How to Revive a Dying Succulent Plant

How to revive a dying succulent

I love succulents, so I can understand your pain if yours is dying! I have kept almost every succulent variety at one point or other, from Haworthia to aloe vera, and I have personally encountered and testeted the efficacy of different solutions (with some trial and errors) all the problems I talk about in this article.

In this post, I am going to share with you all the tips and tricks that I have learned from my experience and the secrets for saving succulents that I was taught by some expert succulent growers that I have been lucky enough to talk to…

Most often, succulents die most often because of overwatering and slow-draining soils. They are adapted to tolerate drought and require the soil to dry out between waterings. In damp soil, succulents develop root rot, which causes the leaves to turn yellow, brown, or black, giving them a dying appearance.

Whilst overwatering is the most common reason for a dying succulent, there are several other reasons I have seen, which I summarized in this table below to help you diagnose the problem with your succulent:

Symptoms of Dying Succulent:Reason for Succulent Dying:
Succulent leaves or stems turning brown, yellow, or black with a soft, mushy texture:Overwatering and slow-draining, damp soils potentially result in root rot.
Succulent turning brown with a scorched appearance:Succulents can suffer sunburn due to the contrast of moving from a shaded area to an area of full sun. Some succulents only require bright, indirect light rather than full sun.
Succulent losing leaves:Losing leaves is often a sign of stress due to overwatering or damp soils that retain too much moisture.
Succulent leaves shriveling or wrinkled with a drooping appearance:Not watering often enough, watering too lightly, or soil repelling water off the surface and down the side of the pot away from the roots causing drought stress.
Succulent leaves dying at the bottom:The lower leaves of succulents die back naturally. so that the succulent may be perfectly healthy.
Succulent growing tall and drooping, occasionally with lower leaves dying:Succulents grow tall and droopy if they are in too much shade. Succulents can redirect energy to younger leaves to look for more light, causing lower leaves to die back.
Succulents with black mushy leaves or stems:Black leaves can indicate root rot from over-watering or damage from cold or frost. Some succulents are particularly sensitive to cold temperatures of less than 50°F (10°C).

Essentially, what we have to remember is that succulent plants die back when they are living in conditions that are significantly contrary to the conditions of their natural environment.

To revive dying succulents, we need to recreate some of the conditions of low rainfall, full or partial sun, and gritty, well-draining soils to save the succulent.

Keep reading for how to save your dying succulent plant…

Why is My Succulent Turning Yellow, Brown or Black? (Overwatered)

  • Symptoms: Succulent leaves and stems turn yellow, brown, black, or even translucent with a soft, mushy texture and a drooping appearance.
  • Causes: Watering succulents too often, soils that drain too slowly or retain too much moisture, pots without drainage holes in the base, or saucers and trays underneath pots that prevent water from draining effectively can all result in root rot or stem rot. Sunburn can also cause succulents to turn brown.

Before we can revive our succulents, we need to know how they grow in the wild…

Succulents are drought-resistant plants that have specifically adapted to thriving in hot and dry, desert-like environments in well-draining soils with relatively infrequent rainfall.

To grow succulents successfully and avoid their leaves turning brown, black, or yellow, we must recreate some of the conditions of the succulent’s native environment by planting them in a gritty, well-draining potting soil and typically watering when the soil around the roots has dried out completely.

(Read my article on the best potting soil for succulent plants indoors).

I find that watering succulents too often or planting them in moisture-retentive potting soil is usually the culprit.

Too much moisture around the roots of your succulent from overwatering causes it to turn yellow, brown, black or translucent with soft, mushy leaves as a sign of water stress and can potentially indicate root rot.

Most of our houseplant succulents require the soil to dry out completely around their roots before watering again which replicates the typical watering cycle in their native environment with infrequent rainfall, followed by drought.

Another problem I see a lot is that the succulent is in a pot without drainage holes in the bottom.

We need to plant our succulents in pots with drainage holes in their bases, allowing excess water to escape so that the soil around the roots does not become saturated and cause root rot.

The really common problem is that saucers, trays, and decorative outer pots can also effectively prevent water from escaping, causing the soil at the bottom of the succulent pot to become boggy and the succulent leaves to turn yellow, brown or black and die back from root rot.

