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Why does my dracaena have yellow leaves?

Dracaena yellow leaves

Plants of the Dracaena family are very easy houseplants to care for, but on occasion they present yellow leaves, a telling symptom of overwatering.

Here’s how to double-check that your plant has been getting too much water and care for it so the leaves turn back green again.

It’s a few quick steps that won’t take much time.

Dracaena leaves turn yellow

Overwatering is the most common cause for Dracaena leaves turning yellow.

  • Leaves of a Dracaena plant are turning yellow.Leaves of the dracaena lose their green color and turn pale.
  • They lose their crisp, semi-rigid bearing and start feeling soft and limp.
  • Instead of reaching for the sky, they droop down and sag towards the floor.
  • Yellow-brown spots develop at the center and edges of leaves which die off and dry up.
  • Younger, topmost dracaena leaves are less affected than older, lower leaves.
  • If you lift the plant out of its pot, roots are swollen, translucent and mushy or soft to the touch. These are the first stages of root rot.
  • If nothing is done, even the dracaena stems start turning soft and floppy.

Usually these telling signs develop over the course of a couple weeks to a month.

Note that tips of dracaena leaves turning brown is another problem unrelated to overwatering: plant necrosis due to fluoride and salts in water.

How to check for overwatering

Finger-check for moisture

First of all, you should check with your finger how wet the soil feels.

  • Soggy soil that smells moldy or foul is a clear indication.
  • Sometimes the first inch of soil seems fine but below that it’s very wet.
  • Soil gives a slimy sensation when you rub your fingers together.
  • If you use plant mulch or organic material, it tends to turn blackish in case of excess water (twigs and wood that never dry turn dark colors).

In some cases, you can even see that plants send roots up out of the soil like in the case of this rotting sunpatiens.

Check the underside of the pot

  • There should be a draining hole in the container so that excess water can flow out.
  • Sometimes roots have grown through the holes and thickened so much that the drainage holes are “clogged”.
  • Usually pots rest upon a saucer to collect excess water. In case of overwatering, this excess water remains in the saucer or pot-holder and is never thrown out.

Wrong watering schedule

  • Perhaps you water the plant every day or couple days.
  • Perhaps too many persons are involved and everyone waters the plant too often.

How to save a dracaena with yellowing leaves

Follow these simple steps to save your yellowing dracaena:

  • Stop watering daily. Make watering your dracaena a weekly task, no more. Check with other persons so that there’s no double-watering. Use a watering planner or simply a small calendar with marks on the date to remember the last watering date.
  • Check for holes at the bottom of the pot for optimum drainage. If it’s a plastic pot, sometimes the holes aren’t drilled yet or cut out. Use a drill or cutter and make at least three holes. If it’s a terra cotta or clay pot, use a ceramic drill bit for that, or simply protect the hole from clogging with a piece of mesh wire.
  • Change the soil mix of your dracaena to something that drains much better. You can use river sand for a third, potting soil mix for a third, and garden soil. River sand isn’t salty. If you only have sea sand at hand, set it out in a thin-meshed sieve (or even cheesecloth) for a couple months and rainwater will wash the salts out. Don’t add any perlite, but hydrogel crystals can absorb extra water without endangering the plant.
  • Remove rotting roots that may already have started turning mushy. These won’t recover and will be an open invitation for root rot fungus and the like. You can leave yellowed leaves until you’re certain they’re dead. Sometimes pale leaves can recover.
  • Layer gravel or clay pebbles at the bottom of the pot a good two inches deep (5 cm).
  • Remove the pot-holder and ensure that excess water is quickly thrown out. After watering the plant, promptly empty the saucer under the pot from any water that may have collected in it. A good solution is to spread gravel or clay pebbles in the saucer instead and rest the pot atop it. Not only will this keep excess water from touching the dracaena pot, it will also help the excess water evaporate, thus increasing air moisture which is good for the plant.

If all the above fails, or if you feel the plant is too far gone already, go ahead and behead it: each portion and cutting will have a chance to create a new plant.

Learn more about Dracaena water needs

The Dracaena plant evolved in a context of arid droughts interspersed with flash floods and heavy rain. This led the plant to develop specific qualities that make dracaena resistant to underwatering.

However, these tweaks that nature gifted Dracaena for dry climates become a huge disadvantage when the plant sits in constantly moist wet soil like marshes, swamps, or overwatered pots. It’s important to water it well!

There you have it! You shouldn’t be having any problems with your dragon plant anymore!

Read also:

Smart tip about watering your dracaena

Best is to use rain water that is collected as runoff from rain or from trees. Set basins under the drip line of trees or under the roof gutter spout. This water is free from municipal water additives which eliminates risk of leaf tip necrosis. Additionally, it’s loaded with nutrients from lichen, moss, bark, leaves and animal life that collect in dust that the rainwater picks up.

