10 Reasons Why Palm Leaves Are Turning Brown or Yellow

Sick palm tree picture.
Sick palm tree picture. Photo by Flickr.

Healthy outdoor palm trees usually establish quickly, are easy to grow, and have a very few problems. While it’s normal for palm to shed old brown fronds, if you notice a lot of brown, yellow or drooping leaves, there is an issue. Figuring out why your palm tree is sick, could be a challenge.

From my experience of many years growing palm trees, most common problems are: overwatering, underwatering, nutrient deficiency, disease, insect attack, fertilizer burn or cold damage. A newly planted palm could have brown or yellow fronds/tips because of a “transplant shock”.

First of all, don’t panic.

There could be a number of reasons why your palm is not feeling well. Most likely it’s one of the basic everyday care issues that is easy to fix. Go through topics below, and see if one of them applies.

1. Natural Browning

As I’ve mentioned above, it’s normal for the palm to shed bottom fronds since they are being replaced with the new once that emerge from the middle of the crown. The old leaves turn brown, dry out, and die dropping to the ground or keep hanging until removed. Each type of palm has it’s own specific number of fronds that it keeps green.

2. Over-watering

It’s important to know what type of palm you have since different palm species have different water requirements. Fist sign of over-watering are yellow or brown leaves that fall before drying.

Unless you have wrong watering schedule, over-watering usually happens during period of frequent rains or due to poor drainage. This could cause a root rot which is a fungi that exists in places with excessive moisture.

To solve this problem, improve the drainage by adding sand to the soil or by installing a pipe that will take water away from the plant.

3. Underwatering

Browning of the tips is the first sign that your palm is not getting enough water. Palms like moist but well drained soil. You can use your fingers or a moister meter to measure soil moist levels.

Never let the soil to dry out completely. During drought season, deep water your palm to make sure roots have enough time to absorb the water.

Deep watering is when you slow drip the water instead of dumping it all at once. This method usually works best for newly planted palms that don’t have an extensive root system.

4. Nutrient Deficiency

Sick palm tree
Palm tree with nutrient deficiency. Photo by Flickr.

If water level is not a problem, I would look at the nutrients next. As you know, most important elements for palms are Nitrogen (N), Phosphate (P), Potassium (K) Magnesium (Mg), Manganese (Mn) and Iron (Fe).

According to University of Florida research, the only way to determine nutrient deficiencies is by visually analyzing the leaf of the palm which could be very difficult if the mineral deficiency overlap. BTW, the soil analysis does not reflect palm nutrient balance so testing soil is pointless.

  • In case of Nitrogen (N) deficiency you will notice abnormally yellow-greenish fronds.
  • In case of Potassium (K) deficiency there will be yellow spotting on older leaves.
  • In Magnesium (Mg) deficiency the tips become bright yellow.
  • Manganese (Mn) deficiency causes “frizzletop” deformed new leaves with brown areas.
  • During Iron (Fe) deficiency, you will notice that the new leaves are turning yellowish with green veining.

Palm trees should be fertilized during growing season (end of March through end of October) with slow release good quality fertilizer. The frequency of palm fertilization greatly depend on the soil type and the amount of rain you get in your region.

5. Cold Damage

Windmill Palm Tree (Trachycarpus fortunei). Photo by Flickr.

With unexpected cold snaps, sometimes it’s hard to provide timely winter protection. If your palm has been damaged by freeze or cold temperatures, you will notice drooping, wilting, or browning of the old leaves. In some sever cases the new growth might turn brown, black or emerge deformed.

It might take months before the damage becomes apparent. There is not much you can do except for protecting your palm from future cold snaps and applying anti bacterial spray to prevent fungi/bacteria from developing.

6. Fertilizer Burn

Too much fertilizer can burn the roots resulting in browning of the tips and fronds. If the fertilizer is placed to close to the trunk it can also burn the trunk. This can seriously weaken the palm inviting insects and diseases.

