How to Revive a Dying Cactus

How to revive a dying cactus

Cacti and succulents are some of the most popular low-maintenance houseplants, but the question I get a lot is, why are my cacti dying?

I personally love cacti and grow them all the time in my day job at a garden nursery where we supply garden centers. I have been lucky enough to talk to some expert growers over the years who taught me all their tips and tricks to not only look after cacti but also save it if it is dying.

A lot of the problems I cover in this post I have had to deal with myself at some time, so I am well qualified to address each problem. In this article, I am going to share with you everything I have learned…

The reason for a dying cactus is usually root rot due to watering too often and slow-draining potting soils. Cacti need the soil around the roots to dry out between bouts of watering. If the cactus is in consistently damp soil, it turns yellow, brown, or black with a squishy texture.

If your cactus is in too much shade cactus, this causes the stem to droop or lean over, whereas a cactus that is moved from an area of shade straight into full sun (without gradual exposure to more intense light) turns white with a scorched appearance. ( I have made this mistake myself!)

Essentially, we have to remember that a cactus dies when it is living in conditions that are significantly contrary to those of its natural environment.

To revive a dying cactus, we need to emulate the natural conditions by placing the cactus in at least 6 hours of sun, only watering when the soil has dried out completely, and by planting or repotting the cactus in specially formulated draining gritty succulent and cacti soil to improve drainage so the cactus can recover.

Keep reading for how to save your dying cactus plant…

Why is My Cactus Turning Yellow, Brown, or Black?

  • Symptoms. Cactus stems turn yellow often from the base of the plant. The stems may feel somewhat squishy or start to lean.
  • Causes. Damp soil is caused by overwatering, slow-draining soil, excess water pooling in saucers or trays underneath the pot, or decorative outside pots without drainage holes in the base. Repotting cacti in large pots that hold too much moisture can cause root rot, as can the wrong type of potting soil. If the cactus is turning yellow and shriveling, this is because of underwatering.

Cacti turn yellow because the soil is too moist from overwatering or slow-draining soils. Cacti are adapted to tolerate drought, so you should only water when the soil has dried out completely. If the soil is too damp, your cactus’s roots cannot uptake nutrients and water as efficiently, causing it to turn yellow.

To save our cacti, we need to remember how they grow in the wild…

Desert cacti commonly sold in garden centers are drought-resistant plants that have specifically adapted to grow in hot and dry environments with well-draining, gritty soil and relatively infrequent (although heavy) rainfall.

To grow your cactus successfully and to avoid the stem turning yellow, we need to recreate some of the typical conditions of the cactus’s native environment by planting them in a gritty, well-draining potting soil and watering them when the soil around the roots has dried out.

The classic mistake I see people make is watering cacti too often or planting the cactus in normal potting soil (which retains moisture for too long) results in too much moisture around the roots of this desert dwelling plant to tolerate.

Too much moisture around the roots causes the cacti stem to turn yellow and brown which can then develop a squishy texture.

It is specifically the combination of a yellow cactus and a mushy feel to the stem can potentially indicate root rot.

Most cacti require the soil to dry out completely around the roots between bouts of watering, which emulates the typical watering cycle in their native environment, with drought-like conditions followed by a deluge of rain.

We also need to consider the pot that the cacti are in. Cacti must also be planted in pots with drainage holes in the base to allow excess water to escape after watering.

Saucers, trays, and decorative outer pots can also cause excess water to pool around the bottom of the pot, which causes the soil to become boggy, resulting in root rot and a yellowing, dying cactus.

