Why Is My Palm Tree Turning Brown | Causes and Prevention

Palm trees have been used for centuries to bring a touch of tropical charm to far more temperate climates. Even today, they’re one of the most versatile plants for both landscape and indoor use.

It’s easy to label these exotic specimens as ‘high-maintenance’, however, palms are remarkably resilient when their basic needs are met. Growing one of your own doesn’t require a vast amount of experience, especially if you live somewhere warm.

Care needs aside, these tropicals are far from problem-free. For example, a palm tree turning brown despite the grower’s best efforts can be all too common. In this article, I’ll cover some of the most likely causes of brown palm fronds and what steps you can take to prevent and treat discoloration at the source.

Why Is My Palm Tree Turning Brown

Palm tree fronds aren’t just aesthetically pleasing. In many ways, they are the barometer of your palm’s overall health and well-being. So any changes to your palm leaves’ color, texture, or longevity should be met with close attention.

If your palm tree is turning brown, it could be due to changes in the environment or foliar disease. Nutritional shortfalls and irrigation quality can also trigger discoloration among other symptoms.

Below you’ll find key information to help you narrow down the cause of your palm tree’s brown foliage and take the necessary steps to reverse it:

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Palm Leaves Turning Brown And Dying

Palm fronds naturally turn brown and die off as they age. Remember that palm trees are evergreen, meaning they don’t lose their leaves with the seasons as some other trees do. If the discoloration is mild and only affects the bottommost leaves, then I’m willing to bet this is the case.

Excessive brown and dying palm fronds may indicate generalized disease or environmental stress. However, it’s extremely difficult to diagnose the exact cause based on this symptom alone. I recommend re-evaluating your current care routine and continuing to monitor for additional or worsening symptoms. 

Palm Leaves Turning Brown At Tips

It’s quite common for palm fronds to turn brown from the tips or margins. This discoloration may progress to cover more of the foliage, so pay attention to how your palm tree’s symptoms change over time.

One potential cause of this browning pattern is a potassium deficiency. This nutritional problem is incredibly prevalent among palm trees of all kinds. Notably, a lack of potassium tends to affect older fronds first. Symptoms will gradually move up the plant if left untreated.

The other likely explanation for your tree’s brown-tipped fronds is a mineral buildup in the soil. Some palm species are more sensitive to this than others but all are vulnerable to some extent. While fertilizer may be to blame for mineral deposits, tap water is also a potential source.

Brown And Yellow Leaves On Palm

Plants often turn yellow because they lack the necessary nutrients to make chlorophyll (a condition called chlorosis). If the nutritional deficiency becomes bad enough, chlorosis can eventually turn into dead, brown leaf tissue.

For example, nitrogen and iron are directly responsible for chlorophyll creation and a lack of either nutrient may trigger the yellowing or browning of palm leaves. While nitrogen deficiencies affect the entire frond, iron deficiency symptoms tend to be most prominent in the tips.

According to the University of Florida, new growth with brown and yellow stripes running lengthwise is often a symptom of manganese deficiency. Discoloration tends to be more serious toward the base of the foliage versus the tip. In severe cases, the fronds appear dry and “frizzled.” You might also describe affected foliage as looking burnt.

These nutrient deficiencies can all be treated with soil amendments. However, it may take several months to see an improvement in the tree itself. Note that nitrogen deficiencies are most prevalent in container-grown palm trees.

Palm Leaves Have Brown Spots

Brown spots on palm fronds are most often the result of fungal disease. There are many fungi that cause such symptoms, and it’s not always possible to diagnose the exact culprit without in-depth testing.

Fortunately, these diseases are rarely fatal and fungicides generally aren’t necessary. Copper-based formulas are safe to use on both ornamental and fruit-producing trees.

If your palm tree is afflicted by black, wart-like spots on both sides of the leaves, then the Graphiola leaf spot may be to blame. This fungal disease only affects palm trees in the Arecaceae family and can be controlled and treated with copper fungicides as well.

If the spots are more yellow or orange than true-brown, you are likely dealing with an early case of potassium deficiency. More severe symptoms, including brown leaf tips, probably aren’t far behind.

Outdoor Palm Trees Turning Brown

Palms grown outdoors are subject to many of the same environmental stressors and diseases as those kept indoors. But there are also a few unique circumstances affecting these trees that can lead to leaf discoloration and loss.

Palm Leaves Brown In Winter

If you live in a warmer climate a palm tree is unlikely to change color or drop leaves any more than normal, even during the winter. However, frond damage can be a very common side effect of cold temperatures. Plus, high winds can trigger cold damage even when the “real” temperature can be relatively mild.