Fertilize palms only during growing season with slow release good quality fertilizer. Make sure to place 2 ft away from the trunk. If you noticed trunk damage, spray the area with anti bacterial/fungi spray.

7. Transplant shock

It’s normal for newly planted palms to experience a “transplant shock” due to loss of the roots, loss of water, new light levels, new temperatures, and new humidity levels. So don’t be surprised to see your newly planted palm turning brown or yellow.

If you planted it the right way, providing good drainage and soil, it should recover pretty soon. You really don’t need to do anything. Don’t fertilizer it for the first 2 months while it’s establishing at the new location.

8. Sunburn

Before planting a new palm in full sun, you should acclimate it for a few weeks at the new spot to avoid sunburn. Otherwise, high light levels will cause the fronds to turn yellow and colorless.

To acclimate the palm, place it in the shady spot and gradually increase light levels every week. If the palm is not very tall, you can cover it with plastic increasing light levels each week by making more holes in the plastic.

If your palm got sunburned, leave the damaged fronds on the tree. Your palm will get used to the new environment and will recover after a few months.

9. Insect Attack

Picture of a sick palm tree.
Picture of a sick palm tree.

Healthy palms naturally resist insects and diseases, but can get attacked if they are under stress. Most common attackers are: scale, spider mite and mealy bugs.

Thankfully, insect pests are more of a nuisance than a severe problem on palms. They cause little harm to palms and the palm usually outgrows any damage.

You will need to expect the leaves to see if you can spot the insects. Get rid of the pests by spraying them with insecticidal soap.

10. Diseases

Various fungi cause the most common diseases of palm. Ganoderma butt rot and fusarium wilt are among them. With fusarium wilt, the leaflets on only one side of the leaf stem of the oldest leaves turn brown. Then a reddish or dark brown stripe develops along the leaf stem. Both Ganoderma butt rot and fusarium wilt have no treatment.

Another serious disease is lethal yellowing, that causes leaves to turn yellow, grey or brown starting with the old fronds and then moving to the new leaves.

There is also a number of leaf spot fungi that causes yellow or dark brown spotting on leaflets. But they mostly develop on palm trees that are under stress. Eliminating the cause of stress can solve the problem. Also, application of fungicidal sprays containing copper hydroxide or copper salts of fatty acids can help.

Why Is My Newly Planted Palm Tree Is Turning Brown

I did mention above that newly planted palms can experience a ‘transplant shock’. Transplant shock caused due to roots being disturbed and exposed to air. During transplanting your palm will loose a lot of the roots resulting in water stress.

Also, it will need time to adjust to the new soil, light and humidity levels. So, it is not unusual for the newly planted palm to turn yellow or brown or have droopy leaves. While there is no way to prevent transplant shock, there are ways to minimize it by acclimating the palm to the new location.

You can acclimate the palm over a period of few weeks, by placing the pot in the new location and by gradually increasing light levels. Also, when placing the palm into the soil, try to disturb the root ball as little as possible. There is no need for old soil removal.

You should water it daily for the first week, every other day for the second, and then you can switch to its regular schedule. Deep watering works the best! Avoid fertilizing the palm for the first two months. If you follow my planting instructions, your palm will experience minimum transplant shock.

Should I Cut Off Brown Palm Leaves

There are many articles online that tell people to cut off brown tips or leaves because it will save the palm tree from wasting nutrients on the dying leaf. Makes sense right? Wrong!

Palm trees need old leaves for nutrients, and when you cut them off, your palm gets stressed because palms move nutrients, especially potassium (K), from the older fronds to the new growth.

Not all palms need to be pruned. Palms with crownshafts, a smooth area at the top of the trunk created by tightly clasping leaf bases, should never be pruned since they drop old brown leaves naturally. They called ‘self cleaning’ palms.

A leaf will be green one day, completely orange-brown the next day, and completely brown on the third day, when it should fall off on its own. That is a natural cycle.