How I Revive a Dying Cactus Turning Yellow Brown or Black

  • The first thing we need to do is scale back the watering. If you are watering your cactus more often than once a week, then this is the reason your cactus is turning yellow. I only water my cacti when the soil has dried out completely, typically once every 14 days. However, we need to remember this can vary according to the pot’s size and the soil’s capacity to retain moisture (test to see if the soil is moist by feeling the soil through the drainage holes in the base).
  • Re-pot your cactus in new potting soil. Even if you water your cactus when the soil has dried out, your cactus can still turn yellow and squishy if the potting soil retains moisture for too long (like a sponge) rather than draining efficiently and not holding too much moisture (which is the soil conditions of a cactus in its native environment). If your cactus is planted in ordinary potting soil, then I would empty the pot and replace the soil with specially formulated succulent and cacti soil (available from garden centers and on Amazon), which mimics the gritty, porous well-draining soil characteristics of the cacti’ native environment and reduces the risk of root rot which causes the cactus to turn yellow.
A gritty succulent and cacti soil mix is perfect for growing cacti.
This is a photo of the gritty succulent and cacti soil mix that I use for growing cacti.
  • Always plant cacti in pots with drainage holes in the base. It is essential that excess water can drain efficiently out of the pot so that water does not pool around the roots and cause root rot. Terracotta or clay pots are my favorites as they have a porous structure that allows the potting soil to dry out more evenly, which caters to the cactus’s preference for dryer soil conditions.
  • Plant cacti in pots that are proportionate to their size. If the pot is too large, it contains more soil, which takes longer to dry out after watering, which can increase the risk of root rot and your cactus turning yellow. I only plant my cacti in pots that are 2 or 3 inches in diameter larger than the actual cacti.
  • Empty saucers and trays underneath cacti pots regularly. Saucers, trays, and decorative outer pots can all prevent water from escaping properly, causing the soil to become boggy. Do not let water pool at the bottom of the pot.
  • Place the cactus in more hours of sun to help combat the effects of overwatering and to mimic their preferred natural conditions of at least 6 hours of sun.

Pro tip: To establish when to water your cactus, I feel the soil at the bottom of the pot through the drainage hole in the base. If the soil feels damp then I delay watering my cactus for a few days. If the soil feels dry, then this is the perfect time to water your cactus.

Once you have addressed the causes of why your cactus is turning yellow and mushy (adjusted how often you water and replaced the soil) and implemented the ideal watering practices, then your cactus can start to recover even if the stem appears yellow, as long as you let the soil dry out.

How quickly your cactus revives depends on how long it has endured stress, but I typically find it should show signs of recovery over the following weeks.

How to Save a Cactus From Severe Root Rot…

If the cactus continues to turn yellow and progressively turn squishy, then I’m afraid it’s likely the cactus has root rot. If the cactus has root rot, it is very difficult to save the entire plant; however, I recommend that you take cuttings from healthy tissue to save the cactus.

Cactus propagates relatively easily from offshoots, pads, or cutting propagation. I have done it loads of times, as sometimes this can be the only way to save your cacti.

Watch this helpful YouTube video for how to propagate cacti of all species easily…

Why is My Dying Cactus Turning Soft, Squishy, and Drooping?

  • Symptoms. Cactus has a squishy feel and may turn yellow, brown or black. The cactus may also start to droop and lean over to one side.
  • Causes. Temperatures cooler than 40°F (5°C) overwatering and compacted soil.

This is a problem I had myself when I first started growing cacti.

A cactus turns squishy because of too much moisture around the roots caused by overwatering, slow-draining soil or pots without drainage holes in the base. If the cacti are turning yellow and squishy, this indicates root rot. Temperatures cooler than 40°F also cause cacti to turn soft and squishy.

Specifically, my cactus was squishy because it was on a window sill that got really cold at night, much colder than the cactus prefers (55°F to 85°F (12°C to 30°C), and the cacti’s soil dried out much slower due to the lower temperature.

Most houseplant cacti are adapted to tolerate dry and hot conditions in their native habitat, where they thrive in gritty soil with infrequent rainfall.

The thick stem of the cactus stores water as an effective survival strategy to cope with drought, blazing sunshine and high temperature with, relatively little water. Pretty amazing right?

Due to these adaptations to drought and high temperatures, the cactus is very susceptible to overwatering, which can turn the stem squishy, soft, and mushy in texture and cause a drooping appearance.

If the soil dries out too slowly (because of the cold conditions), then the cactus is more likely to develop root rot and turn squishy as mine did.

In freezing temperatures, your cacti turn squishy and black.

As with a lot of cacti problems, I find it pays to check if your potting soil is compacted or slow draining and always remember to empty the saucer and trays after watering as this can all keep the soil too damp for the cactus to tolerate, causing root rot and for the stem to turn squishy.

A healthy cactus should feel firm, so if the cactus is squishy, then it can start to lean under its weight.

