Why is my African Milk Tree dying?

Last Updated: September 1, 2022

Being a succulent type, the African Milk Tree has quite specific care requirements which can make it a little tricky sometimes and cause your plant to start dying! They don’t thrive in the same conditions as many other houseplant types and will start to show signs of unhappiness if things aren’t right. 

Luckily, you have come to the right place if your African Milk Tree has started dying as below we will go through each of the factors that can be harmful to your plant. We will also cover how to diagnose the issue, treat it and prevent it from harming your African Milk Tree in future.

A dying African Milk Tree can suggest overwatering

If your African Milk Tree is dying and developing soft leaves, then overwatering might be to blame. As African Milk Trees are succulents (that look like Cacti), they really don’t need much water to thrive and prefer a dry potting mix. This is why too much water will very quickly start to rot the root system and cause a whole range of issues for your plant. 

To establish if overwatering is what is causing your African Milk Tree to die, take the plant out of the pot and take a look at the soil. If the potting mix is very waterlogged and clumpy then this is the most probable cause of your dying African Milk Tree. 

If the soil is waterlogged replace it straight away and trim away the rotten roots. This will allow your plant to start to recover rather than waiting for the soil to naturally dry out as this risks more damage.

In the future, to prevent the issue from happening again, make sure to monitor the moisture levels in the soil so that it has time to properly dry out between waterings. You also want to adjust your watering routine so that you cut back on how much you water during winter as the cold darker months mean your plant will go dormant and not produce any new growth. This is when root rot and waterlogged soil become higher risk factors.

Alongside overwatering, it might also be a lack of drainage that is causing the potting mix to become waterlogged (and your African Milk Tree to start dying). If you haven’t been watering your African Milk Tree more than once or twice a month in summer, then this could be the case. Make sure your pot has plenty of drainage holes and add some extra perlite to the potting mix to aid drainage. You might also want to look into to switching for a terracotta pot if your African Milk Tree is growing in a plastic one as these let some of the excess water evaporate out of the sides.

Consistent underwatering might also be to blame

Too little water can also cause a lot of problems for your African Milk Tree and it may start to develop dry crispy leaves and if the problem continues long-term the whole plant could shrivel up. As these plants don’t like soggy soil, this is only really going to become an issue if you withhold water for several months at a time. 

If you suspect that your African Milk Tree is dying due to underwatering then you must again check the moisture levels in the soil before making any changes to your care routine. Then when reintroducing watering, it’s super important you do it gradually. Like humans, houseplants sometimes get shocked by a sudden change in their environment. 

Therefore, instead of drowning your plant and hoping for the best, try to stagger your waterings and give a little bit of water each time to gradually moisten the potting mix. Then make sure you adjust your schedule going forward so you are either watering more deeply each time or watering more frequently. 

Top tip: always check the moisture in the soil of any houseplant before watering using either the finger, chopstick or lifting method.

A dying African Milk Tree can also indicate lighting issues

If your dying African Milk Tree has yellow patches all over the leaves then they may be scorched by the sun. This happens when your plant receives too much intense direct sunlight. Although they can deal with some level of direct light, during summer this can become a little much and can burn the leaves. 

If leaf burn is why your African Milk Tree is dying, you’ll notice the burnt patches on the side facing the sun as they are receiving the most light exposure.

Although the leaf burn that has already taken place is irreversible, moving your African Milk Tree to a slightly shadier spot will prevent the issue from happening again in future. 

Cold temperatures can impact your plant massively

African Milk Trees can tolerate super high temperatures so you never need to worry about hotspots. However, your plant might be dying due to exposure to cold drafts. This can be either from cracks in windows and external doors or if your plant is too close to an air conditioning unit. 

It’s best to pick up a digital thermometer to check the temperature around your African Milk Tree and either draft proof the window/door it is close to or find a new warmer spot for your plant.

It may just be natural ageing

As your African Milk Tree matures, it is normal for it to start corking and losing leaves to prioritise new growth. This can often be mistaken as signs your African Milk Tree is dying when that’s really not the case. In fact, when your plant loses some of its older leaves, it’s a sign it’s maturing in the right way rather than dying. 

The best thing to do is check over your plant, its soil and its environment to make sure that nothing else is wrong. Then moving forward, monitor the rate at which new signs are appearing and leaves are being lost and compare this to the rate of new growth. If this is just natural ageing, then new growth will always be faster.

Those are the most common reasons why your African Milk Tree looks as though it is dying. It’s important that you catch these types of problems early as it makes them easier to successfully treat. This is why it’s a good habit to get into to check your plants regularly for any early warning signs of trouble. Then once you have caught the issue and have changed something in either your care routine or its environment, keep a very close eye on your African Milk Tree over the next few weeks to ensure things are improving and your plant is no longer showing new signs that it is dying. 

To find out more about how to look after your plant and keep it healthy and happy, check out our detailed African Milk Tree care guide. 

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