“I love succulents. They’re the only plants I keep alive.” We hear it every day. But then again, we also hear, “I hate succulents. I always kill them.” This may seem like a paradox, but succulents and cacti can be the very easiest or the most challenging houseplants, depending on your environment and the care you give them.
When it comes to how to care for succulents and cacti, there are three main factors that affect their rate of survival: light, water and temperature. Too dim or too bright light, too little or too much water, or too cool or too hot temperatures (and often a combination of all three) will make your succulents and cacti unhappy and start behaving strangely. Depending on the type of succulent or cactus, symptoms of mistreatment vary dramatically. They can be challenging to diagnose and often confused for one another.
When we put out the open call for Pistils Rx submissions, many of you sent in photos of your succulents and cacti, wondering what could be done. Though, unfortunately, it’s often too late to save an overwatered succulent or cactus, many problems can be reversed, and identifying issues is the first step in making sure your other plants don’t fall to the same fate.
How to Care for Succulents and Cacti: Troubleshooting Common Issues
Here are how to identify a few common issues that many plant-owners face when figuring out the best way to care for succulents and cacti.
Succulents and cacti love light. Though some species (for succulents, try haworthia or gasteria; for cacti, try epiphytes like rhipsalis and hatiora) can tolerate lower light, no succulent or cactus we’ve ever met wants to sit on your dark office desk. These guys need to be near a window to thrive, preferably with a south-facing exposure to really maximize the day. Finding a bright spot in your home is a first step in knowing if you’re ready to care for succulents and cacti.
Succulents behave strangely when they don’t get enough light. Often, you’ll see discoloration in your succulents if they need more light – deep green will fade to pale green, and bright pink, purple or yellow colors will often revert to just plain green.
Too little light also affects the growth habit of succulents. Succulents will try to reach for light, often growing long and spindly. Succulents that normally grow in rosettes, like sempervivum and echeveria species, may suddenly start growing tall – literally reaching for more light:
The same goes for cacti. What was once dark, healthy flesh can grow pale as the cactus reaches for light. In addition, like the “reaching” succulents, cacti not receiving sufficient light will also put out strange growth patterns. This is called etiolation; new growth will typically be much smaller than the rest of the plant; sometimes new branches will come out that are long and tendril-like, or the new growth on the top of the cactus will be unusually skinny.
While succulents and cacti can recover from receiving too little light, the etiolated growth habit will be permanent. Many succulents and cacti recover will to pruning; if the weird growth pattern bothers you, try clipping it off. So long as you move your plant to a location in which it will receive adequate light, the new growth that emerges should be “normal” and non-etiolated.
And finally, not having enough light also leads to root rot, because soil will stay moist for too long. Check out the root rot images below to see if your plant might be suffering from this due to low light.
Most succulents and cacti can handle direct sun. That said, too much can be harmful, especially if your plant isn’t accustomed to it. For example, if you move a succulent or cactus out onto the porch for summer (highly recommended!) and it suddenly goes from receiving no direct sun to getting 3 or 4 hours of direct sun per day, it’s definitely going to get a sunburn.
Burn generally appears as browned or calloused flesh on your cacti and succulents. Looking for discoloration, especially on the side of the plant facing the window, is your best bet in identifying burn. The burned leaves or flesh will also get a rougher texture than the rest of the plant.
There’s no way to repair burned leaves once it happens; you can prune them off or just simply adjust the environment so your plant receives more appropriate light.
When moving succulents and cacti outdoors for summer, make sure to gradually allow them to become adjusted to the increased light. Have them start in a shaded outdoor location (which will still probably be brighter than your living room) and expose them to more light over the course of a week or two.
In the scheme of care for succulents and cacti, providing too little water is definitely a safer place to be than providing too much. That said, succulents and cacti decidedly do need water, especially in spring and summer when they’re in active growth.
The tricky part is that too little and too much water often look similar. But, if you err on the side of less, you can be pretty confident that you’re under-watering when your plant behaves as follows.
Succulents getting too little water will often pucker. Succulents (and cacti, for that matter) are plump and fleshy because they store water in their foliage. During times of drought, the plant calls on these reserves of water to survive. The flesh will then begin to shrivel or pucker, as the plant literally drinks its water reserves. This usually starts on the lower leaves and works its way up the plant, as seen in these jade species:
Here’s another example of thirsty succulents (a few of which often happen to be etiolated from low light). See how they appear slightly shriveled?:
An under-watered cactus may also pucker or shrivel, but can also discolor (usually getting brown and dry, or calloused).
If your succulents and cacti are showing these symptoms, give them a nice thorough watering. Always use well-draining cactus or succulent soil, though, because your plants won’t want to hang out in wet soil for long. The leaves should plump back up in no time!
It’s often hard to determine whether a cactus has received too much or too little water from just a photo. For example, without knowing how much water it received, it would be pretty hard to tell whether this opuntia cactus got too much or too little water, since the symptoms often look the same:
An over-watered succulent or cactus will feel mushy, though, rather than just puckered. These plants are able to store large amounts of water, but once that storage space runs out, the plant will literally fall apart; roots rot and cell walls rupture. This causes them to get mushy, and is a key difference and can be the key in determining over vs under-watering, while also examining your own watering habits and environmental conditions.
Key signs of overwatering include browning or blackening leaves or stems, browning or blackening at the base of the plant, mushy or leaking plants, and plants literally rotting before your eyes.
If you suspect rot, gently pull your succulent or cactus out of its pot and examine the roots. Brown or black roots mean that the plant is
Most succulents and cacti (save for jungle cacti, for example) are well suited to cold night time temperatures, because they come from desert climates. Especially in winter, many succulents and cacti crave cold nights; in fact, cold temperatures encourage blooming in some plants such as jade, christmas cacti and epiphylum.
However, low temperatures can be problematic indoors, because they tend to go hand in hand with high humidity. When you water your succulents and cacti in winter when temperatures are cool, the soil its going to stay wet much, much longer than it would in the heat of summer. Cool wet soil means, you guessed it: root rot.
If your house is very cool during winter, pay extra attention to your watering schedule for your succulents and cacti. Depending on the size of your pot, whether it has drainage, and the type of plant, you might only need to water your plants once a month or even less. Plus, we’d recommend erring on the safe side when it comes to winter watering and just giving the plant a small dose, rather than thoroughly saturating soil.
The best way to identify if temperatures that are too cool are affecting your succulents and cacti would be to follow the over-watering identification steps, above.
For the same reason cacti and succulents can tolerate low temperatures, they’re especially adept at handling high temperatures, too! The desert is a place of extremes, after-all.
However, temperatures that are too hot in an indoor growing environment tend, again, to lead to watering issues. If your plants are outdoors during summer, they’re going to dry out really fast. You might need to water your succulents and cactus twice a month, or even every week, depending on the heat and exposure.
The other time high temperatures can be an issue for succulents and cacti can be when placed in a window. The heat of the sun through the glass tends to be intensified, and can burn your plants. Check for burn, following the identification steps above under “too much light.”
What problems have you faced with your cacti? How do you care for succulents? Share with us in the comments – there’s so much to learn, and we’d love to learn from you.
Have questions? Feel free to ask in the comments, or send us an email with photos for a chance to have your question answered in the next installment of Pistils Rx.