University of Illinois Extension
Bruce Spangeberg

These articles are written to apply to the northeastern corner of Illinois. Problems and timing may not apply outside of this area.

Stateline Yard & Garden

Houseplant Problems Return

November 16, 2000

Houseplant problems are common about this same time every year. Trees and shrubs out in the landscape go dormant as the days get shorter. Most houseplants do not go dormant, but the change in light and growing conditions as winter approaches has a significant effect on them. As a result, houseplants appear unhealthy in late fall.

As days shorten, both available light quantity and quality is reduced for houseplants. In addition to shorter days and a lower sun angle in the sky, November and December typically have lots of cloudy days. Houseplants that spent the summer on a well-lit porch or out on the patio see a drastic change in light when placed in a new winter indoor location. All of these light factors often lead to problems.

Also, as homes get closed tighter for winter and are heated, the environment around houseplants changes. Overall the air indoors becomes drier. Depending on where the plant is located, cold or hot drafts can become a problem.

Houseplants will show typical responses to each of these problems. For example, rapid leaf drop is a typical plant reaction to extreme temperature or light changes. This is very apparent if a plant growing all summer on the screen porch was left there a little too long this fall. Likewise, plants moved from a bright window or patio location to a darker area often suddenly drop leaves. Plants located close to furnace ducts may also drop leave suddenly as the heat is turned on again in fall.

Another common problem is leaf tips turning brown. Low humidity could be a cause. Soil problems are another possibility. Also consider problems such as too much or too little water, too much or not enough fertilizer, or salts accumulating in the soil.

Wilting, although typically thought of as being due to a lack of water, can be caused by several factors. Cold or hot drafts, too cold or too warm temperatures, excess fertilizer, and sunburn (i.e. on window sills) are other possibilities.

When problems start to show on houseplants, consider problems with the growing conditions first. While insects and disease do occur on most houseplants, the majority of problems are due to improper site and care factors that can often be corrected. Just as is the case outdoors, match the plant needs to site conditions and care for the plant properly.


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