The elephant ear plant is quite a looker, but it takes some hard work and time to grow its large, ornamental leaves. That’s what makes it more painful to see otherwise beautiful glossy leaves turning brown. Wondering what could be wrong?
Leaf burn is the most likely reason for elephant ear leaves turning brown. It occurs if exposed to direct sunlight, too much heat, fertilizer burn, or too little humidity. Brown leaves could also be a sign of insect pests, disease, or water supply issues.
Fortunately, most of these issues can be avoided or corrected if detected early. In this post, I’ll explain how to diagnose, treat, and prevent brown leaves on elephant ears.
Causes of Elephant Ear Leaves Turning Brown
 Leaf Burn and Drying Out
Leaf burn is the most common cause of brown elephant ears. It’s usually caused by too much direct sunlight or heat. In the summer or when you take your plant outside, you’ll notice this.
The scorching heat of the sun will scorch the leaves. As a result, the leaf tips and edges turn an unappealing brown color, dry out, and wither. The entire foliage may become burnt and dry as the leaves rapidly lose moisture.
Don’t worry; leaf burn is unlikely to kill your elephant ear. The problem is that it ruins the appearance of your plant’s leaves, making them unattractive. After all, it’s the elephant ear’s foliage that makes it so appealing.
The foliage will become droopy, curled, and extremely dry if the leaf burn is caused by too much heat. And if nothing is done, the leaves will eventually fall off.
Other factors can cause or aggravate leaf burn and drying. The most obvious ones are too little humidity, underwatering, too much fertilizer in the soil, and cold/hot drafts. Overwatering is most likely to blame if the soil is muddy or wet.
For the elephant ear to look its best, it must be exposed to natural light. It, on the other hand, despises direct sunlight. Place it in an area that receives plenty of bright diffused or indirect light.
If you want to protect your plant from the hot afternoon sun, use a sheer curtain or blind.
I place my elephant ear plants in front of an east-facing window so that they are easy to care for. They will appreciate the gentle but nourishing light of the early morning. If you can find a slight shadow or dapple in the afternoon when the sun is scorching, take advantage of it.
Watering, misting, and increasing the amount of ventilation available to your plant are all beneficial. They will not only protect your plant from leaf burn, but they will also aid in its recovery by allowing it to recover more quickly.
 Too Little Water
The elephant ear is a water-loving tropical plant. Just by looking at its broad, lush-looking foliage, it’s obvious the plant thrives with consistent moisture.
That’s why it comes as no shock that underwatering causes its leaves to wrinkle and turn brown.
Signs of an Underwatered Elephant Ear
If you let it get too thirsty, your elephant ear will respond by wilting and curling. After that, the leaf tips and edges will turn ugly brown, crisp up, and appear burnt. Leaf browning will then progress from the margins and eventually cover the whole foliage.
If your plant is bushy, you’ll first notice browning on the outer foliage. The browning usually begins with lower and older leaves. In extreme cases of dehydration, the browned leaves will dry out almost completely, shrivel, and droop.
Large yellow spots or patches at the tips or edges of the leaves are another common sign of an underwatered elephant ear.
- Remove any dead or heavily browned leaves, as they will not regrow if left in place.
- Indent the potting mix with your index finger about 2-3″ deep. If the soil is completely devoid of moisture, you should water it immediately.
- I prefer to soak it in water while it soaks in the bathtub. It is the most effective method of ensuring that your elephant ear is thoroughly and deeply watered.
- If you’re irrigating from above, make sure to water it until liquid begins to drain from the drainage holes. More importantly, you should empty any excess water that has accumulated on the surface of the saucer.
 Too Much Water
If you water your elephant too frequently, excess water will collect on the edges of the leaves, causing them to turn brown. As a result, the leaves will begin to rot and turn brown around the edges and tips. As you might expect, the browning will progress and eventually cover the entire leaf surface.
In most cases, damp conditions encourage the spread of fungal and bacterial diseases as well as pests. They may also contribute to or accelerate the browning of leaves.
Signs of an Overwatered Elephant Ear Plant
- Water-soaked brown leaf tips & edges
- Edema causes watery blisters on the foliage
- Leaf yellowing and drooping
- Dark, wet brown spots due to leaf spot disease
- Small yellow spots on the leaves closer to the ground, soil, or roots
- Root rot
- Trim and discard any leaves with numerous brown, water-soaked spots. The same goes for dead, dropped, or dying leaves.
- Elephant ears aren’t affected too much by overwatering. It would help if you stopped irrigating for a while so that it can use up excess moisture. Improving light intensity, aeration, and ventilation will allow the soil to dry out faster.
- Ensure to dump out any excess water from the saucer.
