How to Revive a Dying Cactus


How to revive a dying cactus

The reason for a dying cactus is usually because of 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.

A cactus in too much shade 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) turn white with a scorched appearance.

A cactus dies back when it is living in conditions that are significantly contrary to those of its natural environment.

To revive a dying cactus, it is essential 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 well draining gritty succulent and cacti soil to improve drainage so the cactus can recover.

Keep reading for how to save your dying cactus plant…

Cactus Turning Yellow Brown or Black

  • Symptoms. Cactus stems turning yellow often from the base of the plant. The stems may feel somewhat squishy or start to lean.
  • Causes. Damp soil causes 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.

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

Desert cactus that are 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 a cactus successfully and to avoid the stem turning yellow, it is important 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.

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 stem to turn yellow which can then develop a squishy texture.

The combination of a yellow cactus and 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.

It is also imperative that cacti are 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 cactus.

How to Revive a Dying Cactus Turning Yellow Brown or Black

  • Scale back the watering. If you are watering your cactus more often then once a week, then this is the reason your cactus is turning yellow. Desert cacti should only be watered when the soil around the roots has dried out, which is typically once every 14 days. However this can vary according to the size of the pot, and the soils capacity to retain moisture (test to see if the soil is moist by feeling the soil through the drainage holes in the base).
  • Repot your cactus in new potting soil. Even if your water your cactus when the soil has dried out, your cactus can still turn yellow and turn squishy if the potting soil retains moisture for too long (like a sponge) rather then draining efficiently and not holding too much moisture (which are the soil conditions of a cactus in its native environment). If your cactus is planted in ordinary potting soil, then empty the pot and replace the soil with specially formulated succulent and cacti soil (available from garden centers and on amazon) which mimic 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.
  • 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 the best choice as the have a porous structure that allows the potting soil to dry out more evenly, which caters to the cactus preference for dryer soil conditions.
  • Plant cacti in pots that are proportionate to their size. If the pot is too large then 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.
  • Empty saucers and trays underneath cacti pots regularly. Saucers, trays and decorative outer pots can all prevent water 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 affects of overwatering and to mimic their preferred natural conditions of at least 6 hours of sun.

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

Watering your cactus when the soil has dried out, mimics the natural conditions of infrequent rainfall, followed by a period for drought, however this has to be in conjunction with the right sort of porous, well draining succulent and cacti potting soil.

If the soil is too compacted or too dense then there is not enough oxygen around the roots for root respiration which interferes with the roots ability to draw up moisture and nutrients.

If the cactus cannot draw up moisture or nutrients it turns yellow as a sign of stress.

Once your 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 the cactus can start to recover even if the stem appear yellow, as long as you let the soil dry out.

How quickly your cactus revives, depends on how long it has endured stress but 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 its likely the cactus has root rot. If the cactus has root rot then it is very difficult to save the entire plant, however you can still take cuttings from healthy tissue to save the cactus.

Cactus propagates relatively easily from offshoots, pads or cutting propagation.

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

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 then 40 degrees F (5 degrees C) overwatering and compacted soil.

The reason a cactus turns squishy is 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 is turning yellow and squishy, this indicates root rot. Temperatures cooler then 40°F also cause cacti to turn soft and squishy.

Most houseplant cactus 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.

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

Cold temperatures can also contribute to a mushy texture by slowing down the rate at which the soil dries out.

If the soil dries out too slowly (because of the cold conditions) then the cactus develops root rot and turns squishy.

Whilst a room indoors is often well within the preferred temperature range of 55°F to 85°F (12°C to 30°C) for most cactus species, the glass of a window is usually much cooler then the indoor air temperature.

A cactus can turn squishy if it is against a cold glass window at night.

In freezing temperatures cactus turn squishy and black.

Compacted or slow draining soils as well as saucers and trays and pots without good drainage 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 and strong, so if the cactus is squishy then it can start to lean under its own weight.

How to Revive 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 they 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. 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 then once a week, then this is the reason your cactus is squishy.
  • Lift the cactus out of the soil and inspect the roots. Snip away the roots that appear brown, mushy, rotten and have a bad smell with a sterilized pair of pruners. Cut back to health growth with no signs of rotting. Wipe the lades of the 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. Terracotta and clay pots are best as the are porous and dry out evenly. Empty any saucers and trays underneath the pot regularly to prevent water pooling underneath the pot.
  • Locate the cactus in at least 6 hours of sun to recreate their natural conditions to which they are adapted.

Whether the cactus can revive or not typically depends on how long it has endured overwater and cold temperatures.

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

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 remain tissue or offshoots (see YouTube video further up the article for a guide on how to do this).

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.

The most common reason for a drooping cactus is because of insufficient sunAlways locate a clight. 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.

A leaning cactus is more common in the Winter with fewer hours of daylight, particularly in Northern latitudes where daylight can be limited to a few hours, but drooping can also occur at anytime of year if the cactus is in the shade, rather then direct sunlight.

However a cactus can also lean 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.

Turning the cactus 45 degrees around, each time you water, so that each side has even exposure to direct sunlight, is best practice to achieve a more even appearance.

Soil that is too damp 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). If the cactus 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 to Revive a Leaning or Drooping Cactus

  • Locate your cactus in an area of 6 or more hours of direct sunlight. 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 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.
  • Always rotate the cactus 45 degrees every time your water. Rotating the cactus as frequently as watering (typically once every 2 weeks) ensures even growth and prevents the cactus 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.

However if the cactus has been in shade for too long time and is leaning considerably or even falling over then I recommend to propagate 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 produced a healthy new plant if there is healthy tissue on the leaning plant.

For how to propagate cactus 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.
  • Repot 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 reduces the risk of root rot and associated drooping, significantly.
  • 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 really depends how low the temperature is (lower then 40°F can significantly harm a cactus) 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. Whilst cacti do not need to be watered as frequently as other plants, they do require a through watering, so that excess water trickles from the base of the pot. This ensures the water has infiltrated the soil and reached the roots where it is required, so that the cacti roots can draw up moisture. A soak followed by a period of drought replicates the typical -deluge of rainfall followed by 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 shrinking in size, sometimes with a wrinkled texture to the stem or leaning over to one side.
  • Causes. Underwatering and small pots.

The reason for a shrinking cactus is because of underwatering. 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 the surface of the cactus can also appear wrinkled. Cactus rely on uptaking moisture to store in the stem in order 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 why houseplant cacti tend to shrink 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.

If 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 to Revive 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 your run the risk of root rot. 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, then repot your 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.

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

Cactus Turning Turning White

  • Symptoms. Cactus turns white with a somewhats 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.

The reason a cactus turns white is because it has been moved from shade to intense sun, which has scorched the 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 are capable of growing in full sun and have often specifically adapted to live in these conditions in their native environment.

However cacti they can adapt to 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 move it to a window sill in full sun or outside during the Summer then 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).

It is important 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.

Move your cactus to a sunny spot for gradually more time over the course of 2 weeks. After two weeks the cactus should be able to cope with the increase in light and actually grow much better in the long term then if the cactus 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 to turn a cactus 45 degrees each time after watering to ensure even growth and 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:

  • The reason for 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, the cactus is not being watered often enough or watered too lightly.
  • The reason for 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 then 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, the cactus draws upon the moisture reserves in its stem to cope with drought which causes the shrinking appearance.
  • The reason for a cactus turning white is because of sun burn. 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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