Why your succulent is dying


I used to think caring for succulents would be straightforward, especially considering their tough desert roots. Yet, when my own plant started to show signs of trouble, I quickly learned that these hardy plants have their own unique set of needs. Just like any other plant in our homes, succulents require attention and understanding. If your succulent isn’t flourishing as it should, the following tips might shed some light on the issue and guide you to better care.

Overwatering: The Most Common Culprit

Understanding the natural habitat of succulents provides insight into their watering needs. As desert plants, they’ve evolved in arid environments with infrequent rainfall. Their root systems, leaves, and stems have developed special adaptations to store water for prolonged periods.

For plant lovers accustomed to more water-dependent plants, it’s a common misstep to think that succulents need regular watering. This often stems from a well-intentioned desire to care for and nurture plants. However, succulents are designed to thrive in conditions where water is limited.

Symptoms of Overwatering

Soft and mushy leaves are one of the first and most noticeable signs. Overwatered succulents will feel squishy to the touch because their water-storage cells have been filled to capacity and have begun to burst.  
Yellow or translucent leaves is another indication of waterlogging. The leaves lose their vibrant color due to the damage to their cells and the onset of potential root rot.

The Importance of Soil and Drainage

For succulents, well-draining soil is paramount. Standard potting soil retains too much moisture for these plants. Instead, a cactus or succulent mix, which often contains more sand and perlite, is better suited to their needs.

Drainage holes are crucial to prevent water accumulation at the bottom of the pot. Stagnant water can cause root rot, a fungal disease that’s often fatal for plants. In containers without drainage, water has nowhere to go, creating a perpetually soggy environment detrimental to succulents.

Solution to Overwatering

Letting the soil dry out completely between waterings is essential. A common guideline is to water succulents once every 2-3 weeks, but this can vary based on the specific type of succulent, its size, the potting medium, and the environment (light, humidity, and temperature).   

When you do water, it’s advisable to give the plant a thorough soaking so that the water reaches the deeper root system. This mimics the natural desert rainstorms that might be infrequent but are heavy when they do occur.

Not Enough Sunlight

Succulents mostly come from places with a lot of sunlight, like deserts. They’re designed to make the most of this light for their growth. Good sunlight helps them produce energy, show off their bright colors, and grow properly. If they don’t get enough light, they can stretch out in a process called etiolation.

What is Etiolation?

Etiolation is a physiological response in plants that occurs when they are trying to search for more light. This phenomenon is not exclusive to succulents; it occurs in many plants when they are in low light conditions.  

A plant undergoing etiolation will have elongated, thin stems and widely spaced leaves. The intent of this stretching is for the plant to find and reach a stronger light source. However, in succulents, this stretching results in a permanently altered, less compact shape which is often considered less aesthetically appealing.

Beyond stretching, insufficient light can also cause succulents to become paler or lose their vibrant colors. Some succulents that are red, pink, or purple when in full sun might turn green if they’re not receiving adequate light.

echeveria elegans in pot

Solution for Adequate Lighting

A south or west-facing window is often ideal in the Northern Hemisphere, as these orientations receive the most consistent and direct sunlight throughout the day. Conversely, in the Southern Hemisphere, a north-facing window would be ideal.

Grow lights are specialized lights that mimic the sun’s spectrum, allowing plants to photosynthesize. When choosing a grow light:

  • Type – LED grow lights are popular due to their energy efficiency and effectiveness. 
  • Color Spectrum – Plants, including succulents, generally prefer light in the blue and red spectrums for growth and flowering, respectively.
  • Duration – If relying solely on a grow light, aim to provide your succulent with at least 6 hours of artificial sunlight daily. Depending on the succulent and its specific needs, this can sometimes extend up to 12 hours.

Rotate the plant to ensure even growth and prevent the plant from leaning towards one side by occasionally rotating it. This ensures all parts of the succulent receive equal amounts of light.

Poor Soil Quality

Plants, like all living organisms, require certain conditions to thrive. For plants, the medium they grow in—the soil—provides support, nutrients, and water. The right balance of these elements is crucial for healthy growth. 

Succulents and Moisture Retention

In their native habitats, succulents often grow in sandy or gritty soils that drain quickly. These soils don’t retain water for extended periods, which suits the succulent’s natural adaptations.

Regular potting soil, designed for a wide range of plants, retains water for longer durations. For succulents, this prolonged moisture can cause root rot, a fungal disease that can quickly kill a plant. The constantly wet environment is not what most succulents are adapted to and can stress or damage the plant over time.

echeveria elegans in blue pot

Solutions for Optimal Soil

Cactus or succulent potting mix are formulated with the unique needs of succulents and cacti in mind. They often contain a combination of organic material and mineral grit to balance moisture retention with swift drainage.

For those who prefer a more hands-on approach or want to customize their soil, creating a homemade mix is an option. Here’s a simple recipe:

  • Regular Potting Soil – This serves as the base. It contains organic matter that provides nutrients to the plant.
  • Coarse Sand – This improves drainage. It’s important to use coarse or construction-grade sand, not fine sand, which can compact and reduce drainage.
  • Perlite or Pumice – Both of these materials are volcanic in origin and have excellent drainage properties. They also help to aerate the soil, ensuring that the roots receive enough oxygen.

