Succulents are a type of plant that all share certain defining characteristics or abilities. These plants have specialized roots, stems and leaves that can absorb and retain water far more effectively than most plants.
Succulents can therefore withstand long periods of drought, because they will simply live off the water they have stored in their bodies while waiting for the next rainfall or, in the case of houseplants, the next watering.
These are some of the most resilient plants on earth, which also means they are low-maintenance and need very little care and attention in order to thrive. As long as you provide their most basic needs, you will have no problem growing them as houseplants.
Succulents rarely have any problems, but one one of the most common problems is when their stems become shriveled. A shriveled succulent stem is typically a sign that the plant is stressed, and you will need to identify the environmental factor causing this stress in order to address the problem as soon as possible.
The most common causes of a shriveled succulent stem are underwatering, overwatering, or a lack of nutrients.
In this article, we will discuss each of these causes and how to fix them. We will also look into some other common succulent problems. So, if you are currently experiencing this issue and want to learn more, just keep reading.
Why is my succulent’s stem shriveling?
Succulents are native to some of the driest places on earth, and they have evolved over millennia to survive these harsh conditions by storing water in their tissue for use in the event of drought. This is why you do not have to water a succulent as often as you would a regular houseplant.
However, although the plant is very drought-tolerant, you cannot just neglect to water it whenever you want to. Succulents are still living plants and water is just as vital to them as it is to a water-loving tropical houseplant. If you do not give your succulent the water it needs to survive, it will start to dry out and this will be noticeable on its leaves, roots and stems.
The normally taut and smooth foliage will become wrinkled, and the leaves and stems will turn brown and may also look weak and droopy.
This is not only because of a lack of moisture in the plant’s body, but also because the plant will now be unable to absorb nutrients from the soil. Plants use water as a vessel to transport nutrients and minerals from the soil into their roots. Thus, without the water in the soil, the plant has no access to the substances it needs to survive.
If you think that your succulent is underwatered, water it immediately. Give all of the soil a thorough soak so that all the roots get their share of water. Also check that the soil has not become compacted from too much dryness, in which case you will need to loosen it before watering the plant.
To prevent underwatering your succulent again, try to develop better watering habits. Rather than following a set schedule to water your plant, a better technique is to feel the soil in the pot before watering. If the top two inches of soil are dry, water the succulent, but if the soil is still a bit damp, wait one or two days and check it again.
Another cause of shriveling succulent stems is overwatering. As we mentioned, succulents do not need to be watered as much or as often as regular plants, because they can store water in their bodies for a long time. This trait also makes them particularly prone to overwatering.
Overwatering can be caused by giving the plant too much water every time you water it, watering it too frequently, using a poorly-draining pot or potting mix, or not adjusting your watering to changes in the weather, season or climate.
An overwatered succulent will have yellowing leaves and shriveled stems. This is because, when the water in the soil has nowhere to go, the plant will keep absorbing it until its cells become so engorged that they burst. The plant’s structural integrity is thus affected, which makes its skin wrinkled and shriveled. The leaves and stems will also feel soft and mushy to the touch.
A dire consequence of overwatering is root rot. This is a condition caused by prolonged exposure of the plant’s roots to waterlogged soil, so that they are never able to dry out between waterings. They will eventually drown and start to rot. The affected roots will become vulnerable to opportunistic soil-borne pathogens, which will make the rot more aggressive and cause it to spread faster to the rest of the plant. Before you know it, the entire plant will be affected and could even die.
If you are fortunate enough to catch root rot in its early stages, you might be able to save your plant, but if the rot has become too widespread, the plant may not be salvageable.
If you think your plant is overwatered, stop watering it immediately. Place it in a spot where it can get lots of light and where there is good air circulation. This will help the soil in the pot dry out as fast as possible.
If you suspect root rot, you will have to remove the plant from the pot and wash the soil from its roots. Do this gently so that none of the healthy roots get damaged.
Inspect all of the roots and look for sections that have turned brown or black; these roots are rotten. Use a sterile knife or scissors to prune off these rotten roots until only the healthy, white roots remain.
Then, place the plant on a dry surface to allow the roots to air-dry for a few hours.