My Tips for Reviving a Squishy, Drooping Cactus

  • Ensure the cactus is in a temperature range of 55°F to 85°F (12°C to 30°C). This is the typical temperature range for most cactus species, and at this temperature, the soil should dry out properly between watering to avoid root rot.
  • Scale back the watering. I only water a cactus when the soil is completely dry. Feel the soil through the drainage holes in the base to detect when it dries out before watering again. If you are watering more often than once a week, then this is the reason your cactus is squishy.
  • Lift the cactus out of the soil and inspect the roots. It would be best to snip away the brown, mushy, rotten roots and have a bad smell with a sterilized pair of pruners. Cut back to healthy growth with no signs of rotting. I wipe the blades of my pruners with a cloth soaked in disinfectant between each cut to prevent spreading fungal pathogens to otherwise healthy root tissue.
  • Replace the potting soil with well-draining succulent and cacti soil. Discard the old potting soil, as this can harbor the fungal disease pathogens that turn the cactus squishy. The well-draining and porous stricture reduces the risk of root rot significantly as it replicates the soil conditions in the cactus’s native environment.
  • Ensure the cactus is planted in a pot with drainage holes in the base. I find terracotta and clay pots are best as they are porous and dry out evenly. Empty any saucers and trays underneath the pot regularly to prevent water from pooling underneath the pot.
  • Locate the cactus in at least 6 hours of sun to recreate the natural conditions to which they are adapted.

Whether your cactus can revive or not typically depends on how long it has endured overwater and cold temperatures, but I found that my cacti started to show signs of recovery 3 weeks after I moved it to a warmer place and replaced the soil.

I should note that my cacti always recovers from any ailments in the Spring, whereas recovery is much slower but still possible in the Fall and Winter.

A cactus can recover in the following weeks with the right watering schedule, potting soil, temperature, and lots of sunshine.

If the cactus has a large area that has turned squishy and perhaps turned yellow, brown, or black then it is likely the root rot is severe and the only way to save it is by propagation from any healthy remaining tissue or offshoots (see YouTube video further up the article for a guide on how to do this).

Why is My Cactus Leaning, Drooping, or Falling Over?

  • Symptoms. Cactus leaning over to one side. There could also be sections of the cactus that are soft and mushy.
  • Causes. Cactus may be growing towards the strongest source of light. Overwatering, compacted soil, cold temperatures, and underwatering can also cause a leaning, drooping, or falling cactus.

My own cactus started drooping because it was in too much shade. Cacti are adapted to growing in full sun and require at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day. Not enough sunlight causes the cactus to weaken and look for more light, resulting in leaning or drooping over as a sign of stress.

In my experience, I see more leaning cacti in the Winter as there are fewer hours of daylight, particularly in Northern latitudes where daylight can be limited to a few hours, but drooping can also occur at any time of year if the cactus is in the shade, rather than in direct sunlight.

I had this problem when I lived in New York, and my southwest facing window only got a few hours of light in Winter. My cacti drooped in the direction of the most light.

I see this problem a lot with a cactus leaning over to one side towards the sun if it is not turned regularly.

Cactus grow towards the strongest source of light, so they naturally tend to lean towards the window to capture the most sun.

I quickly learned the best method is to turn the cactus 45 degrees around each time you water so that each side has even exposure to direct sunlight to achieve a more even appearance.

As with pretty much every cacti related problem, I should also point out that damp soil as a result of overwatering, slow draining potting soil, or if saucers and trays underneath the cactus are not emptied regularly, can cause a cactus to droop and fall over.

Cactus are adapted to tolerate drought between bouts of watering and grow in sandy, gritty soils that are well draining. If the soil is too damp, then one of the signs of stress is a drooping appearance (other signs of stress are cactus turning yellow, soft, and mushy).

Most cactus species grow in a temperature range of 55°F to 85°F (12°C to 30°C). So if your cacti is exposed to temperatures cooler then 40°F (5°C) or even freezing temperatures that cactus can turn black, mushy and droop or lean to one side.

How I Revive My Leaning, Drooping Cactus

  • The first thing I did was to locate my cactus in an area of 6 or more hours of direct sunlight. However, I should caution if you are moving your cactus from an area of full shade, then expose the cactus to sun gradually (a sudden move from shade to the blazing sun can cause the cactus to burn and turn white) by exposing it to two hours of direct sun for a 3 or 4 days then gradually increase the hours over the course of 2 weeks, by which time the cactus can acclimate to full sun.
  • I always rotate my cactus 45 degrees every time I water it. Rotating the cactus as frequently as watering (typically once every 2 weeks) ensures even growth and prevents the cactus from leaning too much on one side.