- If there’s root rot, you must clip away rotten roots, treat healthy roots with fungicide, and repot afresh.
 Fungal Leaf Blight
Fungal leaf blight is the most common disease that blemishes the elephant ear leaves. It’s caused by Phytophthora colocasiae, which thrives in moist conditions. The fungus spreads through water.
The fungal leaf blight caused by Phytophthora appears as small dark brown, tan, or purple round spots on the foliage at the beginning of the disease. From the center of the lesions, a clear ooze is exuded. When exposed to air, the ooze transforms from a watery clear color to a purple or yellow hue.
In muggy conditions, the small brown lesions expand rapidly and coalesce into larger brown patches. Other symptoms of the fungal blight include:
- Foliage covered with white fuzzy fungal growths
- Brown spots with yellow/purple dry core
- Infected leaves wither and collapse
- The stems are affected by a severe infection, which causes them to end up dying.
Control and Management
Good sanitation practices are your best bet at managing fungal leaf blight:
- Remove and discard any dead leaves and plant matter
- Avoid overhead irrigation. Better yet, don’t wet the foliage when overwatering.
- Make sure to use only pure water to irrigate your elephant ear. Using rainwater, distilled, or filtered water is ideal.
- Don’t touch your plant (especially the leaves) after handling soil
Trim away seriously diseased or dead leaves. Dip in or wipe the trimming tool using rubbing alcohol to sterilize it after every snip.
I usually use copper-based fungicides to keep Phytophthora fungal leaf blight at bay. Spray it on the leaves of your elephant ear thoroughly. Apply every seven days when it’s wet (or every 14 days when it’s dry) until you curb the infection.
 Pythium Rot
A disease of the elephant ear that is even more severe than Phytophthora leaf blight is Pythium rot. Pythium pathogens, which are found in soil, are responsible for the outbreak. This species spreads primarily through irrigation water, and it thrives in excessively wet soil and humid conditions.
The presence of rooting roots below the soil line indicates that pythium rot has infected your elephant ear. They smell bad, are soggy to the touch, and are discolored, black, or rusty brown in appearance.
Above the soil, the most common signs and symptoms include:
- Yellowed or browned leaves (this starts with older and lower leaves)
- Stunted or uneven growth
- Rot at the base of stems
- Leaves drooping
- Moldy potting soil, especially on the surface
Control and Management
You must use a multi-prong strategy to control and manage pythium rot. The most important tip is to observe good sanitary practices.
- Remove and dispose of dead plant matter appropriately
- Sanitize well (wash your hands & sterilize tools) before handling your plants
- Steam-sterilize your plant’s potting mix. Steaming at around 140°F(60°C) for half an hour should help kill the Pythium spp.
- Make sure irrigation water is pure and uncontaminated
- Ensure there’s plenty of aeration around your elephant ear
- Get rid of pests like shore flies and fungus gnats as soon as possible. They can spread these pathogens.
 Phyllosticta Leaf Spot
The fungus Phyllosticta spp causes this fungal leaf spot disease. Unlike Phytophthora leaf blight or pythium rot, it is rarely fatal to your elephant ear. However, it can wreck your plant’s appearance with unsightly brown spots.
Early signs of the disease include a spray of small water-soaked oval or round lesions. These lesions may appear black, brown, gray, or beige. They will grow big and merge to create large blotches or patches that can blanket the whole leaf.
These leaf spots will dry and drop out in some cases, leaving scruffy holes in the foliage. For this reason, your elephant ear will look as if it has been sprayed with bullets.
If Phyllosticta leaf spot disease is responsible for leaf browning, look out for leaf or stem dieback on your elephant ear. Heavily infected leaves may also turn yellow and fall off.
Control and Management
Most infections happen through contaminated water. So, it’s essential to use pure irrigation water. And be careful not to splash the leaves when watering.
Sanitary practices can also go a very long way. Use sterilized gloves and other care items when caring for your plant. Be sure to remove & discard any dead leaves or plant materials that fall around your elephant ear.
Prune and space out your plants to encourage ample air circulation. I highly discourage overhead watering, as well.
Remove and dump affected leaves or even the whole plant in a covered trash bin.
Cultural controls are usually enough to curb Phyllosticta leaf spot disease. Most copper-based fungicides hold promise against Phyllosticta leaf spot. However, you can use chemical controls such as propiconazole, mancozeb, and copper hydroxide.
(Source: University of Massachusetts)
 Pest Infestation
The appearance of browning on the elephant ear plant’s leaves could signal the start of a pest infestation.
Inspect the underside and top of the leaves thoroughly for insect pests sucking sap from the foliage. Some of them also chew on the edges of the leaves, leaving brown marks.
