The Zamioculcas zamiifolia or ZZ plant has a reputation for being practically impossible to kill. It’s true that the ZZ plant can live through a lot of tough conditions, but is it necessarily thriving? For example, what do you do if yours is looking a little weak or spindly? I’ve dealt with these issues and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned.
Why is my ZZ plant leggy and leaning? ZZ plants left in low-light conditions for too long will instinctively stretch towards the light and become leggy and lean. Additionally, too much overgrowth can also cause the plant to lean, as can overwatering, underwatering, stress, and/or improper fertilizer use.
Yes, it seems like right now there’s a whole laundry list of things that can potentially be wrong with your ZZ plant, but don’t worry. In this article, I’ll help you pinpoint the exact causes of your leggy, leaning ZZ plant. I’ll also provide tips and guidance for how to save your plant, which is very much possible!
Let’s get started!
What Is Plant Legginess and Why Is It a Bad Thing?
First, I want to devote a section to plant legginess, because it is worth talking about, especially for beginner indoor gardeners. Some gardeners have the mistaken belief that any growth is better than none at all, so when their plants appear leggy, all is okay. In reality, plant legginess is a problem that needs addressing immediately.
The term “leggy” refers to a particular pattern of growth that occurs most often in the petioles or the stems. The petioles are what attach the leaves to the plant’s stems.
The petioles and the stems grow long and lean, often becoming significantly taller in comparison to the growth of the rest of the plant. Since neither the stems or petioles are particularly structurally strong, your beloved ZZ plant might look a little floppy or lopsided.
Before you know it, your ZZ plant has grown in a way that makes it lean to one side more than the other and eventually causing it to fall over. Actually it’s more like “tipping over”.
Leggy plants tend to be leaner than houseplants grown in better conditions. If your plant species is one that grows flowers, blooming can also be impacted. You’ll get fewer flowers compared to a regular plant of the same species.
My ZZ Plant is Leggy & Leaning, What Can I Do About it?
Now that we’ve cleared up how legginess is not a desirable trait in your houseplants, it’s time to get to the bottom of what’s going on with your ZZ plant. As we rule out potential causes, I’ll also tell you how to fix these issues.
Why the ZZ Plant Grows Leggy
The ZZ plant–besides being beloved for its hardiness–is also a favorite among indoor gardeners for its tidy size. It may grow to heights of three feet max, so you can easily fit it in a small office or a cramped apartment as well as a full-sized home.
If your ZZ plant is growing out of control, especially its petioles or stems, there’s really only one culprit. You’re providing inadequate lighting for this houseplant.
I know, I know, you’ve heard that the ZZ plant can grow in any lighting without ill effects, but clearly, that’s not true. Low-light conditions are those when sunlight never reaches your plant.
If you provide artificial light in exchange for the lack of sun, your ZZ plant will be able to grow well enough. But, when you try growing a zz plant in dim light or no light at all, strange and irregular growth patterns will begin happening.
You may notice that, compared to the rest of the plant, only the stems and petioles really seem to be growing. That’s not just your imagination.
In my early years of indoor gardening, before I understood how close my grow lights needed to be to my plants, I had a few ZZ plants that grew stems with only a few leaves sparsely strewn along the entire stem. Long stems with only a few leaves, is a tell tale sign of a leggy plant from poor light conditions.
Plants need light for an internal process called photosynthesis. This process produces simple sugars the plant uses to foster its growth.
Without that light, or without enough light, growth will occur unevenly and not to the parts of the plant that really matter.
Why the ZZ Plant Leans
What do you think happens when your ZZ plant–or any houseplant–grows spindly in only some areas? You end up with one very lopsided plant.
First, it will lean. Someday, don’t be surprised if you walk into your cubicle or living room and your poor ZZ plant has toppled over entirely.
So yes, the legginess itself can cause the ZZ plant to lean, as can continued exposure to low-light conditions. Those are the most likely causes in your situation, but ZZ plants can lean for other reasons as well. I thought I’d go over those too.
If there’s one mistake new indoor gardeners make with their houseplant’s care, it’s overwatering. Matters get even more confusing when you learn that some plant species need to be watered almost daily while others, like many cacti, only need to be watered once a month or less depending on the season.
The ZZ Plant is one of those indoor plant species that definitely doesn’t require frequent watering. Although it’s not a succulent, the ZZ plant acts like one when it comes to retaining water.
You might be able to go up to 3 or 4 weeks without watering the Zamioculcas zamiifolia or ZZ plant, which is partly why it makes it on so many “Hardest Indoor plants to Kill” lists. (it’s also what makes the ZZ plant a favorite among forgetful indoor gardeners).
When you overwater the ZZ plant or any houseplant species, you damage its roots. The roots of your plant should receive oxygen and water, the former of which aerated soil provides and the latter of which it’s up to you to give.
By watering and watering and watering your ZZ plant, you essentially drown your plant. It’s a sort of “loved it to death” situation that many new indoor plant owners find themselves in.
I’ve mentioned this newbie behaviour pattern many times before here on the website. Mainly because almost everyone who’s ever owned a houseplant is guilty of overwatering an indoor plant at one time or another.
Oversaturating the roots with water will make them brown and mushy when they were once white and firm. The roots are now dying, and without careful mitigation going forward, your plant could die too.
Once the roots become mushy, they are no longer able to hold the plant up, hence your ZZ plant will begin leaning, and without a remedy, will undoubtedly fall over or just collapse on itself.
