Usually palm tees establish quickly, are easy to care for and have very few insect and disease problems. While healthy palms naturally resist insects and diseases, they occasionally can be effected by one of the most common problems.
Is your palm tree dying and you don’t know what to do? Some of the symptoms that there is something seriously wrong with your palm are: spotted, discolored or frizzled leaves, deformed new shoots, droopy, yellow, brown or black leaves, foul odor coming from the trunk or the bud.
Keep in mind, it’s normal for the older palm fronds to turn brown, dry out, and die since they are being replaced with the new once. But, if there a lot of brown or yellow leaves, there is an issue.
Why is My Palm Tree Dying?
Before getting to the saving part, you need to figure out why your palm tree is dying. It could be day-to-day palm tree care, nutrient deficiency, climate, disease, insects or some kind of injury. Most people skip the “why” part and start with saving.
They prune all the dead and dying leaves, add some fertilizer to the soil and start watering more often. If that doesn’t work, they transplant the palm to a new spot with better soil. All of the above things create more stress for the palm and might weaken it even more.
Start by inspecting your everyday palm care and then move to the next topic. In this post I have 30 most common problems and how to solve them. But before you jump in, remember that established palm tree will have different problems than a newly planted one.
Newly Planted Outdoor Palm Tree Has Brown, Yellow, Or Drooping Leaves
Very often newly planted palm will go through so called “transplant shock” caused due to roots being disturbed and exposed to air and sunlight. When you move a palm tree, it loses a lot of its roots resulting in water loss in the foliage.
So, it’s normal for a newly planted palm to have brown, yellow or droopy leaves while it’s recovering. It could also be due to acclimatization to the new light levels, humidity and temperatures. Here is what to do:
- Keep watering the palm.
- Avoid fertilizing it.
- Don’t prune any of the dying leaves until they are completely dry because palms move nutrients from the dying leaves to the new growth.
- Droopy leaves might be a sign of bad drainage. What kind of soil do you have? Have you used a soil mix when planting the palm? You can read about improving drainage in more details in my article on planting palm trees.
- If after a few weeks it’s still not doing well, it might have been damaged during transplanting or planted it too deep.
- Check the depth. If the root ball has dropped, you might have left air pockets in the soil when backfilling the hole. And now the palm is sitting too deep. You will need to re-plant it.
- If the tree was damaged, spray it with Copper Fungicide to prevent fungi and bacteria from developing.
- Still not doing better, check the leaves and the bud (where the new leaves are growing from) for any signs of insects or diseases. I have a treatment for each of them down below.
Established Outdoor Palm Tree Has Yellow, Brown Or Drooping Leaves
With established palm we can dismiss a lot of problems right away. It has been doing fine in the same spot for awhile so it’s definitely not any acclimatization issues like light levels, drainage, soil, planted depth, sunburn, nor wrong climate.
It had to be something more serious for the palm to change its appearance. The main reasons are usually:
- Not enough water. See if the soil moister levels need to be adjusted.
- Nutrient deficiency. The second most common problem is nutrient deficiency. Have you been fertilizing your palm regularly? Check the nutrient levels to see if any of them are missing.
- Cold damage. Was there any freezing temperatures during winter season?
- Insects or diseases. Usually only palms under stress get attacked by insects and diseases. Check the leaves and the bud for any signs of pests or fungi.
30 Reasons Your Palm Tree is Dying and How To Save It
To diagnose the problem, I recommend starting with the evaluation of the basic everyday palm tree care. If that doesn’t fix the problem, move to the next topic, make changes and see how the plant will react.
First sign of over-watering is yellow or brown leaves that fall off before drying. Since different types of palms have different water requirements, it’s important to know what kind of palm do you have.
As a rule of thumb, palms need to be watered more in the summer, during their growth season, and less in the winter. They like moist but well drained soil. To solve this problem, you can add 30% sand to the soil to provide a good drainage.
2. Not Enough Water
Tips of the leaves will dry and start turning brown. Check the moist level of the soil the next day after watering. You can use your fingers to measure soil moist levels by placing them 3″ into the soil.
Or you can use an electronic soil moister meter like I do. It provides accurate, easy to read results. If it shows you that soil is too dry, you need to water more often.
During hot dry season, deep watering technique works the best. Basically, instead of dumping a lot of water at once, you slow drip it over extended period of time. That way, roots have more time to absorb the water. This is especially important for newly planted palms that don’t have an established root system yet.
If possible, install a sprinkler system and put it on schedule. That way you don’t have to think about watering all the time. For more information and watering tips read my article on palm tree watering.
3. Planting Too Deep
This problem is more applicable to the new planted palms. When planting, make sure the palm is at the same depth level as it was grown before. Planting it too deep causes nutrients and water deprivation.