A common ratio for this mix is 2 parts potting soil, 1 part coarse sand, and 1 part perlite or pumice. However, ratios can be adjusted based on the specific needs of the succulent species or individual preferences.

Pests: Unwanted Guests

Vulnerability of Succulents

While succulents are known for their resilience in the face of water scarcity and harsh sunlight, their juicy, water-storing leaves can be tempting for various pests. These pests see them as a source of hydration and nutrients.

Common Pests

  • Aphids
    Tiny, often green insects that tend to cluster on new growth. They suck out plant sap, causing the plant to weaken and can even spread diseases.
  • Mealybugs
    They appear as white, cottony masses on the succulent. These bugs are particularly insidious because they can hide in crevices and are often harder to detect until there’s a significant infestation.
  •  Spider Mites
    Extremely tiny pests that often require a magnifying glass to spot. They can cause the plant’s surface to look stippled or silvery, and you might also see fine webbing. 
  • Effects of Pests
    The continuous sapping of vital fluids from the succulents causes the plants to lose vigor. Symptoms include yellowing, withered leaves, stunted growth, and in severe cases, death of the plant.

Solutions and Preventative Measures

One of the best preventative measures is routine checks. Look under leaves, at the base of stems, and in the soil. Early detection makes management easier and more effective. 
Using a soft brush or cloth can help dislodge many of the pests. For mealybugs, a cotton swab dipped in alcohol can be effective.

A mixture of water and a few drops of mild dish soap can be sprayed on the succulent. The soap damages the outer layer of many pests, causing them to dehydrate and die. However, it’s essential to ensure the soap is thoroughly washed off after a couple of hours to prevent potential damage to the plant.

Beneficial insects, like ladybugs and lacewings, can be introduced as they feed on many common pests, providing a biological control method.

If the infestation is severe and other methods are ineffective, you might consider a pesticide formulated for succulents. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions, use it as a last resort, and ensure it’s safe for your specific plant.

Many essential oils have properties that can deter or even harm certain pests.

  • Neem Oil – Acts as a natural insecticide, disrupting the life cycle of pests. It’s effective against a wide variety of pests and is especially popular for plant care.
  • Peppermint Oil -Known to deter spiders and aphids. The strong scent is often too overwhelming for many pests.
  • Eucalyptus and Lemon Oil – These oils can be effective against spider mites.
  • Rosemary and Thyme Oil – These can help deter a range of pests, including aphids and whiteflies.

To use essential oils for pest control, mix a few drops of the chosen oil with water and a small amount of mild dish soap (which helps distribute the oil in the water). Spray the mixture onto the affected areas of the plant. As with any treatment, it’s essential to test a small area first to ensure the plant doesn’t react adversely to the oil. Additionally, frequent reapplication might be necessary as essential oils can evaporate or be washed away. For a deeper dive into the world of essential oils for plants, check out our article, 46 Oils to Use on Your Indoor Plants and Why.

succulent echeveria elegans in pot

Incorrect Temperature and Humidity

The Natural Habitat of Succulents

Many succulents hail from arid and semi-arid regions, such as deserts, where there’s a pronounced temperature difference between day and night. The daytime can be scorching hot, while the nighttime temperatures can dip significantly. This diurnal temperature fluctuation has shaped the metabolic and physiological processes of these plants.

Impact of Constant Warmth

Succulents have adapted to utilize the cool nights as a period of respiration and recovery. A consistently warm environment, especially at night, can interfere with these processes, leading to stress and suboptimal growth.

Continuous warmth can stimulate unwarranted growth spurts, leading to leggy or stretched-out plants.
High temperatures, especially when paired with high humidity, can promote fungal growth and increase vulnerability to certain pests.

Winter Vulnerability

While some succulents can tolerate mild frost, most are susceptible to freezing temperatures. Frost can cause cell damage in the succulent leaves and stems, leading to discoloration, softening, and even plant death.

Solutions for Temperature and Humidity Control

  • Natural Habitat Replication
    Where possible, allow for a cooler environment at night. You can achieve this by adjusting the thermostat settings or by putting plants in rooms that aren’t heated at night.
  • Winter Care
    It’s essential to be aware of the frost tolerance of your specific succulent species. If you’re growing them outdoors in pots, consider relocating them inside during cold spells. If they are planted in the ground and are not frost-tolerant, protective measures like frost cloths or temporary coverings can help on particularly cold nights.
  • Humidity Control
    In regions with high humidity, ensure good airflow around your succulents to minimize fungal issues. Dehumidifiers or fans can be beneficial for indoor succulent collections.

In Conclusion

Succulents are easy-to-care-for plants, but they still have particular needs. If we learn and meet these needs, we can make sure they do more than just stay alive—they can really flourish in our homes. Happy planting!

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