I see this one a lot as I have observed a trend for shops to sell tiny succulents in cute little pots, and whilst these pots look great they do not have proper drainage.

My Method For Reviving Dying Succulents Turning Yellow, Brown or Black

  • Scale back the watering. If you water your succulent more than once per week, the leaves will turn yellow, brown, or black, a sign of stress due to overwatering. Succulents should only be watered when the soil around their roots has dried out completely. For me, this typically takes around 14 days but can vary depending on the climate, the pot’s size, and the soil’s drainage.
  • Replace the potting soil. Even if you are doing the right thing by waiting for the succulent soil to dry out before watering again, your succulent can still turn yellow, brown, or black if the potting soil retains moisture for a long time like a sponge rather than draining quickly. If your succulent is planted in conventional potting soil, then empty the pot and replace it. I’ve experimented with a few types of potting mediums, and I’ve found that the best potting soil in my experience is specially formulated succulent and cacti soil (available from garden centers and on Amazon) which emulates the gritty, porous, well-draining soil characteristics of the succulent’s native environment and very significantly reduces the risk of root rot.
A gritty succulent and cacti soil mix is perfect for growing succulents.
A gritty succulent and cacti soil mix is perfect for growing succulents.
  • Always plant succulents in pots with drainage holes in the base. Succulents can be planted in a wide variety of pots as long as they have a hole in the base to allow excess water to escape and prevent watering from pooling around the roots causing root rot. I have personally experimented with every type of pot you can imagine for succulents, and my conclusion is that terracotta or clay pots are ideal as they have a more porous structure, which allows the potting soil to dry out, which suits the succulent’s preference for dryer soil conditions.
  • Plant succulents in pots that are proportionate to their size, as large pots have greater soil capacity and, therefore, a greater capacity for holding moisture, which slows the rate at which soil dries out and can increase the risk of the succulent turning yellow, brown, or black.

Pro tip: I have tried and tested every method of dertiming the best way to tell whether your succulent needs watering or not and the method that works best for is to is to feel the soil at the bottom of the pot through the drainage hole.

If the soil feels damp then I delay watering your succulent for a few days. If the soil feels dry, then this is the perfect time to water your succulent.

Watering your succulent when the soil has dried out effectively mimics the natural conditions of infrequent rainfall followed by drought, to which succulents are specially adapted. Some call this the ‘soak and dry’ method.

We must remember to ensure that there are no roots or compacted soil blocking the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot, and if you’re using saucers or trays underneath your pot then empty them regularly to allow water to escape freely so that the soil can dry out between bouts of watering.

Once you have addressed the causes of why your succulent is turning yellow or brown with a soft, mushy texture (adjusted how often you water and replaced the soil) and implemented the ideal watering practices, then I find the succulent can start to recover even if the leaves appear yellow or brown as long as you let the soil dry out.

How quickly your succulent revives depends on how long it has endured stress, but I find they show signs of reviving over the following weeks.

If the succulent appears to be recovering after the soil has dried with a reduction in yellow/brown coloring and a firmer texture to the leaves, then resume watering again after about three weeks or so to ensure that you do not go from one extreme of over watering to under watering your succulent which can cause the plant to wilt and die back.

Some of the more affected leaves of your succulent may turn limp and even drop off depending on the variety (this is common for jade succulents).

If there are significantly yellow or brown individual leaves, with the discoloration spreading, and that do not look as though they are recovering then I recommend cutting the individual discolored leaves back to the base of the succulent with a sterile pair of pruners to reduce the overall stress on the succulent, stop any rot spreading which helps to promote recovery.

Save Succulents with Severe Root Rot…

If the yellow, brown, or black discoloration of your succulent leaves or stems continues to progressively worsen despite watering the succulent correctly and replacing the soil with a well-draining, gritty potting mix, then root rot is the cause of your dying succulent.

If the succulent has root rot then it is difficult to save the entire plant, however, what I do is take cuttings from healthy tissue for propagation.

From experience, all succulent plants propagate easily from individual leaves or a healthy portion of stem as this is one of the methods of reproduction in the succulent’s native environment.

Watch this helpful YouTube video for how to easily propagate succulents from cuttings and leaves to produce lots of extra plants at no extra cost:

Succulents Turning Brown Due to Sun Burn

Whilst I find that over-watering is the most common cause of succulents turning brown, sunburn can also scorch the leaves a light brown or even yellowish color depending on the severity of the sunburn.