The palm will appear sparse and thin on top. If you did plant it too deep, you need to replant it. If you can’t replant, take some soil off the top. For planting instructions read my article on Palm Tree Planting.
4. Bad Soil
This is more applicable to newly planted palms. If you had this palm for a while and it’s been doing fine, it’s probably not the soil. Good soil should absorb enough moister and have an excellent drainage.
Soil with bad drainage can damage the roots causing a root rot. You might notice yellow or dark brown spotting on leaflets. The new leaf spear might become discolored and wilt.
First, spraying it with Copper Fungicide to prevent the bacteria and fungi. Next, improve the drainage of the plant. To avoid this problem, I recommend improving drainage before planting the palm. Do a drainage test to see what kind of soil you have.
If the water doesn’t drain well, you can improve it by drilling holes in the ground, adding rocks to the bottom of the hole, adding sand to the soil mix, or installing a pipe that will take the water away from the tree.
Try to plant a palm with other plants that have the same water requirements. Avoid using soil mixed in with the fertilizer, since it might burn the roots.
5. Not Enough Sunlight
If your palm needs more light, the leave will start turning brown. Established palm, that was growing in the shade for some time, has been already properly acclimatized and will not require more light.
This is more applicable to the newly planted palms. Check palm specifications for light requirements. You might have to replant it.
Some palms need full sun in order to grow to their full potential. But you have to be careful when planting a young tree in the full sun because it can easily get a sunburn. Palm leaves will turn yellow and start to look colorless in some areas.
To avoid sunburn, it needs to be acclimatized first. There are few ways to do it. If it is a new palm, it is probably in the pot. Place the pot outside in the shady spot and keep increasing light levels every week by moving the pot closer to the sunny spot.
Another way is to plant the palm in full sun and place a plastic cover above it. You can use 4 sticks to hold the plastic. Each week increase light levels by creating more holes in the plastic.
7. Nutrient Deficiency
Providing palm with all the necessary nutrients, insures a healthy growth and development of the tree. Palms that don’t get enough nutrients are more susceptible to diseases.
If the palm leaves have small yellow, orange or bronze spots that cover almost entire blade, it is a sign of potassium deficiency. Get some slow release potassium fertilizer and also similar magnesium fertilizer to avoid imbalance in the soil.
The leaves might appear to be stunted and deformed if there is a calcium deficiency. This problem is easily corrected with Calcium Nitrate.
Leaves could have yellow bands that run along the borders of the leaves if there is a magnesium deficiency. Use magnesium fertilizer spikes to correct the problem.
The sign of iron deficiency is leaves with thin green veins, green spotting and broken ends. This problem might be triggered by waterlogging because the palm was planted too deep. You can correct this problem temporary by applying iron fertilizer. To solve this problem permanently, you need to replant the palm.
Fertilize palms only during growth period 4-5 times a year (depending on the formula). Avoid using cheap low quality fertilizers because they simply don’t work.
You need a high quality fertilizer that has a slow release formula and won’t be washed away after few rains. In my article on fertilizing palm trees I go over the best time for fertilization and list top 5 palm fertilizers that you should use.
8. Fertilizer Burn
Palm trunk can be easily burn with fertilizer if you apply it too close. Keep 2 ft distance. You can also burn the roots if you use soil with mixed in fertilizer. Once the palm is damaged, it is more susceptible to diseases, fungi and insects.
If this happened, protect your palm by spraying it with Copper Fungicide which works very well against fungi and bacterial. If the damage is not sever, it should recover.
Everybody wants to have a perfectly green palm without any sign of brown leaves. So, a lot of gardeners start pruning their palms as soon as they see one brown tip. Over-pruning is a very common problem.
Palms move nutrients from dying leaves to the new growth. Cutting it off will result in nutrient loss. Don’t cut leaves until they are completely dry. Pruning tips on some of the palms will stop the new growth on that frond.
I found few articles online that recommend cutting brown tips to save palms from wasting nutrients on the dying fronds. Big mistake! If your palm tree has a rooster tail look, you over-pruned it.
10. Hurricane Pruning
Some professionals (who probably don’t have enough work) will tell you to prune your palm before hurricane season to remove the extra weight. Please don’t do it. Your palm needs all the protection from the wind it can get.
Removing a lot of green fronds will put the palm under stress. If you know that hurricane is coming, it is better to tie the fronds together. Don’t prune any fronds that are hanging above the horizontal plane of the crown.
11. Wrong Climate
Important factor for successful palm tree development is how much cold weather your palm will get during winter. Always check the cold hardiness zone before buying a palm tree.
Not all palms can tolerate cold temperatures. If you leave in a cold climate, get one of the cold hardy palms.