Rotating your cactus frequently and placing the cactus in more sunlight can correct a leaning cactus as long as it has not been in the shade for too long.

Pro tip: For my drooping cacti in New York, I had to buy a grow light to supplement the natural light in Winter. I place it under the grow light for around 2 hours each evening in the Fall and Winter (along with my other cacti and succulents), and the cacti looks much better.

However, suppose the cactus has been in the shade for too long and is leaning considerably or even falling over. In that case, I recommend propagating the cactus, as once it has lost all its structural integrity, the cactus is too weak to grow properly again.

A cactus can still be propagated to produce a healthy new plant if there is healthy tissue on the leaning plant.

For how to propagate cacti, watch the YouTube video further up this article.

If your cactus is drooping because of overwatering, cold stress, or damp potting soil…

  • Scale back the watering. Only water the cactus when the soil has dried out. Exactly how long this takes depends on your climate and the time of year, but typically, watering once every 2 weeks in Spring and Summer and every 3 weeks in Fall and Winter is appropriate.
  • Re-pot your cactus in succulent and cacti potting soil to improve drainage. Succulent and cacti soil is specially formulated to replicate the typical soil conditions of the cactus native environment. The soil is more porous, contains more sand, and does not retain too much moisture. This significantly reduces the risk of root rot and associated drooping.
  • Keep your cactus in a temperature range of 55°F to 85°F to prevent cold stress. Whether your cactus recovers from drooping due to cold stress depends on how low the temperature is (lower than 40°F can significantly harm a cactus) as long it has been exposed to cold temperatures. Cold, damaged parts of a cactus often turn black and squishy. If this has happened, scale back the watering frequency( so that the soil dries out between bouts of watering), and the black squishy area can dry out, and then callus over, at which point the cactus can begin to recover.

Once the cactus has a watering schedule that allows the soil to dry between each watering and the cactus is planted in the appropriate, succulent, and cacti potting soil within a temperature range of 55°F to 85°F then the cactus has the best chance of recovering from its drooping appearance.

Another reason your cactus could be drooping or leaning over is underwatering, in which case…

  • Always water a cactus with a generous soak. While cacti do not need to be watered as frequently as other plants, they require a thorough watering so that excess water trickles from the pot’s base. This ensures the water has infiltrated the soil and reached the roots where it is required so that the cactus’s roots can draw up moisture. A soak followed by a period of drought replicates the typical – a deluge of rainfall followed by a drought- cycle of watering in the cactus’s native environment.

If the cactus is watered too lightly, then the cactus stem shrinks in size and droops as it relies on storing moisture to maintain its structural integrity.

Why is My Cactus Shrinking?

  • Symptoms. Cactus are shrinking in size, sometimes with a wrinkled texture to the stem or leaning over to one side.
  • Causes. Underwatering and small pots.

If your cactus is shrinking, then you are not watering it often enough. The stem of a cactus stores moisture as a method of coping with drought. If the cactus does not get enough water, then the stem shrinks in size as the cactus draws upon the moisture reserves in the stem, which causes the shrinking appearance.

As the cactus draws on its moisture reserves, its surface can also appear wrinkled. Cactus rely on uptaking moisture to store in the stem to maintain their size and shape.

The water pressure in the stem keeps the cactus tall and plump with a firm texture.

This ability to store water is an important survival strategy so that the cactus can tolerate the high temperatures and infrequent rainfall in their native desert environment.

The reason I see for houseplant cacti shrinking is because of watering too lightly or due to the pot being too small. If the cactus is watered too lightly, then only the top inch or so of the potting soil becomes moist, and the water does not reach the roots where it is required.

I think what happens is people misinterpret the advice that “cacti don’t need much water” to mean cacti do not need a great quantity of water, whereas the truth is that cacti need a good soaking, it’s just that they need to be watered less often than most houseplants.

Another problem I see come up is when the pot is too small for the size of the cactus, then there is less capacity for soil, which holds moisture, and the pot can dry out too quickly even for a cactus, particularly in high temperatures.

