Ponytail palms are notorious for getting brown tips, but what actually causes this to happen?
Brown tips on ponytail palms are usually caused by a problem relating to or simply due to overwatering. Other problems include sun scorch, fertilizer burn and a loss of moisture due to draughts.
As a ponytail palm owner, I’ll share my experience with dealing with brown tips on ponytail palms in this guide. Let’s get right into it.
I recently added a ponytail palm to my collection and it has started to develop brown tips. The first thing I noticed was that the soil was quite moist when I purchased the plant, so I suspect that overwatering is at play.
Through extensive research and my own experience with other ponytail palms, I’ve realised that there are lots of factors that can cause brown tips on ponytail palms. So, I decided to create this article as a go-to guide for everything that can cause brown tips on ponytail palms – if you know of any other factors that I missed please let me know!
9 Causes Of Brown Tips On Ponytail Palms
These are the 9 most common causes for ponytail palm brown tips.
When people ask me why their ponytail palm leaf tips are turning brown, overwatering is my go-to answer. The reason for this is simple – it is by far the most common cause of this issue.
Overwatering affects transpiration and effectively suffocates the roots. As the movement of water is affected, the tips of the leaves will show symptoms first as they start to lose moisture.
The leaves will turn yellow first and brown very shortly after. It happens very quickly, and other symptoms include wilting leaves and saturated soil.
Underwatering can also lead to brown tips for the same reason as overwatering but due to a different mechanism.
Overwatering suffocates the roots and slows the movement of water to the leaves (transpiration), affecting the tips first as they are the furthest away. Underwatering creates a lack of moisture in the first place.
Without enough water, the leaves lose access to crucial nutrients as well as moisture, which can turn the tips brown. Underwatering can be differentiated from overwatering in 2 ways:
- Crispy Leaves – Underwatered leaves turn crispy due to a lack of water, whereas overwatered leaves will not be crisp and will instead droop.
- Pattern of Changing Color – Underwatering will cause the leaves to turn yellow/brown along the edge (to the tip), whereas overwatering always starts at the tips.
3. Not Enough Drainage
A lack of drainage makes overwatering much more likely, so it’s important to get right if you want to avoid brown tips on your ponytail palm.
Your pot should have lots of drainage holes in the bottom, and be complemented with well-draining soil (more on this later). It’s important to check the drainage holes every so often because roots can block them if your plant is root bound.
4. Root Rot/Crown Rot
If your ponytail palm is overwatered for a long period of time the roots and trunk can rot.
Root rot caused by overwatered happens as the roots die due to a lack of oxygen. As these roots die they start to decay and rot, which then spreads to other roots. Crown rot is also favored by wet conditions and is caused by a soil-borne fungus.
Both conditions affect the transport of moisture and nutrients to the leaves, which can cause the tips (and eventually the rest of the leaf) to turn brown.
5. Wrong Type Of Soil
Choosing the right type of soil is crucial for the growth of ponytail palms, as you need soil that is very well-draining.
A good rule of thumb is a soil mix that can dry out fully in 3-4 days, and I personally recommend choosing either a cactus or succulent soil mix for the best results. If the soil holds on to moisture, overwatering becomes more likely which directly affects the leaves and causes the tips to turn brown.
6. Sun Scorch
Ponytail palms tend to adapt well to direct sunlight, especially when kept outside, but when kept as houseplants they do best in indirect sunlight instead.
Too much intense direct sunlight can easily scorch the leaves of ponytail palms that aren’t used to it. This doesn’t necessarily happen right on the tips, but it’s a possibility.
If you suspect that sun scorch is to blame for the brown tips on your ponytail palm then there will be other sun-scorched spots on the leaves as well. These can be of different shapes and sizes and are brown in the centre with a yellow band around them.
7. Fertilizer Burn
Fertilizer burn is quite common amongst houseplants and not just ponytail palms.
It happens when you provide too much fertilizer, leading to an excess of nutrients that can result in many different issues such as low osmotic pressure. Fertilizer burn typically causes the leaves to turn yellow and brown (including the tips) as well as stunted growth.
8. Covering The Soil With Rocks
A lot of people like to cover the soil of their plants with rocks or stones, and while it does look nice it can be a problem for plants that don’t like much moisture in their soil.
A layer of rocks helps to trap moisture below the soil, similar to how a layer of sphagnum moss can be used on plants like anthuriums that like moisture. As you can guess, this can lead to excess moisture in the soil leading to brown tips on the leaves over time.
Air movement created by draughts can affect the amount of moisture in the leaves by increasing transpiration.
The tips are the most vulnerable as they have the smallest surface area, so they will lose moisture quickly and turn brown if affected by a strong draught.
Why Do The Tips Turn Brown First?
When transpiration is affected the other parts of the plant are prioritised in terms of receiving water, leaving the tips to become dry, brown and shrivelled.
This makes sense since ponytail palms can survive perfectly well without supplying water all the way to the end of the leaves. It is simply a defence mechanism to ensure survival that unfortunately affects the tips of the leaves and causes them to turn brown.
Can Leaves With Brown Tips Be Saved?
Once the tips have turned brown there is no going back as the leaf cells have died.
This leaves you with a choice; you can either trim the brown tips or leave them alone. There are arguments for both options:
- Trim the brown tips – If you want to, you can easily trim the brown tips using a sterilised trimming tool. This leaves a flat edge that will form a slight brown band along the edge a day or two after cutting.
- Leave them alone – The alternative is to simply leave the brown tips alone. This is my preferred choice, as it’s very hard to see the brown tips anyway. Over time the tips will shrivel and come off anyway, but again it comes down to your own preference.
How To Prevent Brown Tips On Ponytail Palms
As you’ve probably gathered from the list above, overwatering is the main culprit that can cause brown tips on ponytail palms.
You should only water when the top few inches of soil are dry, and water even less frequently during the winter. Ensure you have the right type of soil and good drainage as well and overwatering shouldn’t be an issue.
Apart from the basics, make sure there isn’t a strong draught nearby and that your ponytail palm is getting the right amount of sunlight to prevent sun scorch.