Newly bought houseplants or those brought in from outside often lose at least a portion of their leaves. In order to understand why this occurs, we need to look at how these plants are grown and what the plant needs to do to adapt to its new environment. Houseplants are normally produced either under shade outdoors in southern states or in greenhouses. Also, many homeowners move their houseplants outside during the summer. Regardless, the plants receive much more sunlight than they do in an indoor environment.
Research done in Florida in the late 1970s revealed that tropical plants grown under high light conditions produce ‘sun leaves' while those grown under low light conditions have ‘shade leaves.' These leaf types differ structurally in that sun leaves have less chlorophyll (the substance that plants use to convert sunlight to energy) and the chlorophyll that is present is located deeper inside the leaf. Sun leaves also tend to be thick, small and numerous while shade leaves are more thin, larger, and fewer in number. When plants are moved from one light condition to another they need time to adjust. This process is known as acclimatization. If they are forced to acclimatize too quickly, they will drop their sun leaves and produce a new set of shade leaves. If the acclimatization process is slower and less drastic, the plant can convert their sun leaves to the shade leaves that do better under low light. If going from shade to sun, this process is reversed.
Some houseplants are acclimatized before they are sold but many are not. So how do we help our new houseplants or those moved inside acclimatize to their new home environment? Houseplants should start out in an area of the home that receives plenty of light and then gradually moved to their permanent, darker location. This process should take 4 to 8 weeks depending on the degree of difference in light levels between the initial and final location of the plant. Remember, plants need to be acclimatized whether they are moved from a sunny location to one that receives less light or from shade to sun. Understanding plant processes allows us to anticipate potential problems. Acclimatization gives our houseplants a greater chance of retaining leaves and avoiding the stress of completely replacing them.
Alicia Boor is an Agriculture and Natural Resources agent in the Cottonwood District (which includes Barton and Ellis counties) for K-State Research and Extension. You can contact her by e-mail at [email protected]edu or calling 620-793-1910