Palm without crownshaft have a very similar cycle, but the dead leaves hang against the trunk and might need to be cut or pulled off manually. Prune them off ONLY when they are completely brown and dry.

When pruning the fronds, cut as close as possible to the trunk and do NOT remove any fronds that grow at 45 degree angle or greater. If your palm tree looks like a rooster tail, you over-pruned it.

BTW, according to University of Florida research, removal of palm flowers or fruits result in increased leaf production rate.

If You Cut Palm Tree In Half Will It Grow Back?

Some gardeners thing that cutting palm tree in half will promote better root development and ultimately will strengthen the palm. However, this is not the case.

If you cut palm tree’s trunk in half, it will not grow back. Instead it will die. Palms are unable to heal itself when its trunk is injured.

The growing point of the palm called the bud or the heart, is located near the top of the trunk and ties in with the vascular system. If you cut off the heart, the palm will die because it cannot produce another one.

Can Brown Palm Leaves Turn Green Again?

Although you can bring your dying palm tree back to life, brown or yellow leaves will NEVER turn green again. You will have to wait for the palm to renew its crown to get rid of the damaged fronds. As I explained above, you can remove brown leaves only when they are completely dry.

Also, keep your eye on the new growth that emerges from the bud, also known as the ‘heart’ of the palm. If it looks healthy and green, the problem is solved. If the tips of the newly emerging fronds are starting to turn brown, the issue remains.

While there is nothing you can do to about brown leaves, drooping leaves will become upright again once the problem is solved.

Why Are Majesty Palm Leaves Turning Brown

Majesty Palm (Ravenea rivularis) is a popular palm that is native to Madagascar, a large island in the Indian Ocean off the eastern coast of southern Africa, east of Mozambique. There it grows in moist areas like river banks and humid valleys.

For reaching its full potential, it needs plenty of water, good drainage and a lot of fertilizer. Lack of nitrogen, will result in yellow leaves. It also likes full sun or partial shade. Underwatering or overwatering can cause brown tips/leaves.

It is also widely used as an indoor palm because of it’s small size. One of the common problems of growing it indoors is its need for humidity. Dry air will also cause for tips to start turning brown.

If your Majesty palm is turning brown or yellow, start by inspecting basic everyday care. See if you can provide it with an environment as close to the natural habitat as possible. Since Ravenea rivularis likes warm weather, protect it from sudden cold snaps.

Why My Areca Palm Tree Has Brown Tips and Yellow Spots

Sick Areca Palm Tree (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens or Dypsis lutescens).
Sick Areca Palm Tree (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens or Dypsis lutescens) with yellow spots.
Sick Areca Palm Tree (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens or Dypsis lutescens) with dry brown tips.

If you indoor Areca palm looks like the one on the picture above, it has multiple overlapping problems. The brown tips is a result of under watering and low humidity. The yellow and brown spots is a sign of Potassium and possibly Magnesium deficiency. The deficiency is not very severe, because there no black spots yet.

How do I know? Well, this Areca palm has been at my mom’s house for the last 7 years. So I know she forgets to water it on a regular basis. It is also positioned right next to the floor vent that blows hot air directly on the plant.

In addition, she has NEVER fertilized the palm, and it has been only recently transplanted it into a bigger container. All I can say is that Areca palm is a very tough indoor plant. LOL. BTW, I took it into my house and will try to restore its beauty.

Pictures Of Sick Palm Tree Leaves

Pictures Of Sick Palm Tree Leaves.
Pictures Of Sick Palm Tree Leaves.

Conclusion

As you can see, established palm tree will have different problems than a newly planted one. Mature palm does not have acclimatization problems like new soil, humidity or light levels. It’s been growing in this location for a while and is used to the environment.

Also, the watering and drainage issues has already been resolved. That being said, if you established palm turning brown or yellow it’s most likely nutrient deficiency or cold damage.