Symptoms: Look for spider mites on the backs of the leaves, especially in hot & dry conditions. These creeping bugs spin fine webbings to protect their colonies. They also leave grayish streaks on the leaves.
How to Control Spider Mites
- Use a strong water stream to wash spider bugs off your elephant ear
- Apply a horticultural oil or insecticide soap to kill them and prevent their return. I usually use neem oil, as it is organic, indoor safe, and effective.
- Use a miticide or insecticide (check the latest price on Amazon here). Spray your elephant ear every 7-10 days until you fight off the infestation.
Symptoms: If you see an army of tiny green bugs that congregate on the leaves and stems, you’ve got an aphid invasion.
- They suck sap and produce honeydew, so the leaves are brownish & sticky
- If the infestation is heavy, the leaves often wilt, become discolored, and droop
- Stunted growth is seen in case the population is large
- You may see some ants loitering on or around your elephant
- Honeydew spur the development of black sooty mold
How to Control Aphids
- One of the quickest and most effective ways to get rid of aphids on your elephant is to blast them away with a powerful water jet.
- You can also squish the bugs and wipe down the leaves using cotton swabs soaked in 70% isopropyl alcohol.
- I find ready-to-use neem oil or insecticidal soap spray does the best job of getting rid of aphids. However, avoid using insecticidal soap when the air is hot & dry.
Symptoms: If you see oval-shaped insects covered by white cottony or waxy filaments, then mealybugs are the primary cause of leaf browning. You’ll spot them on the stem nodes and along the leaf veins on the undersides of leaves.
Mealybugs also suck sap and secrete honeydew. As such, you’ll most likely notice some black sooty mold. Ants may also farm the syrupy substance.
If their numbers are significant, there will be general growth stunting and yellowing of leaves. The leaves may also be covered with black spots.
How to Control Mealybugs
- Spot-treat aphids that you can see using an alcohol-dipped cotton pad or swab
- Use insecticidal soap or neem oil solution to spray all over the leaves of your elephant ear.
- Inspect your elephant ear every week and re-spray until you get rid of the bugs.
- Encourage natural predators to curb aphid populations. I recommend bringing plants that attract syrphid flies, lacewing larvae, soldier beetles, and lady beetles.
 Extremely Low Humidity
Elephant ear prefers warmer humid conditions. Some species are grown in wet areas in Hawaii. If the air surrounding your elephant ear is dry, the leaves will turn brown.
If low humidity is the culprit, the following primary signs will show:
- Burned or browned leaf edges and tips
- Leaves appear curled up and crinkly
- Leaves are dry and crispy on the surface
- Boost humidity around your elephant ear to address the issue. Most browning leaves will bounce back after misting.
- Set your potted plant on a water tray perched with pebbles
- Consider setting up a humidifier near your elephant ear.
 Fertilizer Burn
The elephant ear is a heavy feeder. You’ll have to feed it regularly with fertilizer to reinforce the nutrients in the potting mix. Once a month, apply a water-soluble 20-20-20 fertilizer.
However, if you apply too much fertilizer, the salts will build up in the soil and burn the roots, leading to leaf browning.
- Lower leaves will wilt and turn yellow.
- Fertilizer salt crust on the surface of potting mix
- Browned leaf margins and tips
- Loss of leaves, plus slowed or no growth at all
- Avoid overfertilizing your elephant ear
- Fertilize your elephant ear once every 2-3 weeks in summer and spring. You can use organic or a high-nitrogen water-soluble houseplant fertilizer.
- Irrigate your elephant plant from the top deeply until liquid flushes out of the bottom drain holes. This will help rinse excess salts out of the potting mix.
- You may want to repot your elephant ear afresh. This is especially the case if there’s a lot of salt crust on the soil surface.
Is It Normal for Elephant Ear Leaves to Turn Brown?
In some cases, the old leaves on your elephant ear will naturally dry out, wilt, and turn brown as they age. Of course, they will come tumbling down. It’s a natural way of getting rid of old foliage in order to make room for new growth and direct resources toward it.
How to Prevent Brown Leaves on Elephant Ear Plant
- Provide bright, filtered, or indirect light
- Protect your elephant ear from direct sunlight — A spot near an east-facing window would be perfect.
- Keep the potting soil consistently & uniformly moist — It should never dry out completely.
- Maintain a regular watering schedule — Irrigating your plant first thing in the morning will benefit it. Avoid irrigating the foliage from above and wetting the leaves.
- Place it in the bathroom or use a humidifier to provide it with a humid environment during the dry winter months..
- Increase air circulation to avoid overheating, and stay away from areas near radiators and heat sources to avoid overheating. During the hot summer months, bring your plant indoors.