Zebra plant (Aphelandra squarrosa) is a beautiful houseplant that produces delicate yellow flowers if exposed to bright light long enough in the fall. However, it’s also prized for its attractive foliage – large, striped leaves that resemble a zebra’s stripes. Whether you grow this plant for flowers or foliage (or both), keeping it happy can be a challenge.
So, why is your zebra plant dying? The most common reasons include too much light, inadequate watering (it needs constant moisture), low humidity in your home, low temperatures, and/or excessive fertilizer – which zebra plant is very sensitive to.
Let’s take a closer look at why your zebra plant isn’t thriving, and what you can do to fix it!
Too Much Light
Although zebra plant needs a lot of bright light – especially if you want it to flower – too much light can burn its leaves. (It can survive in lower light conditions, but will not bloom.) If your zebra plant leaves become crinkled or curled, this is a sign that it’s receiving too much light.
During the summer, especially, zebra plant needs to be kept in bright light. It can tolerate moderate light in the fall and winter. But it cannot handle direct sun in any season.
SOLUTION: For the best results, place zebra plant in a south, east, or west-facing window. Hang sheer curtains in the window to filter the light so it won’t scorch the leaves. North-facing windows typically don’t provide enough light, and south-facing windows might provide too much if not filtered by a curtain.
Soil Too Dry
Another primary reason for zebra plant dying is too little water. This plant requires constant moisture, which can be challenging during the summer months when its receiving more bright light. This is one of the reasons this plant is so hard to grow!
If you notice the leaf tips are beginning to wilt, this is an indication that the soil is too dry. Lower leaves wilting and/or dropping off is also a sign that moisture levels are not good. Both under- and over-watering can cause this. (See “How to Tell if a Plant is Overwatered or Underwatered.)
SOLUTION: Re-hydrate your plant by watering thoroughly and allowing any excess water to drain off. If your plant is severely under-watered, see my post on how to revive under watered plants and follow the steps found there. Never allow the soil to dry out. Water any time the top 1 inch of soil feels dry (be careful not to over-water and make sure soil is well-draining).
Just as zebra plant needs lots of water, it also needs high humidity levels to grow well. This evergreen shrub is native to Brazil, and it thrives in a tropical environment. If you live in a dry climate or your home is centrally heated, you may need to increase humidity around your plant.
The winter months can be especially dry indoors. If you think low humidity might be the reason for your zebra plant dying, it’s usually an easy fix. Look for yellowing or dropping leaves, and if none of the other solutions on this page seem to work, the air in your home may be too dry.
SOLUTION: Increase humidity by misting daily with a spray bottle filled with lukewarm water and set to the mist setting. Place zebra plant near other plants with high-humidity requirements and try placing on a homemade humidity tray. You may also want to place a humidifier nearby.
As a tropical plant, zebra plant needs warmer temperatures at all times. It can tolerate cooler temperatures in the winter. But if it drops below 60 degrees F (15 degrees C) for any period of time, this can kill the plant or cause it to drop leaves.
Keep an eye on your room temperature and make sure it stays above the recommended temperature at all times. If you go on vacation during winter and forget to leave your heater on, you may return home to a dying zebra plant. Even a single night with low temperatures can cause serious damage.
SOLUTION: Increase temperatures to above 60 degrees F (15 degrees C) and make sure it never drops below that point. In winter, this can be difficult if you’ll be away from home for a long period of time, so make sure to keep your heat on in the room where your zebra plant lives.
Zebra plant is susceptible to excess fertilizer. For the best results, only feed zebra plant once every two weeks in spring and summer with a liquid houseplant fertilizer diluted to half strength. Do not feed at all in fall and winter. This plant doesn’t need a lot of feeding.
If you notice the plant’s lower leaves wilting and dropping off (and you’re sure you aren’t over- or under-watering), you might have an issue with built up fertilizer salts in the soil.
SOLUTION: If you suspect you have over-fertilized your zebra plant, leach the pot to remove accumulated salts. Place the plant in a sink or tub, water thoroughly with clean, tepid water. Allow excess water to drip out through the drainage holes for 30 minutes, then repeat twice.
Why is My Zebra Plant Dying?
The most common ways houseplant growers kill zebra plant are by giving it too much light, allowing the soil to dry out too much, not keeping the humidity levels high enough, letting temperatures drop too low, and/or feeding the excessively. If your plant is declining, follow the steps above to fix the issues.
Zebra plant is not an easy plant to grow. I consider it a “difficult” houseplant. It’s very temperamental and can be hard to make happy. However, if you can provide that sweet spot of bright light (but not too bright), humid air, and constant soil moisture, you may be rewarded with beautiful flowers.
At the very least, you’ll get to enjoy the plant’s zebra-striped foliage. And to make sure your plant stays happy year-round, don’t forget to check out our Aphelandra Squarrosa Care Guide.
Following are some commonly asked questions about growing zebra plant that you might find helpful (and my answers to them).
Why are my zebra plant leaves curling? Curling leaves are almost always caused by too much light. Move the plant to a shadier location, ideally a south- or west-facing window with the light filtered by a gauzy curtain. An east-facing window also works, but north-facing will not be provide enough light. Avoid direct sun.
Why does my zebra plant have yellow leaves? Yellow leaves are almost always caused by over- or under-watering. However, too much light can also burn leaves and cause them to turn yellow. Make sure you keep soil consistently moist, but never wet or soggy. Insert your finger into the soil and if it feels dry at about 1 inch depth, provide water. Never allow soil to dry out.
How do I know if my zebra plant needs water? If the top 1 inch of soil feels dry when you insert your finger into the soil, your zebra plant needs water. Another sign would be drooping leaves, or wilting leaves that drop off from the bottom. Letting this plant dry out will kill it, so make sure you pay attention to the plant’s needs and water it when necessary.