Fill a new pot with fresh succulent potting mix. Make sure that the pot has drainage holes at the bottom, so that any excess water can easily flow out if you accidentally overwater the soil.
Position the plant in the middle of the pot, cover the roots with more soil, and place the plant where it can get lots of bright, indirect light.
To prevent overwatering in the future, water the plant only when the soil in the pot has dried out. If the soil is still damp, it is best to wait one or two days before checking it again.
Lack of nutrients
Another cause of shriveling succulent stems is a nutrient deficiency. This can be because the soil in the pot is old and the plant has not been repotted for several years. Succulents do not consume minerals from their soil as fast as other plants do, because they are typically slow-growing. However, if it has been several years since you last repotted it, the soil will probably be depleted.
Another situation that prevents the plant from getting its required nutrients is when the soil gets so compacted around the roots that it becomes hydrophobic. If you use regular potting soil for a succulent and you allow it to dry out for a long time, it will become denser as it dries, and this gives it a water-repellant quality. When you water the plant, the water will roll off the top layer of soil, rather than penetrating the surface and seeping down to the roots. This means the roots will not get any water and the plant will dehydrate as it uses up its reserves. It will also become nutrient deficient because, as we discussed above, it is water that transports nutrients from the soil into the plant.
Thus, deprived of water and nutrients, the plant will become weak, limp and wrinkled.
To fix this problem, you will probably have to change the soil in the plant’s pot. Choose a potting mix that is designed for succulents, because it will be well-draining, loose and airy. This is the kind of soil the plant would have in its natural habitat, and it will allow both air and water to pass through easily.
What are some other common succulent problems?
Leaves falling off
If your succulent is losing leaves, it could be due to overwatering, but it can also be caused by too much sunlight. We have already talked about the effects of overwatering, so we will not go into that again, but let us discuss the latter cause.
When the succulent is exposed to too much sunlight, it will lose a lot of moisture and may respond by shedding some of its older leaves to conserve energy and resources. The more leaves there are on the plant, the more energy it has to expend, and this is not good if the plant is struggling to stay alive.
To remedy this problem, transfer the plant to a spot that gets shade for half of the day.
This is especially important during the hotter months. Be vigilant about the plant’s water requirements, and remember that the soil will dry out faster in the summer than in the fall or winter.
If you keep your succulent indoors, avoid placing it near a window that lets in very harsh sunlight or, if you have no choice, then hang a sheer curtain over the window to help diffuse the intensity.
If the stems on your plant are starting to stretch out and grow long and thin, this is usually due to etiolation. Etiolation is a process caused by a lack of light, to which the plant responds by developing unnaturally long, thin limbs as it grows in the direction of the nearest source of light.
If you keep your succulent in a room with too little light, it will be unable to photosynthesize properly. All plants must photosynthesize in order to survive, because this is how they create food for themselves. Thus, in a desperate attempt not to die, the succulent will use what little resources it has left to grow in search of light.
The plant’s normally symmetrical growth may become lopsided as selected stems grow longer. These elongated stems will not harm the plant, but the lack of light will, eventually.
If you think your succulent is etiolated, move it to a sunnier spot as soon as you can, but increase its light exposure gradually, day by day, rather than just leaving it out in the sun all day from the start. Remember that if it has been in near-darkness for a long time, prolonged sun exposure might shock it and could even cause sunburn.
If you live in a place where sunlight can be scarce for a few months each year, you might need to buy a grow light to support your succulent. Of course, natural light is always best, but artificial lighting is a serviceable alternative.
Succulents are plants that have specialized roots, stems and leaves that can store water for use during dry periods. This ability makes them far more drought tolerant than most houseplants. It also means they are low-maintenance and require very little care and attention to survive.
They are not as prone to problems as certain other plants, but that does not mean they are completely issue-free.
One of the most common problems encountered by succulent owners is when the stem of their succulent becomes shriveled. This is a sign of stress, caused by a change in one or more factors in the plant’s environment.
The most common causes of shriveling succulent stems are underwatering, overwatering, or a lack of nutrients.
It is up to you to correctly identify the cause of your succulent’s shriveling stem, and the sooner you do so, the faster you will be able to take the necessary measures to save your plant.
Image: istockphoto.com / Juan Villalobos