How I Save a Shrinking Cactus

  • Always water a cactus with a generous soak. Water with a good soak, but allow the soil to dry between bouts of watering, or you run the risk of root rot. What you need to do is water generously so that excess water trickles from the base of the pot to ensure the moisture has infiltrated the soil and reached the roots.
  • Repot the cactus to a larger pot. If the cactus roots appear to be pot-bound or the cactus is very large and the pot looks disproportionately small, I repot the cactus to a pot one size up and replant with succulent and cacti potting soil to ensure good drainage. Always repot your cactus in a pot that is proportionate to the size of the plant, as excessively large pots can hold too much moisture and cause root rot.

My shrinking cactus revived after one really good soak and should completely recover after 2 or 3 cycles of watering. Ensure that any saucers or trays underneath the cactus pot are regularly emptied of excess water to prevent root rot.

(Read my article on how to save a cactus that is turning yellow).

Why is My Cactus Turning Turning White?

  • Symptoms. The Cactus turns white with a somewhat scorched appearance.
  • Causes. Moving the cactus from an area of low sun intensity to full sun without giving the cactus time to acclimate. This typically happens in Summer due to the increased intensity of the sunshine.

I had this happen. My mistake was to move my cacti from an area of relative shade to intense sun, which has scorched my cactus a white color. Cactus are often adapted to living in full sun, but the contrast of being moved from shade or partial shade to full sun without chance to acclimatize causes the cactus to turn white.

Cacti can grow in full sun and have often specifically adapted to live in these conditions in their native environment.

However, what I discovered was that cacti can adapt to an environment with less light (although this is likely to affect growth and flowering).

If you have been growing your cactus in partial shade and then moving it to a window sill in full sun or outside during the Summer, the stem can scorch white as it is not able to tolerate the contrast in light conditions so suddenly.

This can also happen if the cactus has been in transit from a nursery or in a store for too long without full sun.

If you are moving a cactus to an area of full sun or you have noticed the cactus is turning white then return the cactus to the light conditions where it was originally (partial shade or morning sun followed by afternoon shade should be ideal).

I was told by expert growers the best method of preventing this is to expose the cactus to full sun gradually by placing it in more hours of light each day before moving it back to shade so that it does not scorch white.

Pro tip: Move your cactus to a sunny spot for gradually more time over 2 weeks. After two weeks, the cactus should be able to cope with the increase in light and grow much better in the long term than if it remained in the shade.

Whether the area of the cactus that is scorched white recovers depends on the extent of the sunburn. Often the white area does not return to green, however the cactus can carry on living despite a scorched appearance.

I would always recommend turning a cactus 45 degrees each time after watering to ensure even growth. So, each side of the cactus can acclimatize to higher levels of light to reduce the risk of scorching the cactus.

(Read my article, how to revive a dying succulent).

Key Takeaways:

  • A dying cactus is usually because of too much water around the roots due to overwatering and slow-draining soil. Most cactus species require the soil to dry out completely between bouts of watering. In damp soil, the cactus turns yellow, brown, or black with a drooping, dying appearance.
  • The reason for a cactus turning yellow is either because of overwatering or underwatering. If the cactus turns yellow with a drooping appearance, this indicates root rot due to being watered too often. If the cactus is shirking and turning yellow, it is not watered often enough or lightly.
  • A cactus drooping and turning squishy is because of cold temperatures and damp soil. Cacti grow best in a temperature range of 55°F to 85°F in well-draining soil. If the cactus is exposed to temperatures cooler than 40°F for a long time or the soil is too damp, this can cause the cactus to droop and turn mushy.
  • The reason for a shrinking is because of underwatering. Cactuses draw up moisture to store in their stem. If the cactus is not watered often enough or watered too lightly, it draws upon the moisture reserves in its stem to cope with drought, which causes a shrinking appearance.
  • The reason for a cactus turning white is because of sunburn. If the cactus is moved from an area with fewer hours of sun to an area with intense midday sun, the cactus can turn white with a scorched appearance.
  • To revive a dying cactus, recreate the conditions of the cactus’s natural environment by watering only when the soil has dried out completely, locating the cactus in full sun, and repotting the cactus in well-draining, gritty, porous soil.

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