Natural Leaf Shedding

Outdoor palm trees are bound to shed leaves naturally throughout their lifetimes. In addition to the natural aging process, fronds may turn brown and drop off after wind damage, transplanting heat stress, and more.

As long as your palm tree variety is appropriate for your climate and otherwise healthy, this damage is nothing to worry about. It’s an inevitable part of growing any type of plant outdoors. Despite our best efforts, we can’t control everything that happens in our gardens.

Preventing Brown Palm Leaves

It’s one thing to diagnose your palm tree’s discolored foliage after it’s already happened. In my opinion, however, the most important piece of information you can leave with today is how to prevent future damage from ever occurring.

Protect During Extreme Winter Weather

If you want your palm to survive a cold winter, you will need to select a variety that is hardy for your particular climate. Choose a variety such as Needle palm tree, Mazari palm, or Sago palm, all of which are hardy in zones 6b to 11.

In any case, outdoor palm trees should be sheltered anytime the temperature drops below freezing or there are strong winds.

If you have an outdoor palm growing in a pot, consider covering it with a gardening fleece or bringing it indoors to protect it from the elements.

Landscape trees can be wrapped with fleece, burlap, pipe insulation, or a similar material. It’s also an option to use non-LED string lights or electric heat tape to keep palm trees from freezing.

Adding a layer of mulch at the base will also help to protect the roots both from freezing if temperatures drop and from becoming waterlogged during a thaw.

Use Rain Water, Not Tap Water

Palm trees tend to be particularly sensitive to water quality. Rather than irrigate your trees with tap water, I strongly suggest using collected rainwater or distilled water.

For indoor palms, I tend to fill a watering can with tap water and leave it overnight before watering. This gives the minerals within a chance to evaporate.

Exposure To Sunlight

Many people are surprised to learn that not all palm trees need full sun in order to thrive. Some varieties can tolerate and do require a full six hours of bright light each day. Others – such as Chusan Palm and Windmill Palm are more suited to dappled shade. In fact, prolonged overexposure to sunlight can cause their fronds to burn and turn brown.

Irrespective of the palm tree you choose for your landscape, do bear in mind that all young palms need protection from too much sunlight. Keep immature palm trees in a sheltered spot and avoid exposing them to full sun during the hottest part of the day. This will help to avoid their tender fronds from getting scorched.

Soil Conditions

While palm trees are notorious for being able to survive in arid soils (think coastline sandy soils and sea salt!), they do require ample drainage. Poor soil drainage can lead to problems like root rot, which often affects foliar health causing discoloration before anything else.

I also recommend monitoring your palm tree’s soil pH level. Soil pH has a direct relationship with nutrient availability. Many cases of nutrient deficiencies are actually caused by soil that is too acidic or too alkaline.

On average, palm trees prefer a soil pH between 6.0 and 8.0. Anything higher can prevent the effective absorption of nutrients, But do be aware that this range can vary greatly by species.

Fertilizing Palm Trees

According to the University of Florida, Palm trees need a slow-release fertilizer with an NPK of 8-0-12 plus additional magnesium. Failing to provide adequate amounts of nitrogen, potassium, and magnesium can cause leaf discoloration, especially yellowing and browning of foliage.

Mid-Spring is the best time to fertilize palm trees so avoid feeding between late fall and early spring when palms go into a winter dormancy period.

How To Revive A Dying Palm Tree

Proper diagnosis is critical to reviving a stressed or diseased palm tree. If you don’t know what’s impairing the tree’s health, you won’t be able to take the steps necessary to correct it.

Take a close look at the tree’s environment and maintenance schedule. Inspect the plant itself for tell-tale signs of disease.

If you suspect that a nutritional deficiency is to blame, I recommend that you submit a leaf sample to a local Extension Office or similar service for testing. If such testing isn’t readily available in your area, treat the suspected deficiency based on visible symptoms.

Pruning Brown Palm Tree Leaves

Palm trees do something rather unique when their fronds die back. You see, these older fronds provide potassium and magnesium to newer parts of the palm. It is vital therefore to leave these dying fronds intact for as long as possible versus pruning them away right away.

I do not recommend pruning a palm tree in an attempt to change its size and shape. Any cut will leave an open wound and this can leave your palm exposed to the risk of infection from pests and diseases.

If you do decide that pruning is unavoidable, perhaps because your palm has become unruly or overgrown, I recommend you use sharp and sterile tools, remembering to re-sanitize after every cut. This will minimize any possible risk of infection.

Cut as close to the base of each frond as possible. Leave a short stump where the leaf meets the trunk — this will fall away naturally in time — and avoid cutting into the trunk itself.

Remove old fronds only when they have turned entirely brown. The only exception to this rule — at least, that I recommend — is in cases of foliar disease. It may be better to prune away infected fronds before they completely die back to prevent further disease spread.