Pistils Rx: Troubleshooting Succulents and Cacti

Posted on May 25, 2016 | 10 Comments

“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.

How To Care For Succulents and Cacti - Troubleshooting Common Issues - Pistils Nursery

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.

Light

Too dim

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:

care for succulents - pistils nursery-5

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.

How To Care For Succulents and Cacti - Troubleshooting Common Issues - Pistils Nursery

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.

Too bright

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.

care for succulents - pistils nursery-6

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.

Water

Too little

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:

How To Care For Succulents and Cacti - Troubleshooting Common Issues - Pistils Nursery

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?:

How To Care For Succulents and Cacti - Troubleshooting Common Issues - Pistils Nursery

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!

Too much

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:

How To Care For Succulents and Cacti - Troubleshooting Common Issues - Pistils Nursery

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.

How To Care For Succulents and Cacti - Troubleshooting Common Issues - Pistils Nursery

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

Temperature

Too cool

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.

Too hot

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.

10 Comments

  1. Sophia
    August 14, 2016

    I moved and brought my succulent with me, to a very humid area. How does this affect the leaves and the watering?

    The soil appeares really dry but the air is so moist, it’s been hard to tell which “unhappy” my little plant is.
    Thanks for the other over/under-watering tips!

    Reply
    • Jesse
      August 15, 2016

      Hmmm. I’d go with soil as a better indication than air. If anything, the humidity will make it take longer for the soil to dry out… but once it’s dry, your plants will get thirsty!

      Best,
      Jesse

      Reply
  2. Emily
    October 25, 2016

    Hi! Late to the thread, but I’ve been traveling and left my friend to care for my cacti and succulents. All of them are doing fine, except for one of my succulents. It think it’s a type of Haworthia, but I just saw it today and it’s grown like crazy in the past few months! It’s planted in a square glass container with sand and pebbles, and when I went to inspect it today, one of the sections pulled out with no roots. It doesn’t look unhealthy, but I’m not sure what to do. Any advice would be helpful. Thank you!!

    Reply
    • Jesse
      January 4, 2017

      Hey Emily,

      Succulents sometimes have very small root systems, so it might be okay! However, sometimes if the roots are damaged, the plant will continue to look okay, even though the plant is without them. Time will be your best indicator if everything is okay here!

      Best,
      Jesse

      Reply
  3. Kristina
    November 21, 2016

    My haworthia fasciata are doing fine but I’m not sure if they need to be repotted. How small can the container be? None of them are in true cactus/succulent potting soil so I at least want to replace the soils so they flourish. I repotted everything last Christmas using a compost-based topsoil that we get in bulk and add to our outdoor garden. One zebra is in a 2×2″ glazed ceramic pot with no drainage. The plant is maybe 1.5″ tall and some of the branches reach out of the pot. Should I go bigger or simply replace the soil? Wider with same depth, or wider and deeper? I have noticed when repotting in the past that these plants have very shallow roots. Is that normal or are the roots stunted because of poor soil drainage?

    Reply
    • Jesse
      January 4, 2017

      Cacti and succulents generally have minimal root systems, allowing them to be comfortable in root-bound environments. You can pot up if you want, but just pick something only slightly larger. Refreshing the soil should provide a helpful nutrient boost!

      Best,
      Jesse

      Reply
  4. Sharon
    January 2, 2017

    The main part of the cactus looks like it’s dead a lot of the arms look the same way the ends of the cactus can I cut them back or should I throw the whole thing away

    Reply
    • Jesse
      January 4, 2017

      Hey Sharon,

      If the cactus is overwatered, it will most likely not recover. You could try cutting off and attempting to root some of the healthier arms to try to save the cactus.

      Best,
      Jesse

      Reply
  5. Hayley Painter
    January 20, 2017

    So I’ve recently bought many of the above plants you mentioned in the article. I’d say youve helped me diagnose most of the problems but I’m having trouble really figuring out if the watering schedule or the climate is causing the browning in most of my aloes leaves or the shriveled leaves in my jades plants. I’ve also noticed bumps on a chrome and bashful of mine and almost a calloused brown on the leaves as well. That made me consider the lighting schedule 24 hours on, which I though being cacti wouldn’t be a problem but rookie mistake that’s horrible I’ve found out. I’m really trying to figure out the best lighting cycle for my indoor tent situation any suggestions are extremely helpful and fell free to call me out bad habits I’m desperate to figure out the problems and make it work!

    Reply
  6. Faye
    January 31, 2017

    Hi, a couple of weeks ago I repotted a sempervivum succulent in a non draining pot in a mixture of peat, sand, stones and some compost. It has been on my windowsill and I have been giving it just enough water to soak the soil once a week. It seems fine and has been growing normally, however some light brown patches have formed underneath the leaves near the top and one leaf has a small hard white patch on top. Apart from that the leaves seem totally normal. I was wondering if you may know what is wrong with it? I have another sempervivum succulent just next to it which has been watered slightly more frequently due to being in a smaller draining pot which is doing very well.

    Reply

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