How is it possible to under-water your ZZ plant, you ask?
Believe me, you can do it.
Remember, even though the ZZ plant can go long periods between waterings, the ZZ plant is not a succulent like a cactus or even an aloe vera. It doesn’t have fleshy stems that hold water for several weeks at a time.
It just doesn’t need water all that often. If more than a few weeks have passed and you haven’t checked the soil to feel if it’s dry, the ZZ plant is going to be parched.
Similar to the experience a person goes through when they’re extremely dehydrated and their skin dries out, something very akin happens to houseplants.
The leaves can curl and sometimes shed. The stems will begin leaning and may even droop, causing your ZZ plant to fall over.
The best practice for watering the ZZ plant is to always put your finger at least an inch deep into the soil. If the soil is still somewhat moist, then hold off on watering your plant for at least a few more days.
When the soil, roughly an inch beneath the surface is dry to the touch, it’s time to dust off your watering can and water your ZZ plant.
Houseplants are quite susceptible to stress, just as you or I are. Of course, plants don’t stress about things like bills or terrible bosses. Instead, their stress is attributed to being moved from one pot to another.
This is something that’s inevitable as your ZZ plant grows, but the whole process can leave your plant stressed. But moving your plant as needed to keep it happy in the long run is by far the only behavior that will stress it.
Putting your ZZ plant in the cold also induces stress. This plant species will excel in temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Considering its native environment in Africa, it makes sense that the ZZ plant does well with a little extra humidity.
That doesn’t mean you have to turn your living room into a sauna though, as some humidity is better than none for this plant species. Often, a small tray with water near or under humidity loving houseplants like the ZZ plant is more than enough to keep them happy.
Overall, do your best to make sure you’re not doing anything to cause undue stress for your ZZ plant or it can become weak and then lean or fall over.
Did you drop your plant? Maybe it fell off the windowsill on a windy day. Either way, plants are not impervious to injury. Depending on the extent of the trauma, your ZZ plant might lean or droop.
I’d suggest getting it out of the damaged pot immediately. Using two hands, pull the ZZ plant from its soil so you can see the root ball.
Damaged or dead roots will be black or brown, as I mentioned before, so remove those by trimming with clean gardening shears. If your ZZ plant is a little banged up but otherwise okay, rehome it and consider it a warning.
Now wait, isn’t moving your plant after a tumble going to stress it out more? Yes, but it’s not like you can leave it in a cracked pot. Make sure you treat your ZZ plant like gold going forward, giving it months of stress-free living before you “purposely” do anything else stressful to it again.
Improper Fertilizer Use
You thought you were fertilizing your ZZ plant well, but maybe not since it’s leaning so heavily. Indeed, when it comes to the Zamioculcas zamiifolia or ZZ plant, poor fertilizer habits can cause it to have a posture resembling the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa.
By fertilizing more than every six months, you’re overdoing it. You might be able to hold off for a few months more on the fertilizer in the winter when the ZZ plant goes dormant, but other than that, try not to wait too long. Under-fertilizing your ZZ plant can cause it to lean too as it lacks the nutrients it needs for strength.
Those nutrients–phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium–should be distributed in an even ratio in your fertilizer, so 20-20-20. Formulas with more nitrogen than potassium and phosphorus affect the ZZ plant especially badly, making it droop.
Other Issues You Might Face with a ZZ Plant
While it would be nice if plant legginess and leaning were the only two problems associated with the ZZ plant, that isn’t quite the case. The ZZ plant can withstand a lot, but the following issues? Not so much.
In my recent post regarding lucky bamboo plants, I wrote about the different types of light for plants.
Bright indirect light means the light has been filtered through a curtain or it’s bounced off a surface before reaching the plant. There’s a difference between bright indirect light and direct light, which is just straight-up exposure to sunlight.
The ZZ plant does best in indirect bright light, including fluorescents such as grow lights. It’s okay if the plant spends some time in dim lighting or low light, just don’t leave it there permanently.
In trying to correct the dim lighting problem, make sure you don’t go too far in the opposite direction. Direct light can burn those previously droopy leaves of the ZZ plant, which is worse!
Pay attention if the normally green leaves of your ZZ plant look a little brown. This indicates the plant isn’t getting enough humidity, but that’s not all.
If the soil is too dry, due to under-watering, the ZZ plant will tell you with its brown leaves, which may happen before leaf dropping or could occur at the same time.
Using tap water for your ZZ plant can also have adverse effects that make its leaves brown. Like the lucky bamboo, the ZZ plant doesn’t like fluoride, chlorine, or extra minerals and salts that pass through unfiltered tap water.
You already know that the ZZ plant can’t handle too much nitrogen, so it’s not surprising that an influx of minerals found in most public tap water systems will make it turn brown.
In the same vein, please don’t ignore it if your ZZ plant’s leaves have yellowed. Your houseplant is trying to tell you something before it’s too late.
What exactly is the plant saying? Overwatering your ZZ plant, before it kills the roots, will make the leaves look yellow. Suddenly watering the plant after going long periods not doing so can make the ZZ plant stressed, which can also change its leaf color.
You might have a pest problem if your ZZ plant’s leaves are yellow. Spider mites that thirstily drink sap will reduce your ZZ plant’s moisture until it’s dried out. Mealybugs and scale do similarly horrible things to your houseplant.
I hope this article helps shed some light on why your ZZ plant is leggy and leaning as well as the many causes and fixes you can try to get it back on track and growing upright.