The nerve plant, or Fittonia, is a popular indoor houseplant suitable for small pots, hanging baskets and terrariums. It has dark green leaves with white, red, green, or pink veins, depending on the variety.
Fittonia is not the easiest plant to grow and care for, so research is important to make sure that you provide all of its requirements. Its natural habitat is tropical rainforests, which means it is accustomed to quite specific living conditions that may be difficult to emulate in your home.
A common problem encountered by nerve plant owners is legginess of their plant; the possible causes of this are lack of light, seasonal changes, inadequate pruning, overfertilization, or simply the plant’s natural growth.
In this article, we will discuss each of these causes and what you can do to remedy them. So, if you are currently experiencing this problem and want to learn more, just keep reading.
Why is my nerve plant leggy?
Lack of light
Nerve plants will begin to develop leggy growth if they do not receive enough sunlight. This is more commonly observed in plants that are grown indoors.
You can tell that poor lighting is the cause of your plant’s legginess if the plant is also growing in a particular direction, rather than growing straight upward and symmetrically. It does this if it is only getting light from one side, as opposed to all sides getting equal amounts of light.
Plants cannot survive without light – it is a vital component in their process of photosynthesis. Thus, if a plant is getting very little light, in an act of self preservation it will literally stretch towards the closest source of light, hence the legginess. The lengthening of the plant’s stem will not harm the plant per se, but the continued lack of light will eventually kill it.
If your nerve plant has become leggy due to insufficient light, do not overcompensate by placing it under direct sunlight immediately. This will scorch its leaves and cause even more problems. These plants prefer indirect light, so you need to transfer your plant from its current, low light conditions to a spot where it can get the bright but indirect light it needs.
You could place it outdoors under the shade of a large tree – the dappled sunlight that filters through the leaves will simulate the light in its natural habitat.
Alternatively, if you keep the plant indoors, place it next to a north- or east-facing window. These windows let in bright, gentle sunlight in the morning, but are in the shade during the afternoon when the sunlight is harshest.
Within a few days of relocating your leggy nerve plant, it will start growing straighter. It will also help to rotate it by 45 degrees every three or four days, in the same direction, to ensure that all sides of the plant get their time in the sun.
Your nerve plant is more likely to produce leggy growth during the winter months. This ties in with what was discussed in the previous section: there is less natural light available during the winter, hence the potential for leggy growth.
Temperature is another consideration, because this tropical plant will struggle a little in the colder fall and winter temperatures.
If your nerve plant’s legginess is caused by the low light and cold temperatures of fall or winter, you can help it out by using a grow light. Expose it to this light for five to six hours a day when natural sunlight is scarce, and make sure that the temperature in the room where you keep the plant is between 60 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
Leave the leggy growth until the spring, and when the weather is warmer you can prune it off until you are satisfied with the shape of the plant. Pruning is best done during the warmer months because that is the plant’s active growth period, so it will have an easier time recovering from the pruning.
The nerve plant is a proficient grower, and any legginess can be quite obvious because its leaves tend to grow only on the tops of the stems. This means that leggy stems can be completely bare, which is not the most aesthetically pleasing look for any plant.
If you do not like these long, bare stems and prefer a bushier nerve plant, just prune the stems down to the height you would like the leaves to be. Use a sterile knife or scissors to do this, so that you avoid introducing any foreign matter that could cause an infection.
After a few days, you will see new growth at the cut end of the stem and your plant will look fuller and denser in no time.
If you do not want to throw away the cuttings, you can use them to propagate the plant.
Giving your nerve plant too much fertilizer will encourage it to grow a lot faster than normal, which is not good for its overall health and will lead to leggy growth. Its leaves will grow even more sparsely and the plant will look less full.
Overfertilization can also cause soil toxicity if the excess fertilizer causes a buildup of mineral salts around the plant’s roots. This can lead to serious problems, such as root burn and even death.
Use a diluted liquid fertilizer once a month during the plant’s growing season, and cut this back to once every two months during the dormant months.
If you think you have been giving your nerve plant too much fertilizer, flush the soil in the pot with water. Use a volume of water about five times that of the pot, and pour it through the soil. Repeat this step four times at 30-minute intervals. After the last cycle, let the excess water drain out for a few hours before returning the plant to its usual spot.
It is a good idea to make a habit of flushing the plant’s soil. Do it every six months as a precautionary measure, especially if you fertilize your plant on a regular basis.
Remember that nerve plants naturally have a tendency to grow a little leggier than some other plants. This is not due to any problem with their environment or your care routine; it is simply the way these plants grow.
Nerve plant care
Nerve plants typically grow as a groundcover in their natural habitat in the tropical rainforests. That means they stay low to the ground and are constantly under the shade of tall trees. When growing this plant in your home, try to simulate these conditions by only exposing it to bright, indirect, dappled light.
Place it next to a north- or east-facing window for the ideal light source. If you live in a place where natural light can be scarce in the winter, do not be afraid to use a grow light to supplement your plant’s lighting needs.
Never place the plant under direct sunlight outdoors or directly underneath a grow light. Its leaves will get scorched in both cases.
