My parents had an orange tree that started getting some droopy leaves. They didn’t have the chance to look into why, so they asked if I knew anything about it. I had an idea of what was causing it, but I wanted to do some research to learn more. Here’s what I found.

Orange trees most commonly get drooping and wilting leaves from over and under-watering, cold stress, and bound roots. Ideally, only water the tree when the soil is dry, protect it from frost, and repot potted trees every 3-5 years. Apply 2 inches of compost and 2-6 inches of mulch to regulate water and temperature.

So, while orange trees get drooping leaves from several conditions, how can we tell which issue is causing it, and how can we fix it?

orange tree with lots of fruit

Over or Under-Watered

Orange tree leaves droop from too little or too much water. Too much water with poor soil drainage can lead to root rot, while too little water during hot weather can lead to drought stress. To avoid both over and under-watering, only water orange trees when their soil is dry and apply compost and mulch.

While it can be difficult to tell if your orange tree needs more or less water, a good method is the finger test.

Push a finger into the orange tree’s soil, under the drip line. If the soil is dry, water it. If it’s wet, hold off on watering until it’s dry.

But the finger test isn’t the only trick to maintaining good soil moisture for your orange tree.

Compost provides valuable nutrients to the soil and increases the soil’s richness and water retention. For example, every 1% increase in the soil’s richness can hold an additional 20,000 gallons of water per acre (source).

Compost also feeds beneficial soil life such as earthworms and mycorrhizal fungi—which provide even more nutrients and disease resistance for the plant.

Mycorrhizal fungi promote many aspects of plant life, in particular improved nutrition, better growth, stress tolerance, and disease resistance.

Department of Biology, University of Fribourg, Switzerland

Mulch protects the soil (and the beneficial soil life) from drying out in the sun and wind. In hot and dry weather, mulch dramatically reduces evaporation and locks in moisture from the soil. In cold weather, mulch provides a layer of insulation for the tree and its roots. Some good mulches for orange trees are leaves, bark, pine needles, and straw.

Apply 2 inches of compost every 1-2 months and 2-6 inches of mulch every 3-6 months. Keep these materials under the drip line of the tree, and at least 3 inches from the trunk to prevent mold.

Before using compost and mulch, make sure the soil is well-draining. Otherwise, these materials will make the drainage worse by keeping the water in.

You can also test soil drainage by digging a 1-foot by 1-foot hole near your orange tree (outside of its drip-line) and filling it with water. If the hole drains slower than 2 inches per hour, it has poor drainage.

If you find it necessary, you can amend a potted orange tree’s soil drainage by repotting it with fresh and loose soil (more on this later). Planted orange trees are a bit trickier to adjust as digging it up can likely lead to transplant shock, and cause it more stress. However, applying generous amounts of compost and mulch on top of the soil will work it into the soil over time.

When planting, take care to avoid thorns! To see which citrus trees have thorns and if you need to prune them, check out my other post here.

Cold Weather

USDA hardiness zone map
Source: USDA

Orange trees are natively from the tropics and had little experience with frost, so they survive best in weather between 55ºF to 100ºF. Although, most varieties can survive in temperatures as low as 28ºF. If you see your orange tree’s leaves starting to droop or drop in the winter, protecting it is a good idea.

Since the tropics and subtropics generally have little to no frost and are within USDA hardiness zones 9-11, these are the best zones to grow orange trees. However, orange trees can grow in colder areas as long as they have protection such as tarps, greenhouses, or microclimates. Potted orange trees can also grow indoors.

However, one of the best ways to combat the cold is to get cold hardy orange tree varieties.

Cold-Hardy Citrus Tree VarietiesNon Cold-Hardy Citrus Tree Varieties
Trifoliate OrangeGrapefruit
Sour OrangeCitron
Sweet Orange
Source: L.K. Jackson and T.R. Fasulo, University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service

The above list of cold-hardy citrus trees can be grown in some colder climates (many as low as 15ºF), but the non-cold-hardy varieties should not be grown outside of the citrus belt of Florida.

Trifoliate orange rootstocks are one of the most commonly used when grafting and buying citrus trees, so there’s a good chance lemons and other citrus trees can also survive down to 28ºF. You can confirm this by asking the seller you’ve purchased it from.

If your orange trees are exposed to weather colder than 28ºF, you can insulate them by placing bedsheets over their canopy, cardboard around their trunks, or mulch at their base.

Greenhouses, while expensive, are also a good option as they can absorb the sun and create warm air, without letting the cold weather in.

Additionally, you can use your house, walls, or other trees as windbreaks to reduce the wind chill your orange tree receives.

Planting on the south side of your house is beneficial as the southern exposure is the hottest and longest. The house’s wall can also reflect light, as well as heat—even into the night.

Lastly, microclimates can help adjust the temperature, at least a few degrees. Even this small adjustment can provide some protection from frost and reduce the chance of drooping leaves. Think of how an oasis grows in a desert.

If you’d like more information about microclimates, check out this cool video by Gardener Scott.


a potted plant with root bound roots

When orange trees outgrow their container, their roots can become bound. This causes the tree stress as the roots start to double back and fill up more of the container. Root-bound trees can also have other issues such as dropping leaves, blossoms, and fruit. Ideally, repot potted orange trees with fresh potting soil every 3-5 years.

Root-bound orange trees aren’t too common unless they’ve been in a container for an extended period. Planted orange trees with a small root barrier can also run into this issue.

It’s difficult to tell if an orange tree’s roots are root-bound, but some indicators are if its roots are growing out of the pot’s drainage holes, or if they’re bunched up at the bottom of the pot. You may have to take the tree out of the pot to fully determine if this is an issue.

Some gardeners prune their tree’s roots to help maintain them and prevent root binding. While this works for many, I personally prefer not to chance damaging the tree further by digging it up and wounding its roots. If the tree isn’t healthy, it will have a hard time dealing with the stress and healing the pruning cuts.

Instead, a good way to fix root-bound orange trees is to simply repot it into a larger pot every 3-5 years. Additionally, provide it with fresh soil to make sure the soil isn’t collapsed and has sufficient drainage.

Of course, dwarf orange tree varieties are generally better suited to grow in pots compared to full-size varieties.

Final Thoughts

For my parent’s orange tree, we found that the issue causing the drooping and wilting leaves was from under-watering. This makes sense as they live in California. After checking the tree’s soil, finding it was bone dry, and providing a generous amount of water, the tree started to recover.

For your orange tree, its droopy leaves could be explained by any of the following:

  • Over-Watering/Poor Drainage
  • Under-Watering/Drought Stress
  • Cold Weather
  • Root-Bound Container

Start with the least invasive option first—watering. Check the soil’s moisture and adjust the amount and frequency of water if needed. Generally, this means watering about once a week. Make sure to soak the soil down to its deeper roots, which are up to 2-3 feet deep.

From there, check the recent weather and see if there’s any stress causing it. If it’s been over 100ºF or under 28ºF lately, it’s likely contributing to the droopy leaves. If the weather has been good lately, see if you can check for any signs of root binding.

After checking the above steps, if you find yourself stuck, I recently wrote a post to why citrus trees start to decline in health, and occasionally, die. I think you’d find it helpful. You can check it out here: 3 Quick Steps To Revive a Dying Citrus Tree.


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