Another problem is a humidity. Most palms like high humidity, which makes it challenging to grow in dry conditions. Check palm requirement and drought tolerance before buying a palm if you leave in dry climate.
12. Freeze Damage
In the last couple of years, the winters have been very cold. Even in the warm climates like Florida the temperatures dropped below the freezing point damaging a lot of palm trees.
Some evidence of the cold damage might be palm wilting, crown flopping over due to internal trunk rot, soft lesions on outside of the trunk, new emerged leaves falling down around the trunk.
Cold-damaged palm trees can become vulnerable to bacterial and fungal infections. To protect them from bacteria and fungi, spray it with Copper Fungicide. Sometimes, the damage is so sever, there is nothing you can do to save it.
If you are expecting freezing temperatures, protect your palm in advance by following techniques in my article on 10 Ways To Protect Palm Tree From Winter Freeze. Avoid fertilizing cold damaged palm since it will only cause more stress.
13. Trunk Injury
The bark of the palm can be easily damaged leaving the tree vulnerable to insects and fungus. If you don’t notice the damage right away, it is a hard thing to diagnose. Be careful when transporting the palm.
Between purchase and planting, make sure that the root ball is kept moist, but not soaking. Try to plant your tree shortly after purchase. If your palm comes in a plastic pot, don’t pull the palm tree out of it. Make sure that soil is dry and cut the plastic pot with a knife or scissors.
There have been some cases when the palm gets strike by lightning. Leaves will turn brown and start to wilt. Don’t fertilize it. Keep watering. Lightning damaged palm can become vulnerable to bacterial and fungal infections.
To protect it from bacteria and fungi spray with Copper Fungicide. If the bud of the palm was severely damaged, the palm will not survive.
15. Herbicide Toxicity
You probably wouldn’t even think about herbicide toxicity. This kind of damage may take months to become apparent. Some of the signs of herbicide injury are very similar to the ones you get after the freeze damage.
The new growth will be under-sized, deformed, with patches of dead tissue on the leaves. Be careful when using different kids of weed killers around palms.
16. Leaf Spots
Nutrient deficient palm can get a leaf-spotting fungi that looks like brown and yellow spotting on leaflets. It usually attacks palms that are under stress from overwatering or poor drainage. Whether it’s a nutrient deficiency or poor drainage, get rid of the underlaying stress first.
Avoid getting water on the foliage when watering the palm. After that, in most cases the leaf spots will go away without need of fungicide treatment. In severe cases you will need to spray effected area with fungicidal sprays containing copper hydroxide or copper salts of fatty acids.
17. Lethal Yellowing
Lethal Yellowing is a deadly disease that is spread by insect called Myndus crudus. You will notice blackening on the fruit stems, early dropping of the fruit and blackening of the new flowers.
Old fronds will also turn grey, yellow or brown until the entire crown falls off. There is no cure for Lethal Yellowing disease. All you can do is get rid of the infected palm so it does not spread to other plants.
18. Bacterial Bud Rot
A cold damaged palm can be attacked by bacterial bud rot disease. You will notice the new leaf spear is discolored and wilts. Affected leaf spear often will pull easily from the bud. a foul odor can also be an indicator of the problem.
As with many other diseases, drenching affected area with copper-based fungicides will help get rid of it. That is one of the reasons I always recommend applying copper-based fungicides before the cold snap.
19. Fusarium Wilt
If your palm has been infected with Fusarium wilt, you will notice dark brown or reddish strip along the leaf stem. Also, the oldest leaves will start turning brown only on one side of the leaf stem.
After all old leaves have turned brown, it moves to the new emerging fronds. It can take from a few months to a few years for the palm to get overpowered by the Fusarium wilt and die. Unfortunately, there is no remedy for this disease. Disinfecting tools is the only thing you can do to prevent it from spreading from tree to tree.
20. Ganoderma Butt Rot
Ganoderma Butt Rot is a lethal disease caused by fungus. It affects the lower portion of palm’s trunk, the butt of the tree, hence it’s name Ganoderma Butt Rot. It’s very hard to detect since there are not a lot of symptoms.
It rots the trunk tissue from the inside out developing a white spongy growth that turns brown as it matures. The fungal growth has millions of spores that spread it from tree to tree by wind.
There is no cure for this disease. All you can do is to get rid of the palm. First thing you want to do, is cover that fungal conk with plastic to prevent the spores from spreading. Next, remove and dispose of the tree. Keep in mind, Ganoderma can survives in the soil, so you shouldn’t plant anything in the same location.
21. Bud Rot
Phytophthora bud rot is a common disease that occurs during hot wet summers after tropical storm, periods of excessive rain, or in palms severely damaged by freezing weather.
If your palm is suffering from bud rot, the new fronds will become discolored and start to wilt. The same will happen to the next new leaves. Sometimes there are black lesions on the new spears. See if the new fronds pull out easily. There might be also a foul odor coming from the bud.