Because it is a tropical plant, your nerve plant will need to be watered more often than most other plants. It likes to have constant access to moisture, but not so much that its roots get wet feet and are at risk of root rot.
The time between waterings is not a fixed number of days; it is subject to change depending on factors like weather, season and local climate.
The easiest way to tell if your nerve plant needs to be watered is by feeling the top inch of soil in the pot. If the soil is dry, water the plant, but if it is still a bit damp, wait one or two days before checking again.
Use room temperature water for your plant, because water that is too warm or too cold can shock it and damage the roots. Pour the water evenly over the soil so that all of the roots have access to moisture.
Let any excess water drain out of the pot before placing the plant back in its usual spot.
Ironically, although the nerve plant is native to the tropics, it does not do very well in hot temperatures. Remember that these plants grow close to the ground in the middle of the rainforest. This area is shady and cool because sunlight cannot reach the forest floor due to the dense tree canopy.
Nerve plants do best in temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. If you do not have a thermometer, watch out for signs of temperature stress in your plant.
If the leaves and the soil seem to be drying up quickly, it might mean that your plant is exposed to temperatures that are too hot, such as from a heater or a fireplace.
If the leaves are drooping despite you doing everything else correctly, the plant might be under an air-conditioning vent or in the path of a cold draft that has entered your home through a crack in the window or door jamb.
The nerve plant will dry out and wither if it is deprived of humidity even for a short period of time. This plant evolved to thrive in very humid tropical rainforests, and you will need to simulate this in your home if you want your plant to remain healthy.
You can mist the plant’s leaves with water from a spray bottle if the air is especially dry, but this effect is temporary and you might not always remember to mist your plant. Moreover, water droplets on the leaves can encourage the growth of fungi, so it can be a risky practice as well.
Perhaps a better alternative is a water pebble tray. Place the plant’s pot on top of the pebble tray and, as the water evaporates, it will moisten the air around the plant. Or, if you have other plants that enjoy humidity, you can place your nerve plant next to them so that together they can create a microclimate around themselves.
The bathroom and the kitchen are the two most humid rooms in a house, so placing your plant in either room can be helpful. Just make sure, if you choose the bathroom, that it still gets adequate light there.
Finally, if you have the means, you can buy a humidifier that will automatically regulate the humidity around your plant.
Potting and soil requirements
Nerve plants like a potting mix that is well-draining, able to hold some moisture, and is rich in organic components.
African violet potting mix, which is a peat-based mixture, has moisture retention properties while containing plenty of organic matter and draining excess water efficiently.
If your potting mix is too dense and holds too much water, you can add perlite or coarse sand to improve its drainage.
The pot that you choose must have drainage holes at the bottom, so that any excess water in the soil can easily drain out, thus preventing overwatering. If you place the plant on a drip tray, do not forget to empty the tray so there is never any standing water that could soak back into the soil.
Repotting is usually done every one to two years, to change the soil before it becomes depleted of nutrients. This may sound too frequent, but as the nerve plant is grown in small pots, it is not a particularly taxing process.
During the warmer months, fertilize your plant once a month using a diluted liquid fertilizer. Do this between waterings so that you can flush out any excess fertilizer when you water the plant, thereby preventing any buildup of mineral salts that can harm the plant’s roots.
During the winter months, you can forego fertilization altogether, but if you want to continue, do so only every two months. The nerve plant is dormant during winter and not actively growing, so the nutrients in the soil will not get used up very quickly.
Pruning your nerve plant
As they mature, nerve plants can develop long, bare stems with sparse leaves. Depending on your preference, you can cut back these longer stems or allow the plant to grow naturally.
If you want a dense and lush plant, cut off the ends of the longer stems until most are the same length. New leaves will sprout from the cut ends, giving the plant a fuller look.
If you do not want the plant to spread sideways as it grows, unpot it and prune off some of its roots before replanting it in fresh potting mix.
The nerve plant is not especially prone to pest infestation, but it can still be attacked by common pests such as gnats, aphids, spider mites and mealybugs.
These pests damage your plant by feeding on the sap from its leaves and stems. A few pests may not deal noticeable damage, but if you let the infestation go unchecked, the plant can eventually die from a sizable pest population.
You can get rid of many pests by spraying the plant with a stream of water to knock them off the foliage. Or, apply neem oil or rubbing alcohol onto a cotton pad and wipe down the affected parts of the plant with that. Repeat this method every three days until all of the pests are eradicated.
The nerve plant, or Fittonia, is a beautiful tropical houseplant that has dark green leaves with white, red, green, or pink veins. It is a great choice to grow in a terrarium or a hanging basket, because it grows to the sides and spills over the lip of the container.
One of the most common problems encountered by nerve plant owners is when their plant becomes leggy. This legginess can stem from a lack of light, seasonal changes, inadequate pruning, overfertilization, or simply the plant’s natural growth.
Figuring out the exact cause of the problem is the first step in resolving it and returning your plant to full health.
Image: istockphoto.com / Anastasia Babkina