Different succulents have different requirements for light with some aloe succulents thriving in full sun whereas other succulents require bright indirect light and burn easily in the sun (such as snake plants).

Snake plants are succulents that prefer bright, indirect light rather the full sun.
Snake plants are succulents that prefer bright, indirect light rather than full sun.

My jade plants also prefer morning sun and tend to turn red (as a sign of stress) before turning brown if they are in full sun. We need to acknowledge our different succulents need differing amounts of sunlight.

I recommend that you google your specific variety of succulents to establish their solar preference, but you can always experiment as I did and start by placing your succulents in morning sun (followed by afternoon shade).

However, in my experience, all succulents can suffer sunburn if they are moved from a relatively shady location into an area of full sun, as it takes succulents time to adjust to different light intensities. I learned this the hard way!

Pro tip: If you do move the succulent to a sunnier area, what I have found that works is to do so gradually over 2 weeks and expose your succulent to more sun each day.

With gradual exposure to more sunlight, your succulent has time to properly acclimate to the area of higher light intensity without getting burnt.

The solution

If your succulent has been burnt in the sun and turned a scorched brown, then what I did was move mine to an area of bright indirect light for the time being.

I discovered that the severely sun burnt areas of my succulents unfortunately do not recover in appearance, however, this does not necessarily mean the succulent is dying as the plant is unlikely to worsen in condition as long as it has been moved out of the sun.

I have personally seen that succulents can live and grow with sun burnt leaves, but it is best practice to remove the affected leaves for aesthetic reasons.

What I did with my own sun burnt succulent was to cut back any burnt section of leaves with a sterile pair of pruners below the brown or yellowish areas, ideally cutting the leaf back to the base of the plant. My succulent looked a bit funny for a bit, but ultimately, new leaves grew, and it survived!

However if your succulent is severely sun burnt then I find the best way to revive it is to look for leaves and cuttings on the more shaded side of the plant to propagate and to grow more plants from propagation in more favorable levels light to meet that particular succulents sunlight requirements.

I did this with my jade plants as they had signficant sun burn. There were seveal leaves that propagated to new plants.

Why is My Succulent Losing its Leaves?

  • Symptoms. Succulents drop leaves, on their own or after slight bumps. Leaves can drop off despite appearing a healthy green color or the leaves may turn somewhat yellow, brown, or translucent.
  • Causes. Succulent leaves dropping is a symptom of overwatering, soils that retain too much moisture, or saucers and trays preventing water from escaping from the pot.

For some succulents, particularly those of the jade species such as (Crassula ovata), and Gollum Jade, losing leaves is an early indication that the plant is stressed because the soil around the roots is too damp.

Jade plant losing leaves due to overwatering
This is my jade plant that started to drop leaves due to overwatering.

Watering too frequently, moisture-retaining soils, and pots without good drainage can all cause a succulent to lose its leaves. In my case, as you can see in the photo, my hade plant was sold to me in a cute little ceramic pot, and it had been sitting like that for quite a while before the sale.

This meant the soil was too damp for it to tolerate and resulting in the leaves falling off.

As we discussed, succulents grow in gritty, well-draining soils that do not retain much moisture around the roots in their native environment and are adapted to survive drought.

Therefore, succulents do not tolerate damp conditions and are sensitive to overwatering.

A succulent that is losing leaves is letting you know you need to scale back how often your water is to prevent more serious problems such as root rot which is the most common cause of dying succulents.

I personally find that the succulent can be saved if you adjust their growing conditions to replicate the watering cycle in the native environment.

(Read my article on how often to water succulents for how to water succulents at different times of the year and in different conditions).

How I Revived My Succulent that was Losing Leaves

  • Scale back how often you water your succulent. We need to let the soil dry out! Always water succulents with a good soak and wait for the soil to dry out before watering again. Typically I water succulents every two weeks. Feel the soil at the bottom of the pot through the drainage hole in the base. If the soil feels moist then delay watering. When the soil has just turned dry, this is the perfect time to water.
  • Plant your succulent in well-draining, gritty soil. My jade plant was potted in ordinary potting soil when I bought it from the store, which retained too much moisture for the drought-resistant succulent to tolerate. So I replaced the soil with special succulent and cacti soil (available from garden centers and on Amazon) which is created to emulate the succulent’s preferred soil type with good drainage and a light aerated structure.
  • Empty saucers and trays regularly to ensure excess water can drain away from the succulent’s roots. Succulents cannot tolerate being in saturated soil as this promotes the conditions for root rot which causes succulents to drop their leaves (or the leaves turn yellow, brown, or black) and die back.

