Indoor Plant Got Sunburned? Here’s What To Do

Having indoor plants in your home is a great way to brighten it and introduce nature indoors. However, you might notice some of your indoor plants are looking sun-scorched. This can sometimes happen but, thankfully, you can still save your plant.

Indoor plants can get sunburned if they’re exposed to too much sunlight. Depending on their exposure rate, their upper leaves can turn yellow or white with brown edges. Sunburned leaves cannot recover, but you can save the plant by removing it from direct sunlight. 

The rest of the article will explain how your indoor plants can get sunburned, ways to revive them, and the measures you can take to protect them.

Sunburn and Indoor Plants

As much as they need sunlight to make food through photosynthesis, plants can get sunburned if they get too much of it. But how does too much sunlight affect plant growth?

According to a 2014 article by the American Chemical Society, ultraviolet (UV) radiation, particularly UVB, can cause severe damage not only to the plant’s looks but also to its DNA structure.

This causes the plant to grow more slowly, even after it has recovered from the initial sunburn effects.

However, the same article also discussed how plants make sunscreen called sinapate esters, which are special molecules plants coat their leaves with. This means that your plants can still tolerate direct sunlight, but only if it’s just enough to process their nutrients. 

A 2017 study from Michigan State University also discovered that too much sunlight can cause a plant’s photosynthesis system to stop repairing itself. This is because heavy sun exposure can cause plants to lose their MPH2, the protein responsible for the repair. 

Another reason indoor plants may get sunburned is low soil moisture and high environmental temperature. This is because soil moisture aids in cooling off your plants when it gets too hot. 

How much sunlight is too much ultimately depends on the type of plants you have indoors. Succulents like cacti and agave love getting at least six hours of direct sunlight daily.

On the other hand, non-succulent indoor plants, such as bromeliads or ferns, prefer indirect sunlight and wouldn’t do well with direct sunlight, especially during the summer.

This video provides an excellent explanation of how indoor plants generally prefer their lights. It also details the different ways you can provide lighting for your plants: 

Dealing with Sunburned Plants

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to revive sunburned plant sections. Ultimately, the process is irreversible for the affected leaves or stems. 

However, there are some measures you can take to help your sunburned plant recover:

Place Your Plant in the Shade

You should place your plant in a cool and shady spot as soon as you notice the telltale signs of sunburn, such as brown or white leaf edges, dried stems, and stunted growth. The sooner you move your sun-scorched plant into the shade, the better its chances of survival.

Adjust How You Water Your Plant

While you might be tempted to give your plant more water than you usually do, this is one of the worst things you can do since sunburned plants are vulnerable to the effects of over-watering.  Sunburned plants typically lose most of their leaves, so they won’t need as much water as they did before.

Their roots may also be affected, so watering them too much and too soon can lead to root rot or bacterial growth in waterlogged soil. In addition, the reduced amount of sunlight will slow down the evaporation rate of moisture from the soil.

Therefore, it’s always best to manually check the soil before watering your plant. Moisture-loving plants will need more water as soon as the top inch (2.5 cm) of the soil is dry. On the other hand, succulents will survive even if you wait until half the pot or up to 3 inches (7.6 cm) of the soil is dry.

Remove the Sunburned Leaves

Gently removing sun-scorched leaves helps prevent unnecessary energy loss from your plant because plants will typically consume more energy to repair damaged parts. Since sun damage is irreparable, it’s best if the plant grows new leaves to recover faster.

Removing the sunburned leaves is easy and involves gently pulling or pinching them off the plant. You can add these leaves to your compost pile.

Apply Fertilizer to Speed up Recovery

Fertilizer is an excellent way to help your plant recover from sunburn. However, you should use less often than you normally would. To avoid fertilizer burn, apply your plant’s usual fertilizer at a quarter of the recommended strength, 1-2 weeks longer than the usual interval until the plant grows new and healthy leaves.

Use Organic Fertilizer

Using organic instead of chemical fertilizer can also help revitalize a sunburned plant. This is because chemical fertilizer products tend to have higher acid content than the former, making affected roots more susceptible to damage. 

Burpee Natural Purpose Granular Organic Food from Amazon.com does an excellent job of helping sunburned indoor plants. Its balanced NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) content works well for almost all your plant’s needs. It’s also made from organic materials that introduce beneficial microbes to your soil, extending your plant’s nutrient boost for up to three months.

Preventive Measures

Now that you know how plants get sunburned and how to revive them, let’s discuss how to prevent this from happening again:

Keep Them Away From Direct Sunlight

The best way to prevent your plants from getting sunburned is to prevent excessive exposure to direct sunlight.

South-facing windows give the brightest light conditions for more hours, so they’re recommended for succulents. That said, they are not suitable for sun-sensitive plants. 

Most indoor plants that prefer partial or moderate sunlight (4-6 hours) can benefit from lightly curtained east or west-facing windows since these give off the most balanced range of sunlight. 

Conversely, north-facing windows are the best locations for plants that need less light.

Still, these are general rules that you should take with a grain of salt. To protect your plants better, you should take note of your plant species and keep track of their preferred lighting needs.

Rotate Your Plants Regularly

Potted plants also need to be rotated regularly to ensure even growth on all sides. Giving your pot a quarter or a half turn every time you water it should be enough to prevent one side from growing leggy. It can also minimize the risk of your plant getting sunburned in case the light intensity is too high.

Use Curtains or Blinds

You should move your plants to the shade whenever sunlight becomes too extreme. However, most of us don’t have the time and energy to do this daily. 

Fortunately, you can use curtains or blinds to do the trick. Use black-out curtains if you want to block all the sunlight, but I recommend using lighter colors that can soften or filter the light

Use Grow Lights

Different plant species need varying hours of light to grow properly. However, keeping track of this may be unrealistic and exhausting for most of us.

Leave your plants indoors for one week, and you’ll find them yellowing and etiolating. Conversely, leave them outdoors for too long, and you’ll find them sunburned.

You can ensure your plants get the minimum amount of indoor lighting needed using grow lights. While there are plenty of grow lights to choose from, only a handful will satisfy your plants’ needs.

Ideally, your grow lights should have the right spectrum that enables your plants to photosynthesize. 

According to a 2019 study, plants grow best with grow lights having blue and blue-red spectral peaks. This is because blue light aids in chlorophyll production and root strengthening, while red light promotes flowering and better propagation.

They should also have an automatic timer that allows you to control your plant’s light intake even when you’re not home.

More importantly, grow lights should be at an appropriate distance from your plants to prevent burning them. Keep the grow lights at least 12 inches (30 cm) above your indoor plant.

Final Thoughts

Plants can get sunburned too. While they have mechanisms to prevent sunburn, too much sunlight can still harm them. 

Fortunately, you can prevent this from happening by placing them in a cool area with ample shade, using UV-blocking curtains, and adjusting your watering schedule. Remember, sunburned plant parts can no longer recover, so prevention is better than cure.

Dr. Moritz Picot

Dr. Moritz Picot is a horticulture enthusiast and the founder of TheGrowingLeaf.com, where he serves as the lead content writer. He established the website in 2022 as a valuable resource for both gardening aficionados and beginners, compiling all the gardening tips he has accumulated over the past 25 years. Alex has a passion for nurturing plants, transforming backyards into inviting spaces, and sharing his knowledge with the world.

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