Most leaves simply turn yellow and drop off when their life’s work is done. Or at least they come readily loose when you tug on them. But then there are leaves that don’t come off so easily. Even if you pull and pull, they stick to the plant, decreasing its ornamental value.
Most often these tough-to-remove leaves are what are known as sheath leaves or clasping (amplexicaul) leaves (actually, the two are not quite the same thing, but they’re close enough for the purpose of this article). I like to call them “wraparound leaves.” They don’t just attach lightly to the stem by a narrow petiole as with most other green appendages, they wrap about the plant’s stem at the base. When you pull back and downwards, as you normally would to pull a leaf off, they often cling stubbornly to the stem by their wraparound base (sheath).
The plants with this hard-to-remove leaf type are almost always monocots: plants like agapanthus, agaves, birds of paradise, bromeliads, clivias, New Zealand flaxes (Phormium), spathiphyllums and yuccas. And not all monocots cause problems, either. Philodendrons, pothos and most orchids simply drop their leaves when they turn yellow or they come loose with a bit of gently tugging. Palms (also monocots) vary: some are self-cleaning, others hold onto dead leaves or leaf bases for years.
When dead, dying or damaged leaves won’t give way, gardeners generally try to groom the plant by cutting the yellowing leaves back harshly, leaving a short stub. Over time, this leads to sort of a ruff of leaf stubs around the base or stem of the plant. Not too charming!
How to Remove Leaf Stubs
Fortunately, there is an easy way to remove them. It’s something I’ve been doing for years, yet have never seen mentioned anywhere. Certainly, though, other gardeners must be doing it, right?
Here’s what I do:
First, cut back the leaf widthwise to an inch or so from its base.
Now cut the stub lengthwise, about in the middle, towards the stem, but without actually touching the latter. (You wouldn’t want to wound it accidentally.)
Next, pull the right half of the stub towards the right and slightly downwards. It should continue to tear at the base of your cut, splitting the stub entirely in two. Then pull it free.
Now pull the remaining part of the stub (the left part) to the left and slightly downwards until it tears free too.
It’s usually as simple as that!
Most agaves and yuccas, many bromeliads and a few palms have spiny leaves you won’t want to get up close and personal with, but you can use the same technique. Put on safety goggles (you do not want to receive a spine in the eye!) and long-sleeved rose gloves before you start, though.
For some reason, spiny leaves seem to be the most reluctant of all to let go. I like to use a long-nose pliers rather than my fingers to grab the leaf stub (that places a bit more space between my hand and the spines), then squeeze hard and twist the leaf stub sideways as I pull, as if I were trying to roll it up. This should get the most reluctant leaf to let go!
Try these methods and you’ll see: split leaves really are easier to remove!