While succulents are some of the easiest plants to care for and maintain, you can still run into issues.
Whether because of too much love or a bit of bad luck, there are a handful of reasons why you might end up with a dying succulent. On the bright side, your plant will give you signs when it is in bad health. You just need to know how to react.
This comprehensive list covers the common reasons why your succulent may be dying, what signs to look out for and ways in which to save it!
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It is so easy to overwater your succulents but remember, succulents are plants from dry, arid climates. This means they do better with less water than you may think.
As a matter of fact, most of the time when people ask “Why is my succulent dying?”, they have severely overwatered succulents.
Overwatered succulents will have leaves that feel soggy or mushy. The leaves will also appear more pale in color or look translucent. This is because it is water-logged and the cells have burst. The succulent’s leaves will also fall off very easily, even with the slightest of nudges.
Dark spots on the leaves and stem indicate that your succulent has been overwatered to the point that root rot is beginning to develop. Keep a close eye on the symptoms listed above to avoid getting to this point because, now, your plant will be difficult to save.
But too much water doesn’t have to be the end of a much loved succulent! It’s possible to save a dying succulent that has been overwatered! Allow the soil to dry out completely before watering again then adopt a less frequent watering schedule.
Two helpful tips!
- Use a chopstick or a knife to estimate the amount of moisture in your soil before watering. Stick the utensil ¾ of the way, straight down, to the bottom of the pot. When you remove it look to see if soil sticks. If there is soil attached to the utensil, especially if damp, hold off on watering. Wait a few more days and try again. If there is a very small amount of dirt dusted on the utensil surface, go ahead and water.
- The amount of water a succulent needs differs depending on the climate you live in, the current season, and your plant’s natural yearly growth spurt!
Underwatering can also be a reason why your succulent is dying. While less common than overwatering, keep an eye out for the signs of underwatering.
Leaves throughout the plant will appear shriveled, pruney, deflated or limp. At this stage, your problem is easily remedied. Give this plant a complete drenching to fully soak the soil. I place my succulent pots in the sink to do this. Pour a generous amount of water into the soil at the base of the plant and continue until water runs out of the drainage holes. Keep the pot in the sink for 30 minutes to allow excess water to drain.
Going forward, water your plants a bit more frequently and ensure you completely drench the soil every time. But don’t get too heavy handed, or you could quickly give your succulent too much water!
Too much sunlight
Yes, even desert dwelling plants can get too much sun. This can cause the leaves to become sunburnt with too much exposure, especially on hot days. Too much sun damage prevents photosynthesis and can quickly cause your succulent to begin dying.
A sun damaged succulent will have patches of discoloration, ranging from a bleached out color to dark brown or black. The texture of the sunburnt areas may feel dry and rough.
If there is scattered damage, remove the sunburnt leaves. There will usually be some healthy plant tissue left even on sun damaged leaves, so try and use them for propagation purposes.
There are a couple of steps you can take to prevent sunburn.
- Most importantly, know the light tolerance of your succulents. For example, sedum LOVE direct sunlight and can tolerate the hot afternoon sun without issue. Haworthia, on the other hand, do best in partial shade and would easily be damaged by long exposure to direct sun.
- Keep your succulents well hydrated if they are placed in full sun. Underwatered plants are at a higher risk of sunburn!
Not enough sunlight
Succulents need sun to grow! Without proper sun exposure, succulents will become stretched out and look “leggy”. This process is called etiolation and is mediated by a hormone found in all plants. This occurs in the plant world all around us as it increases the chance that a plant will find a strong light source and as a result, continue to grow! Science is pretty cool, huh?
Now back to fixing the problem at hand. Introducing your dying succulent to more sunlight will prevent continuing etiolation and it will grow in a more full and compact fashion. The part of the plant that has already stretched out, however, will continue to look leggy.
Because succulents can be easily propagated, some pruning, pinching and repotting can get rid of the stretched out areas of your plant and give you the opportunity to grow new baby succulents. Here are 5 easy steps!
- Move your dying succulent to a sunnier spot, preferably one that gets direct sunlight from mid morning to mid afternoon. Keep your plant here for a couple of weeks. The new growth on the top portion of the plant will come in closer together and be more compact.
- Once you have the desired amount of new, fuller growth, remove the entire plant from its pot. Your succulent will have stretched out growth on the lower portion of the stem and have compact growth higher up.