Images: N&G contributor: Phishmcz, shutterstock: Firn
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  • Kaylee Spivey wrote on 6 August 2021 at 16 h 25 min

    I’m having trouble determining why mine is turning yellow/brown. Though it may be fluoride (since I don’t water overly often, so I didn’t think it’d be overwatering). Flushed it out with some bottled spring water 2 days ago. Also realized I haven’t fertilized it at all since I’ve gotten it, and initially it had a lot of new growth a couple months after getting it, so I thought maybe it’s used up most of the soil’s nutrients and that’s why the leaves are turning yellow. Added a bit of indoor plant fertilizer to it when I was flushing it out with spring water. I don’t know if maybe that was wrong, but it’s only been 2 days and now more leaves are yellow and browning. Not sure what to do. Don’t know if flushing it out again would be too soon and lead to overwatering symptoms.

    • Gaspard wrote on 13 August 2021 at 10 h 20 min

      Hello Kaylee, not very easy to give a correct diagnosis here. When I wrote “overwatering”, what’s critical is that water drains out and doesn’t sit after watering. I hope that’s the case for your setup. Some potting mixes also retain too much water, taking days and days to dry out even if there’s no plant in them; these aren’t ideal for Dracaena. If you have such a potting mix, try to repot the plant with up to 50% sand and gravel to balance the effect of the water-retaining soil mix.

      It was a good idea to fertilize. Indeed, nutrients are depleted pretty fast, within a few months usually so this might explain the general loss of vigor and color. Do keep on fertilizing, any basic indoor plant will do. Don’t double doses, just follow what’s written on the label. And yes, wait until the soil has dried up again before doing so, as you noted 🙂

      Fluoride is usually focused on the tips, not the entire leaf, so you can rule that out. In rare cases, water is too cold or too hot when watering and this causes temperature shock – the solution for this is to sit the bottle near the pot for a few hours (a day is best) before actually watering the plant.

    • Kaylee Spivey wrote on 6 August 2021 at 16 h 26 min

      As for specific yellowing/browning locations it’s happened on all 3 of the different plants/stalks. Mostly on one of them though. And has affected both older and brand new growth

  • Kate wrote on 5 May 2021 at 4 h 15 min

    How can I differentiate brown spots caused by under/over watering vs fluoride toxicity vs. leaf fungus (leaf spot or rust)?

    • Gaspard wrote on 21 May 2021 at 4 h 05 min

      Hi Kate, that’s a good question. There are so many types of fungus, bacteria and nutrient deficiencies that it’s hard to list them all! But here are a few rules of thumb to tell what type of leaf spot you’re dealing with:
      – over and under watering: yellowing leaves all over. It’s like the entire leaf changes color. In case of overwatering, of course the soil will usually be soggy or wet about a knuckle or two deep. Stems are softer, too. In case of underwatering, soil is dry and stems usually stay firm and rigid.
      – fluoride toxicity usually starts out with yellowing before turning brown, but the yellowing and browning starts out where fluoride accumulates most. This will be in older leaves (young ones aren’t affected) and more specifically at the tip and edges of the leaf, rarely in the middle.
      – as for leaf fungus, usually spots are placed randomly, at least at first: wherever the spore landed is where the fungus will develop if the plant is weak. For more advanced diseases, it depends on how the fungus or bacteria spreads. Usually it’ll spread upstream towards the trunk, and from there spread to each leaf along the veins. Fungus that produce spores will tend to infect leaves placed lower than them on the tree.

  • Kashmir wrote on 5 July 2020 at 18 h 58 min

    I’ve repotted my dracaena and waited about 2 days to water it with a water/hydrogen peroxide solution because it had root rot, its been about 3 weeks since then. I haven’t watered it since and have been checking it with a moisture meter. I have holes and about 3 inches of lava rock in the bottom. It had no changes until about 4 days ago it started yellowing and wilting on the main stalk that I believed was going to make it. The top inch is dry but is wet the deeper the soil gets. I don’t know what to do. Im thinking maybe I didn’t get enough of the rotted roots off. Would it be bad to pull it out of the pot again so soon to check the roots again?

  • rose wrote on 25 April 2020 at 23 h 53 min

    Thanks for the helpful info… my draecana has a combination of yellow stains with a red centre and dry brown leaves crisping into oblivion. I have a feeling my roommate has been overwatering it so the first step is to lay off the aqua!

    • Gaspard wrote on 27 April 2020 at 12 h 14 min

      Yes, it sounds like a combination of overwatering and – curious but common indoors – excessively dry air around the plant. Lay off the aqua but increase air moisture in the air around the plant!