In early stages, if the damage is not too bad, it’s possible to save the palm by drenching the bud with fungicide. Avoid overhead irrigation when possible.
22. Sooty Mold
This superficial fungal does not attack the plant directly, but only appears on the surface of the tree. It feeds on honeydew produced by palm aphid, mealybug, or scale insects infestation.
It usually forms a black covering on the leaves that is easily washes off. To prevent Sooty mold development, control honeydew producing insects.
23. False Smut
Another leaf fungi disease that occurs on palms that are under stress from overwatering or poor drainage is False smut. This disease, also known as Graphiola leaf spot, initially produces yellow, brown or black spots on both sides of the leaf. Older leaves are affected first. The fungus will develop from those spots producing yellow spores as it matures.
It’s primary a cosmetic disease that can be easily prevented by removal of the affected leaves. You can also apply copper based fungicides in early stages to the remaining foliage to stop the spreading.
Usually, it requires multiple applications during the year to get rid of it. Most commonly palms that are suffer from False Smut are Phoenix species, especially Canary Island Date Palm and Date Palm.
24. Palm Leaf Skeletonizer
Palm leaf skeletonizer is a caterpillar of a small moth that feeds on both surfaces of palm leaf leaving fibrous excrements “frass”. They prefer to eat tissue between the veins or ribs creating dark tube skeleton looking structure, hence the name of the insect Leaf Skeletonizer.
It eats away the palm leaf between the veins or the ribs producing dark tube structure that looks like leaf skeleton. This insect is very hard to control. Once spotted, remove the infected fronds and spray the rest with insecticide that contains carbaryl or the biological insecticide.
25. Palm Aphid
Palm aphid are motionless dark brown bumps that suck on the newest growth of the palm. They infest palms in large numbers producing honeydew which attracts ants. Ants use honeydew for their own consumption while protecting aphids.
On infected palm you will notice dark brown bumps with white ring of wax around them. Palm aphid can attack different palm species but is usually found on Alexander Palm, Date Palm, Chinese Fan Palm, Coconut Palm, and Washington Palm.
Insecticidal soap or horticultural oil work well in controlling palm aphid, but you have to re-apply it multiple times.
There are numerous species of mealybugs that can attack palms. While some of them feed on the roots of the palm and are hard to detect, most of them concentrate on the palm bud where new fronds emerge. Just like Palm aphid they produce honeydew that sooty mold fungus feeds on and that attracts ants.
On infected palm, the new fronds and stems will appear to be covered in cottony white masses. You can slow them down by applying a mix of soapy water and alcohol. To get rid of mealybugs completely spray it with insecticidal soap.
27. Palmetto Weevil
Palmetto Weevil is a large beetle that is mostly attracted to severely stressed palms but a new study from University of Florida revealed that it could also attack completely healthy ones. Some of its target are Cabbage, Canary Island Date, Bismarck, and Latan palms.
This black or sometimes red beetle lays eggs in leaf base of the palm. The eggs hatch and begin to feed on the plant making its way to the palms heart. They destroy the bud and make cocoons from which an adult weevils emerge. It’s very hard to diagnose a problem early on, but if you do, treat the palm with insecticidal soup.
28. Saddleback Caterpillar
The Saddleback Caterpillar is dark brown with poisonous spines and a distinct bright green patterns on the back that resemble a saddle. It makes large holes feeding on the underside of palm leaves.
You can use biological insecticide to manage young caterpillars. Remember to wear gloves to protect your hands from the spines. It primary attacks palms like Christmas, Butterfly, Alexander, Fishtail, Christmas, Cococnut, Princess, Butterfly, Mazari, Canary Island, Pygmy Date, Queen, Mexican Fan palms.
29. Scale Insects
Scale insects are very common and can be found on palm leaves from time to time. There is a great variety of scale including Florida red scale, thread scale, Magnolia white scale, and soft brown scale. These small legless brown bumps attack new growth sucking all the fluids out of it.
The most effective way to control them is horticultural oil that needs to be reapplied multiple times in order to kill them.
30. Spider Mites
The scale are really not insects but instead are members of the spider family. They are mostly affect palms indoors, in greenhouses, or in dry conditions. While there are many species that can feed on a palm, the most common is two-spotted mite.
Initially, infected palm leaves will have yellow spotting that could turn into pale or washed out color as the infestation progresses. You might also notice webbing on the underside of the leaf. To get rid of it treat the plant with insecticidal soap, horticultural oil, or miticides.
- Palm Tree Care Mistakes
- Palm Tree Nutrition
- Palm Tree Fertilization
- Palm Tree Cold Protection
- How to Save Cold Damaged Palm Tree