- Remove the leaves from the lower portion of the stem where it is most leggy. Place these aside for propagation!
- Using a clean sharp knife or pruning scissors and make a clean cut approximately ½ – 1 inch lower down on the stem than the area of new, fuller growth. By doing this you will have 2 stems; one with the healthy growth on the top portion to replant and one which is the bottom half of the stem attached to the roots (the stem from which the leaves were previously removed in Step 3).
- Allow the stem topped with leaves to callous over for 4-7 days before replanting and viola! You can also replant the lower portion of the stem with the original roots, as it can produce offsets. I have not had great success with this, however it is always worth a try!
For a much more detailed guide, check out my post on how to propagate succulents for additional ideas on how to get use out of damaged or dying succulents.
Wrong type of soil
Succulents need well draining soil to thrive. This means avoiding heavy soils that pack down tightly and hold onto moisture. A rocky soil that is rich with nutrients, such as Bonsai Jack, is a great medium in which to grow succulents. An alternative choice is to buy cactus soil from your local gardening store and mix with coarse sand and perlite or pumice.
Wrong type of pot
The best type of pot for your succulents are those with drainage holes! This prevents water from accumulating around the roots which can lead to rot which can cause a whole host of other issues that can ultimately lead to your succulent dying. Drainage holes are an easy way to prevent this cascade from happening.
Pots made of terracotta or ceramic are “breathable” and therefore great for succulents. A terracotta pot without a drainage hole will be much more forgiving than its plastic counterpart.
Another thing to consider is the size of the pot. Picking the correctly sized pot for your succulent is a bit like the story “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”; one may be too big, one may be too small but there is one that is just right.
Too small of a pot can lead to stunted growth because oftentimes the roots become too constricted to allow for the succulent to reach a mature size. Too small of a pot doesn’t provide enough space for an adequate amount of soil and therefore may lead to an inadequate amount of nutrients.
Too big of a pot for a succulent will be able to hold too much soil and therefore too much water for that succulent to absorb, ultimately leading to overwatering and root/plant rot.
A good rule of thumb is to pick a pot that is 10-15% bigger than the width or diameter of the succulent you are looking to plant!
Pests are yet another common reason why succulents die. Oftentimes the pests themselves can be hard to find but what they produce is easy to spot. The first step when dealing with a succulent that is infested with pests is to quarantine the succulent far away from your other plants to avoid spreading. Here are two of the most common pests an indoor succulent may succumb to:
These are small brown or black oval-shaped bugs that produce a white/cream waxy substance. Not only do the bugs themselves cause damage to the succulent but they also make your plant more susceptible to fungal or bacterial infections.
I have found that the best way to treat a mealy bug infestation is to make a 50/50 water and rubbing alcohol solution in a spray bottle. Mist this solution over the entire plant 2x/week. Let it sit for 30 minutes then gently remove the white substance and dead bugs with a paper towel. Continue this procedure until all signs of the infestation are gone.
These are another pest that enjoy munching on succulents. There are thousands of different species, some with soft bodies and others with tough armoured coatings.
Soft scales are larger and mobile. They create a waxy defense around their body. As adults, they secrete honeydew. If your plant has a soft scale problem, not only will you see the insects but you will see a sticky, gooey substance that covers areas of your plant. An increase in the number of ants can also indicate that your plant has become home to soft scales.
Armoured scales are smaller than their soft shelled counterparts and are not mobile when they reach adulthood. They are also thinner and do not produce honeydew.
Treatment of scales is the same as with mealybugs. Make a 50/50 water and rubbing alcohol solution in a spray bottle. Mist this solution over the entire plant 2x/week. Let it sit for 30 minutes then gently remove the white substance and dead bugs. Repeat until the infestation is gone!
So…can you save a dying succulent?
Succulents are very forgiving plants and therefore are able to tolerate some neglect and on the flipside, a little too much love every once and a while. The issues discussed above all come with warning signs. When you observe changes in your succulent that point to impending damage, jump in and intervene!
But before it gets to the point of panic, use this information to be proactive. Learn about the climate and soil best suited for your specific succulent. Does it like a lot of sun? If so, can it tolerate the midday heat? What kind of pot is it in and how does that affect the watering schedule?
So yes, you can revive a dying succulent when you recognize the symptoms of a problem and take the necessary steps to make the environment healthy again!