Once I have the soil a chance to dry out I repotted it into a clay pot which is porous and the jade plant recovered!

Give your succulent 2 weeks for the soil to dry out, and ensure that the potting soil is completely dry (by feeling the soil through the drainage hole in the base to check the soil is dry) before watering again.

I have even successfully propagated the fallen leaves of my jade plant to regrow another plant as insurance in case the main plant dies back.

I must warn that If the succulent has been sat in saturated soil for a long time then this increases the risk of root rot and the plant is likely to die back.

Why Are My Succulent Leaves Shriveling, Wilting, or Wrinkled?

  • Symptoms. Leaves appear wrinkled, shriveled, or perhaps thinner, often with a drooping appearance.
  • Causes. Drought stress is due to not watering the succulent often enough, watering the succulent too lightly, or soil that causes water to run off the surface rather than infiltrate and reach the roots, or high indoor temperatures due to artificial heat.

As we discussed, most of the time, the reason for a succulent dying is due to overwatering because succulents are sensitive to too much moisture around the roots and are better adapted to tolerate drought.

However succulents can still suffer drought stress if they are not watered often enough, watered too lightly or they are in a hot environment (whether indoor or outdoor) which increases water loss from the leaves and evaporation from the soil.

Another potential cause of succulents suffering drought stress is because the potting soil has baked hard and causes water to run off the surface of the soil without infiltrating properly and reaching the roots which causes the leaves to shrivel, look thinner, or droop depending on the succulent type.

This happened to me once when my succulent was on a window sill right above a radiator. The radiator had dried out the soil so much that the surface was so hard that it deflected water off the surface and didn’t absorb properly.

Drought stress causes succulent leaves to shrivel, wrinkle, wilt, and droop (depending on the succulent species) but the leaves can also become noticeably thinner or even curl inwards which is common in aloe plants.

This is because succulents draw up water from the soil and then store moisture in their thick fleshy leaves, roots, and tubers.

When optimally hydrated, your succulent leaves feel firm and plump.

Remember how we talked about succulents growing in the wild?

In times of drought, the succulent then utilizes the moisture that is stored in its leaves as a strategy to survive drought in climates with infrequent rainfall.

When the succulent draws upon the moisture reserves in the leaves they inevitably become thinner and the surface can wrinkle, the leaves can also droop as the conserved moisture also serves a structural support to the succulent.

Whilst succulents do not need to be watered as often as most plants, they do require a generous soak each time you water.

If you water the succulent too lightly, then only the top inch of the soil becomes moist and the water does not reach the roots where it is required which can be the cause of drought stress, resulting in a shriveled succulent.

Succulents should be watered around every 2 weeks when their potting soil has dried out around the roots to avoid root rot, yet also to ensure the succulent has enough water for the leaves to remain plump and firm rather than shriveled.

(Read my articles on watering aloe vera, jade plants, and snake plants for all the best practices of watering succulents).

Fortunately, from my experience, it is often easy to revive dying succulents with wrinkled leaves due to underwatering, as they can cope with drought stress better than overwatering…

