and if the conditions are not improved it could spread and eventually kill your plant.

I must point out that root rot is not caused by simply having the roots soaked in water. You also need certain soil microbes that facilitate this process. Many people, including me, grow spider plants in an aquaponics set-up and they do not show signs of root rot even though the roots are submerged in water. The microbes that cause root rot are often found in soil and very rarely do the roots of spider plants submerged in an aquaponic system suffer from this condition. Spider plants in my experience do grow a lot better in soil than in an aquaponics set-up.

Solution: Use a container or pot with a hole at the bottom and empty the drip tray after an hour of watering.

Under-watering causes a similar issue with the tips not receiving sufficient water. In this case, however, the problem will not be localized to just the tips and you would eventually notice the leaves begin to droop.

Solution: Water whenever the topsoil is somewhat dry to the touch.

Spider plants typically love it when the soil dries out a bit before they are watered again. For more on the topic check out my guide on watering spider plants.

Low Humidity and Strong Sunlight

If you check out other articles around the web, they point out that low-humidity and strong direct sunlight are factors that cause the browning of leaf tips on spider plants. Though this is true to some extent, humidity and sunlight alone are not causes for brown tips.

Spider plants love the sun, but they can get scorched under very strong sunlight in some parts of the globe. In these cases, the entire plant suffers and you do not just have brown tips. More information can be found in my article covering spider plant light requirements.

Low-humidity causes the plant to lose water and when there is not sufficient water in the soil or if the roots are damaged and cannot take up a sufficient amount it could lead to a water-stress situation as discussed above. It is the same for strong sunlight which leads to faster transpiration and loss of water from the leaves.

Solution: Prevent water-stress. In some instances, shade may be necessary.

References

  1. How to Handle Tip Burn
  2. Does Perlite Play a Role in Fluoride Toxicity of Floricultural Crops?
  3. Salt burn on leaf edges: causes and solutions

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Brandon Lobo (author) on March 08, 2021:

They sure do. When I was younger we had a bed full of them.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 08, 2021:

We can grow these plants outdoors in the ground. They multiply rapidly and make a pretty groundcover plant.

Brandon Lobo (author) on March 08, 2021:

Thanks, Liz for the kind words. I did not realize that comments were active once again.

Liz Westwood from UK on March 08, 2021:

This is an interesting and very well-presented article. It has made me rethink my care of houseplants.

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