Succulents are some of the most drought-tolerant and resilient plants on earth. They can endure extended periods without being watered or receiving rainfall because they can store water in their fleshy leaves and stems for later use.
Despite their hardiness, these plants can still be prone to problems under the wrong growing conditions, and one of the most common of these is shriveling leaves. When this happens, it indicates that a change in one or more environmental factors is stressing the plant and will need to be identified and addressed in order to avoid further damage.
The most common causes of shriveled succulent leaves are, quite simply, either too much water or not enough water.
If your own succulent is currently suffering from shriveled leaves, read on to find out how to resolve the problem.
Why are my succulent leaves shriveling?
Too much water
There are several reasons your succulent could end up overwatered; the most obvious is that you are watering it too often.
Although succulents are extremely hardy, overwatering them can still be extremely detrimental to their health. As mentioned, these plants can store water in their bodies for use during drought – but this same trait also makes them more susceptible to diseases such as root rot and other problems related to excessive watering. Instead of frequent watering, the ‘soak and dry’ technique is recommended for succulents, whereby you give your plant a thorough soaking, allow all the excess water to drain, and then wait for the soil to dry out before watering the plant again.
The next cause of overwatering is using the wrong type of potting mix for your succulent. Regular garden soil is not suitable for these plants, as it retains too much moisture and does not drain well. Because of this, water is retained for too long in the soil and can cause root rot. To avoid these problems, use fast-draining, airy soil formulated specifically for succulents, rather than regular potting soil.
If you place the plant’s pot in a saucer or tray to collect the water that drains from the pot, overwatering can result if you do not empty the tray. Do this ten minutes after watering the plant, by which time the excess water will have had time to run out. If you forget to do this, the roots might begin to rot from sitting in water at the bottom of the pot, and before you know it your plant’s leaves will be shriveling. Likewise, using a pot without drainage holes will also result in pooled water around the plant’s roots.
High humidity can also cause a form of water stress in succulents. If you are growing your succulent indoors, you should take this into consideration. Keep your plant away from the bathroom, which is far too humid for this kind of plant.
Succulents with shriveled leaves due to overwatering can be brought back to life, although this is more difficult than reviving an underwatered succulent. Naturally, the severity of the problem will determine your likelihood of success. In the event that the overwatering has already affected the entire plant, it may not be possible to save it; however, if you catch the shriveling at an early stage, you might be luckier.
Stop watering your plant right away, and do not water it again until the soil is completely dry. Try moving it to a sunnier spot to help the soil dry faster. If this takes more than a few days, the soil is probably poorly draining and it may be better to transfer the plant to a new container with a fresh potting mix.
If you suspect root rot, you will have to unpot the plant to inspect the roots. Brush or shake the soil off the roots, taking care not to damage them further, then look for any roots that have turned brown or black. These are rotten and will have to be removed and disposed of properly. Using a sterile pair of scissors, carefully cut away the infected roots until only healthy, white roots remain.
Place the plant on a flat, dry surface to let the roots air dry for a few hours before planting it in a new pot with fresh succulent potting mix and watering thoroughly.
Choose a place for the plant where it can get bright, indirect light, and good air circulation.
To avoid overwatering and root rot in the future, ensure that the top two inches of soil are dry before watering your plant; if they are not, wait one or two days before checking the soil again.
Also, make sure that the pot you use has drainage holes in the bottom, and that the soil is not too dense or compact, in order to prevent water from being retained around the plant’s roots.
Not enough water
It is much easier to save an underwatered succulent than an overwatered one, although this will depend on how long the underwatering has been going on. However, in the majority of cases, provided it is not completely dead, you should be able to revive your hardy plant. This is because succulents are native to semi-arid and arid regions, so they are well-adapted to periods of drought.
The shriveled leaves on an underwatered succulent are a clear sign that the plant has been dehydrated for long enough that it is using up its own water reserves. As these reserves are depleted, the leaves will also start to turn brown and dry out completely.
As soon as you notice these signs of dehydration, water your plant thoroughly, soaking all of the soil. Sometimes soil can become so dry that it repels water, in which case you will need to water the plant from the bottom by sitting it in a basin of water for 10 to 15 minutes. This way, the soil will slowly absorb water through the pot’s drainage holes.
Allow the soil to dry out before watering the plant again – you do not want to overcompensate for the underwatering by overwatering! If you have caught the problem in time, your succulent should be looking healthy again within a couple of weeks.
Factors affecting the frequency of watering
There are several factors that will affect the frequency with which you water your succulent. The first is whether the plant is indoors or out. In an indoor environment, the soil will take longer to dry out, so you will water your plant less often.
Your local climate and the season of the year will also affect the plant’s watering requirements. It goes without saying that in the summer it will need more water than in the colder months. Likewise, a hotter climate requires more frequent watering, while in a highly humid climate you would reduce the frequency slightly.
The final factor that comes to mind is exposure to sunlight. Needless to say, succulents that receive direct sunlight require more water than those that receive indirect sunlight.
How to correctly water a succulent
A common mistake made by succulent owners is depriving their plants of water because they think it can do without water indefinitely. Of course, this is not true, because although they are adapted to dry environments, succulents do need to get their roots wet occasionally, much like when heavy rain falls in the desert.
It is very easy to water a succulent correctly. Simply soak the plant’s soil thoroughly and allow any excess water to drain completely through the pot’s drainage holes. Then, once the soil is completely dry, water the plant again. However, before you soak the soil, double-check that you are using a succulent-friendly mix.
Succulents are some of the most resilient plants on the planet, having evolved to survive the extreme living conditions of the desert. They are not prone to quite as many problems as most other houseplants, which is why they are a favorite among gardeners who prefer low-maintenance plants.
However, although these plants are used to infrequent access to water and can store their own for times of drought, this does not mean you should be careless about your watering routine.
One of the most common problems encountered by succulent owners is shriveled leaves, which can be caused both by over- and underwatering the plant.
To avoid either problem, make sure you check the soil in the pot before watering your plant. If the top two inches of soil are dry, water the plant; if not, wait for one to two days before checking the soil again.
Image: istockphoto.com / amilat