My Tips for Reviving Succulents with Wrinkled, Shriveling Leaves

  • Place the succulent in a basin of water for 10 minutes or so. This is what I was advised to do when this happened to me. The good soak in the basin allowed the hard soil to soften, and the soil was properly hydrated. I took the succulent out of the water after 10 minutes and allowed the water to drain from the drainage holes. My succulent began to bounce back after 24 hours. It really was incredible to see its resilience! This is why they are so successful in their natural habitat.
  • Always give your soil a generous soak. Succulents should be watered with a generous soak so that excess water trickles from the base of the pot. This ensures that the soil is evenly moist so that the succulent roots can uptake the moisture they require to replenish the moisture reserves in the leaves to recover from their shriveled appearance.
  • Increase how often you water succulents (if necessary). Whilst succulents are adapted to drought, they do require consistent watering to prevent the leaves appearing wrinkled or drooping. Typically, you should water succulents once every 2 weeks with a good soak so that the leaves maintain their healthy, plump appearance. I had to water succulents more often when I lived in Southern California (every few days in a heat wave), but you should always wait for the soil to dry out before watering again to avoid root rot.
  • Replace the potting soil if watering is running off the surface. My problem was that my succulent’s potting soil, which contains peat, tended to bake hard when it dried out, which caused water to run off the surface. As we know, succulents need an open, porous soil structure that allows water to infiltrate even when it’s dried out and promotes good drainage to prevent root rot. So I did my research, and what I did was replace my potting soil with specially formulated succulent and cacti soil (available from garden centers or on Amazon) which is created to emulate the well-draining soil characteristics of the succulent’s native environment. This allowed the water to infiltrate the soil after watering to keep my succulent hydrated.
  • Ensure your succulent is not near any sources of indoor heat. Too much heat in the evenings from fires, radiators, or forced air can dry out the succulent too quickly and cause the leaves to become shriveled. Succulents grow very well at room temperature 55°F-80°F (13°C-27°C) as long as they are not in the direct path of a source of heat. I moved my succulent (that was above a radiator to a cooler spot initially, but to be honest, I moved it back, and it thrived regardless of the heat from the radiator, which indicated to me that the more significant problem was the peat-based potting soil.

Usually, with 2 or 3 watering cycles (allowing the soil to dry out before watering again), the succulent should show signs of recovery with fuller leaves, reduced drooping, and less of a shriveled appearance.

Mine started to thrive soon after I soaked the root ball in a water basin, so I thoroughly recommend this method!

Why is My Succulent Growing Tall with Leaves Dying at the Bottom?

  • Symptoms. Succulent leaves at the bottom of the plant turn brown and crispy with a dying appearance. The succulent may also grow tall and appear leggy with drooping leaves.
  • Causes. Lack of sunlight causes succulents to grow leggy and lose lower leaves. Succulents’ lower leaves also die back as new leaves grow.

If just some of your succulent leaves are dying at the base, like in the photo below, then I can assure you that you have nothing to worry about. What is happening here is that my succulent has grown large and ambitious! As you can see, there are a lot of offsets growing out of it (which I later propagated).

I consulted with some experts about this and they told me that the succulent is redircteing its energy and resources from the leaves at the base (hence why they are turning brown) and putting that energy into rowing its new off setts and larger leaves that rescive more light. I was assured this is a natural process and there is nothing wrong with muysucculent.

Why is my succulent turning yellow
These leaves are turning brown and dying at the base, but the succulent is healthy. Energy from the lower leaves is redirected to growing off setts.

However sometimes succulent leaves die back at the bottom because they are not receiving enough sunlight.

If the succulent is in too much shade, it redirects energy to younger leaves, which grow tall and leggy to look for more light, and the leaves at the bottom turn dry and crispy with a dying appearance.

Sometimes individual leaves can grow tall and weak as grow towards the direction of the strongest sunlight which can cause them to droop under their own weight (this is common with aloe vera plants in too much shade).

Different succulent types have different sun requirements, with aloe plants requiring more light as they are adapted to full sun, but succulents such as the string of pearls require bright indirect light, or it tends to burn, so it is important to understand how much light your specific succulent needs.

String of pearls plant
I move my string of pearls out of the midday sun in the Summer to prevent it from burning.

When our succulents are growing in their optimal light conditions, they stay compact and retain a better shape as they do not need to grow tall and look for more light.

Aloe vera leaves dying at the bottom
Brown, dry, crispy, dying leaves at the bottom of a succulent are normal as the plant grows.

How I Revive Succulents with Leaves Dying at the Bottom

  • To revive tall succulents with lower leaves dying, ensure that the succulent is in a location with enough light. Succulents either require bright indirect light (such as string or pearls or snake plants) or 4-6 hours of sun (such as aloe and jade plants) to remain compact and prevent leggy growth.
  • I must emphasize this step is crucial. Gradually expose your succulent to more light as a sudden contrast from shade to full sun can cause succulents to burn. What I’ve found that works through some trial and error is to move my succulents to a sunnier or brighter location for half an hour or so more every other day throughout a couple of weeks so that the succulent can acclimate to the brighter levels of light.
  • If the growth of the succulent has drooped over, it isn’t easy to recover the succulent to its original shape and form. In this case, what I do is take cuttings from leaves or stems for propagation or separate any offshoots for new plants, as this is usually the only way to save the succulent’s appearance (all succulents propagate readily).
  • The dry or dying leaves at the base of the succulent do not harm the plant but should be removed to keep the succulent looking healthy. I gently twist off brown, dead leaves with your hands or a pair of tweezers. If the leaves are not easy to remove, I advise leaving them in place for a month or so and try again rather than trying to force them off.

