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Etiolated Succulents – Causes & Treatments

Succulents that undergo etiolation (stretching of leaves or stems) do so because of inadequate conditions. You can prevent etiolation problems in succulents by making some simple changes in their environment.

If your succulent is growing tall and leggy, I will help you find the cause and fix the problem before it gets too severe.

With some succulents, however, it’s in their nature to grow tall over time. These types of succulents will only require that you cut them back.

What is Etiolation in Succulents?

Etiolation in succulents is used to describe the phenomenon that causes tall, leggy growth. Stems become longer; leaves become stretched out resulting in a poorly looking plant.

Therefore, this is a pathological condition in plants that has its cause in the plant’s environmental conditions. By making changes in the plant’s environment, you can prevent further etiolation, but you cannot turn things around.

Many succulents will undergo etiolation because of lack of light, but there are other factors that can cause stretchy leaves, especially when combined with a lack of sufficient light.

Why do Succulents Etiolate?

In some succulents like the Paddle plant or the Graptoveria, stretching can occur naturally after 2-3 years of growing, and not necessarily because they’re not happy with their light conditions, but because it’s in their nature to grow taller over time.

So, if your succulent is otherwise not showing signs of light deprivation, it’s probably just in its nature to grow taller as time progresses.

Other succulents, however, will display signs of light deficiency by stretching out to better reach sources of light. They also lose the vibrancy of their fleshy leaves and generally become paler.

If you notice your succulents growing leggy in a relatively short amount of time, the first thing to check is whether they’re receiving enough light.

Succulents thrive in bright light conditions, and some succulents will thrive only if exposed to direct light as well.

In fact, many succulents need exposure to direct light to develop normally. Most succulents will require at least 4 to 6 hours of direct light.

If your succulent is from a variety that doesn’t do well under low light conditions or simply needs more light to thrive, you’re going to need to find a better location for it.

Stretchy growth is often a problem in succulents that are kept indoors, where natural light may be scarce or sub-optimal.

Apart from light deprivation, which is the chief reason for etiolation in succulents, certain changes in temperature or watering can also cause your succulents to grow leggy.

For example, a succulent kept in a warm location with little water and little light can stretch out, thinking it’s in the growing season.

In all these cases, your succulent can turn pale because of a lack of enough chlorophyll that’s produced when the plants get exposed to sunlight. The stretched leaves and stems will be weak sometimes causing them to flop.

Besides leggy growth and pale leaves, another sign of etiolation it’s when leaves are growing less condense. Leaves no longer growing densely packed are especially noticeable in rosette-like leaf growth patterns of succulents like the Echeveria.

Etiolation is not to be confused with healthy growth. When the succulent shoots healthy growths, these will have a vibrant color and grow without leaving too much space between the leaves.

To sum up, your succulents are considered to be etiolated when:

  • There isn’t enough sunlight to uniformly reach the plant
  • Leaves are pale and without vibrancy
  • Stems grow tall
  • Leaves grow less dense or grow stretched out

Stem growth and leaf growth patterns are especially telling of light deprivation issues and can ruin the aesthetics of your succulents.

Can You Fix Etiolated Succulents?

Unfortunately, an etiolation is not something you can reverse simply by offering your succulent more light. Leggy growths and stretched out leaves cannot be reverted, so your options to ‘fix’ an etiolated succulent is to cut the stretched parts.

But before you reach for the blade, consider changing the environment of the plant first. Gradually acclimate the plant with more and more sunlight until it stops showing signs of distress.

If you still don’t like how your succulent is shaping up to be, carefully remove leggy growth and use them to grow another plant.

If you want to stop the progression of etiolation, a good fix would be to reduce the temperature in which you’re keeping your succulent. This will trick it into dormancy and it will stop it from etiolating any further.

How to Prevent Succulents from Etiolating?

Because it’s impossible to revert an already etiolated succulent, your best bet is to prevent it from happening in the first place.

Here are my tips on how to avoid etiolation in your succulents:

1.  Find a sunny location

As I mentioned, most succulents will prefer a few hours of direct sunlight per day and plenty of indirect bright light during the rest of the day. One of the best locations for your succulent would be near a south-facing window.

Another thing you can and should do is to keep your succulents outdoors during the summer. This will ensure they receive plenty of their needed sunlight. Just make sure you move them inside in the fall.

When noticing the signs of light deprivation, many make the mistake of moving their succulents outside in direct sunlight without acclimation. A succulent not accustomed to that level of light will show signs of sunburn since it goes from one extreme to the other.

To avoid this, take it slowly by moving your succulent outdoors for a couple of hours per day, and slowly increase the amount every day until you can leave the plant outside.

2.  Invest in grow lights

If your home is naturally low light and there’s no sunny location for your succulent, consider investing in LED grow lights. Most of these are whole-spectrum, providing all the necessary light range for your succulents.

There are plenty of table-top grow lights that are easy to assemble and don’t need any special support structures. These will supplement the light in your home and prevent leggy growth.

Plus, they work great for any other houseplant that may be suffering from lack of enough light.

3.  Pick low light succulents

Another option would be to experiment with low light succulents and avoid succulents that are more prone to etiolation such as the Crassula, Sedum, Sedeveria, or the Echeveria.

Granted, all succulents will require at least a good amount of indirect light, but some varieties that do great even in partial shade can adapt to indoor light conditions more easily than varieties that like to bask in full sun.

4.  Rotate the plant periodically

If only one side of your succulent is receiving adequate light, the other side can still stretch out, resulting in a funny-looking succulent.

The way to prevent this is to rotate the plant every few days so that the light reaches the plant uniformly and no part is deprived of light for too long.

This way the succulent can receive adequate light and maintain its vibrancy on all its sides.

Do All Succulents Become Leggy?

When stem succulents (succulents that grow leaves out of a central stem) become etiolated, they grow tall and leggy. Succulents with a rosette-like leaf structure will stretch out and leaves will grow less condense.

When deprived of light, most succulents will exhibit some form of etiolation, but some are more prone to it than others.

There are some succulents that will grow leggy over time even though they receive a good amount of sunlight. These succulents simply need to be cut back.

Although all succulents will prefer growing in a sunny location, some succulents are more adaptable to light conditions that aren’t ideal.

For example, the Kalanchoe, a succulent with fleshy leaves covered in fine fuzzy hair can adapt to low light conditions better than other types of succulents. Admittedly, its growth will slow down.

The Schlumbergera is a cactus variety with stem-like leaves that prefers partial shade, so it can adapt to lower light conditions, if need be.

A third option you might consider is the Rhipsalis, which is an Epiphytic cactus that grows in rainforests. It does not like direct sunlight, nor does it do well if it’s soil dries out.

Not all echeverias will stretch out, some varieties can adapt to growing without direct sunlight as long as they receive plenty of bright, indirect light.

Try getting multiple varieties too see which succulents adapt to your indoor conditions better. Or simply get a good LED grow light and grow whichever succulent your heart desires.

Wrapping Up

Succulents will respond to light deprivation by stretching their stems or leaves in an attempt to reach out for more light.

Even if your succulent plant is placed near a sunny window, make sure you rotate the plant periodically so that all parts receive enough sunlight.

It’s best to prevent etiolation with the tips I listed above. Once a succulent stretches out, you can’t make it turn back to its former size.

Your only options are to change its conditions to prevent further stretching and to cut down the leggy parts.

Updated: January 6, 2021

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