Welcome to Spring – we made it through the dark days of winter to the glorious, sunnier side of the new year. The daffodils are teasing hints of yellow, and the unmistakeable sight of buds adorning bare branches suggests that spring is here, the growing season is upon us, and the fun can really start.
Turning our attention to our houseplants, and in particular our succulents, you may notice that some of not faring so well, or at least just not looking quite like their former selves. Symptoms of insufficient light levels usually manifest themselves as distorted growth, loss of distinction to markings and dull and faded leaves. In this blog post I discuss the details of these symptoms and what can be done to avoid and/or deal with them.
Elongated stems and sparse leaves
Etiolation, as shown in the pictures below, is one of the most obvious signs that your succulent hasn’t been exposed to enough direct sunlight. In contrast to its original compact form, succulents look disproportionately taller, with larger gaps on the stem between leaves and/or spindly top growth. Rather than putting energy into lateral growth, the plant is growing up, either in search of, or towards the light. In the wild, low-growing succulents may do this if shaded under rocks or taller plants. This process, while looking a bit unsightly, will not directly kill your succulent, However it can significantly weaken them.
Flattening of rosettes
While some succulents grow significantly lanky and spindly in their quest for more light, others may grow abnormally in other ways. The Aloe in the images below looked a lot perkier in the summer, when it was left outside with plenty of light for a month or two (see below left). However after a winter spent indoors, it’s rosette has flattened somewhat, and it looks a bit sad and unhealthy (see below right). In this case, the plant is flattening itself to expose more of its leaves to the light.
Arching of lower leaves
You often see this in Sempervivums and Echeverias, where the lower leaves begin to arch and point downwards, giving the impression that the plant is almost collapsing from the bottom. Again, this is due to a lack of sufficient light, with the plant beginning to etiolate.
Fading of colour:
One of the many virtues of succulents is the beauty, variety and quality of their foliage colours. An added quirk is that succulents will often change colour when exposed to strong sunlight. For example, Crassula ovata (Jade Plant) and Euphorbia tirucalli (Sticks on Fire) as well as many other succulents will get significant red coloration on their leaves when exposed to high levels of light.This is actually a sign that the plant is under stress, but a good stress and not one that will harm the plant. See the photos below showing my Sedum rubrotinctum ‘Aurora’, which benefitted from a summer outside, its jelly bean leaves turning a deep saturated pink in the sun.
If plants are showing glossy and bright leaves, even if they are just plain green, this still suggests they are healthy and receiving adequate amounts of light and water. However sometimes succulents can look quite washed out and pasty, with dull leaves. This is often an indication that they could do with some more rays. Below is a set of photos of my Echeveria lauii when I first bought it (below left), and then after a few months of growing indoors (below right). You can see how washed out and pale it looks in comparison, not to mention that the rosette has begun to loose its compact form (another sign of light deprivation). It has spent the past winter in a west-facing windowsill, and seems to be faring ok. Although sadly it is not as bright as it was when I bought it, the new growth is nice and compact, and I am confident the longer hours of direct sunlight will restore its original colour.
Fading of Markings:
Just like the leaf colouration in succulents, leaf markings can fade when not exposed to sufficient light levels. Below is a set of images of Haworthia pumilla. On the left is a bright and healthy individual with bright white markings to the outside of its leaves. To the right is an individual that has been grown indoors in the winter. As you can see it has lost the distinction between the green of its leaves and the white markings.
What can be done:
Most succulents need at least 4-6 hours of direct sunlight everyday. Some are particularly fussy while others can still perform in lower light levels or indirect sunlight. Ideally they would live in a ventilated and cool (but not cold) greenhouse in a sunny spot of the garden all year round. However by placing your succulents in a west- or south-facing windowsill for the majority of the year, and an east-facing window in the height of summer, you are likely to provide your succulents with the light levels they require. Keeping them outside during the summer is also a good way to keep them happy. If this isn’t possible you might try a grow-light from late autumn to spring, to supplement their light levels. By placing your plant in a spot where it gets sufficient light levels, faded colour should be restored to former glory in time.
Sadly etiolation cannot be reversed, but there are a couple of options. Firstly, you could always just leave the succulent as it is. If the etiolation doesn’t really bother you, then let it be. Place the plant in a spot where it will receive sufficient light, and any new growth should be normal and eventually replace the distorted growth. However if you would like nice compact plants again, you could always take cuttings and re-propagate…
The main reason I am mentioning propation now is because spring is the traditional time to take cuttings. However the reality is that succulents can show symptoms of light deprivation at all times of the year (even in the summer) and you can really take cuttings all year round and have relative success, although you are likely to have more success at this time of year, while we have longer days and more hours of sunlight.
Below are 2 simple ways to propagate succulents using your etiolated succulent:
This is the easiest way to rejuvenate your etiolated succulents, and works on most species. Using sterilised tools, make a clean cut to the stem to healthy, compact growth. Cuttings should be allowed to callus over for 24 hours before being planted in succulent soil. If left in reasonable but not direct light, they will develop roots in time. You could lightly mist the soil around the cuttings with water to provide a little moisture in hot weather but avoid watering properly until they have developed a root system. Do not discard the original plant that you have taken cuttings from because it should continue to produce growth, as seen in the image of a beheaded Echeveria below (right).
Many succulents can grow new plants from their leaves. This is a nice way to recycle otherwise healthy leaves removed from etiolated stems. When pulling the leaves from the stems, make sure to twist them off gently, so the base of the leaf comes with it. Place any removed leaves on a shallow dish of cactus compost. In time, these leaves should start to produce roots, and you may even see some new growth emerging, as shown below right. When these leaves develop a few roots, transfer them to small pots of cactus soil, where they should then grow on. Eventually the original leaf will detach from the new plant, but leave it on until it does.