Succulent Dying from Cold

  • Symptoms. Succulents can turn brown or black with a soft, mushy texture to the leaves, but symptoms can vary depending on the severity of the cold damage.
  • Causes. Most succulents are native to hot climates and typically suffer in temperatures lower than 50°F (10°C) and can die in frost; although some succulent plants can tolerate a light frost, this is rare.

We must keep in mind that most succulent varieties are not cold hardy and die if they are exposed to temperatures lower than 50°F (10°C) for long periods of time.

Most succulent varieties grow very well at typically room temperature, with a range of 55°F-80°F (13°C-27°C) being considered optimal for aloe vera, which is why they make such great houseplants.

If our succulents are exposed to cold temperatures or even frost, the leaves and stems can turn mushy in texture and have a brown or black appearance.

I have observed that the damage is often more prevalent on the succulent’s younger leaves.

How to Revive Cold-Damaged Succulents

What we need to do is relocate our succulents to an area of your home or garden that is consistently between 55°F-80°F (13°C-27°C) and ensure that none of the leaves are in direct contact with windows as they can be considerably colder than the rest of the house and scale back any watering for the time being.

This once happened to my jade plant. Some of the leaves were in contact with a cold window pane, which caused the leaves to turn black and fall off.

I had to deal with my friends aloe plant that had been left outside and turned black. Once I moved the succulent is in a more stable environment the cold damage did not necessarily get any worse.

If the leaves of the succulent feel mushy then wait for several days, if not weeks and the mushy, cold damaged part of the succulent should dry out and callus over.

Once the mushy part of the leaf has dried up, what I did was cut the leaf back to below the damaged part as the cold damaged areas of the succulent typically do not recover, but the succulent plant as a whole can revive.

Only resume watering the succulent when the callus of the leaf cut has healed over to prevent other potential problems as cold damage can increase the risk of root rot.

It requires some considerable patience but the from experience, the aloe vera i was rehabilitating eventually grew new leaves and started to recover a normal appearance after cold damage in the Spring.

Key Takeaways:

  • The reason for a succulent dying is most often root rot due to overwatering and slow-draining soils. Succulents are drought-resistant plants that require the soil to dry out between watering. Brown, yellow, or black mushy leaves indicate the succulent is dying because the soil is too damp.
  • Succulents turn brown because of overwatering or sunburn. Succulents with brown mushy leaves indicate there is too much moisture around the roots. Brown succulent leaves with a scorched appearance can be caused by sunburn due to a sudden increase in the intensity of sunlight.
  • Succulent leaves turn yellow because of excess moisture around the roots caused by watering too often, damp soils, or pots without drainage holes in the base. Succulents require the soil to dry between watering. Succulent leaves that are yellow and mushy can indicate root rot from overwatering.
  • Succulents grow tall and leggy if they are in too much shade. Most succulents require bright, indirect light or full sun, so succulent leaves grow tall in the direction of the strongest light. Tall succulent leaves are often weaker and can droop under their own weight with dying leaves at the base.
  • Succulent leaves shrivele due to drought stress caused by underwatering or watering too lightly. Succulents store moisture in their leaves as a survival strategy. If your succulent is underwatered, it draws on the moisture reserves in the leaves, which causes a shriveling appearance.
  • To revive dying succulents, recreate the conditions of their native environment with well-draining, gritty soils, with the right level of light for your succulent and water when the soil dries out. Take cuttings from healthy parts of the succulent for propagation to save the succulent.

One thought on “How to Revive a Dying Succulent Plant

  1. The reason succulents turn black is because of root rot. Succulents require the soil to dry out between each watering. If the soil is consistently damp then succulents develop root rot which turns the leaves and stems black and mushy or black spots appear on the leaves.

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