How to Save a Succulent That is Turning Yellow

Why is my succulent turning yellow

Are your succulents turning yellow, and you are not sure why?

If the leaves of the succulent turn yellow with a mushy texture and start dropping off, your succulent is suffering from root rot or stem rot due to overwatering and poor drainage. Succulents are drought-resistant plants that need the soil to dry out between each bout of watering to avoid their leaves turning yellow, brown, or black.

However, I have seen succulents can also turn yellow due to too much sunlight and cold temperatures.

If the succulent’s leaves are turning yellow, dry, and crispy (and then brown), similar to the succulent in my photo above, then this is a normal part of the succulent’s life cycle, and you can just prune the dying leaves back.

In this post, I go through the reasons why succulents turn yellow and how to implement the solutions so that you can save your yellowing succulent…

Succulent Leaves and Stems Turning Yellow and Mushy

  • Symptoms. Yellow, soft parts of the succulent may also turn brown, have a mushy texture, and fall off easily. Succulent can also turn yellow at the base.
  • Causes. Root rot, stem rot, or basal stem rot which are all due to overwatering or soil that retains moisture too long for the succulent’s roots. Planting succulents in pots with drainage holes in the base.

If the succulent turns yellow and has a soft, mushy texture, it indicates that your succulent is suffering because there is too much moisture around its roots for this drought-resistant plant to tolerate.

To save your plant, we must know how our succulents grow in the wild…

Succulents are adapted to living in hot and dry climates with infrequent rainfall and well-draining, porous, gritty soil that does not retain much moisture.

Due to their extensive adaptations to survive in arid climates, succulents often develop root or stem rot and show signs of stress, such as yellowing mushy leaves from:

  • Overwatering.
  • Using potting soil that retains too much moisture.
  • Pots without drainage holes in the base.
  • The use of saucers, trays, and decorative outer pots causes excess water to pool around the base of the pot.
A mini succulent that came in a decorative outer pot. Empty the outer pot regularly to prevent water pooling around the roots and causing root rot.
A mini succulent that I have that came in a decorative outer pot. I urge you to empty the outer pot regularly to prevent water from pooling around the roots and causing root rot.

Whilst overwatering (specifically watering too often) is the most common cause of succulents turning yellow and mushy that I come across, even if you follow conventional advice about how often to water your succulent, the leaves and root can still turn yellow and soft (due to rot) if the soil remains damp for too long after watering.

Succulents require specialized soil replicating the well-draining, porous conditions of their natural habitat, rather than standard potting soil.

It is also important to emulate the watering conditions of its natural range by allowing the soil to completely dry between each bout of watering, as this replicates the -deluge of rain, followed by a period of drought- a cycle that succulents need.

How to Save it…

  • Reduce how often you water your succulents so that the soil can dry out before you water again. Succulents can tolerate underwatering far better than overwatering and should only be watered when the soil around the roots is completely dry. From experience, typically, this means watering around every 2 weeks during active growth in the Spring and Summer and every 3/4 weeks in Winter, but this can vary depending on the maturity of the succulent, the size of the pot, and the environmental conditions in your house.

Knowing when to water succulents can be tricky. I moved from Southern California to New York and I can tell you the exact same succulents taht I brought with me required watering much less often in New York compared to my home in Southern California.

Fortunately I was able to follow the advice of commerical succulent growers that I have spoken to which gave me this really great tip:

Top tip: To establish the optimal watering frequency for your succulent according to your conditions, feel the potting soil at the bottom of the pot through the drainage hole in the base. If the soil feels damp then delay watering until it feels completely dry and then give the soil a good soak.

(To learn more about how to water at different times of year and according to different conditions, read my article, how often to water succulents.)

You can also use a wooden stick to push through the soil to see if the soil is still moist or dry.

Succulent root rot.
A wooden skewer can be an effective way to assess the soil’s moisture. If the skewer is still damp, then delay watering for a few days and wait until it feels dry.
A gritty succulent and cacti potting mix that allows for good drainage and prevents root rot.
A gritty succulent and cacti potting mix that allows for good drainage and prevents root rot.
  • Always plant your succulents in pots with drainage holes in the base and empty any saucers, trays, and decorative outer pots of excess water, regularly to ensure the succulent’s roots are not sat in water.
  • Ideally, repot the succulent in a terracotta or unglazed clay pot as these materials are porous, which allows the potting soil to dry more evenly and mitigates the risk of root rot. In contrast, plastic and ceramic are impermeable, which can trap moisture around the roots of the succulent. Terracotta is my favorite pot for growing succulents.
  • Cut off any part of the succulent that is yellow and mushy, as this rot can spread. This may mean cutting individual leaves back to the base of the plant. Use a sterilized pruning tool and wipe the blade with a cloth soaked in disinfectant between each cut to prevent the spread of fungal pathogens to open wounds.

Once you cut back any rotting tissue, the wound callouses over in a few days, and I usually find the succulent survives if the damage is not too extensive (as long as you have adjusted the watering and changed the soil).

If the succulent has been in damp soil for too long and significant parts of the plant are turning yellow, brown, or black with a soft texture (or if the plant is turning yellow at the base), then I’m afraid the only way to save it is to propagate the succulent using cuttings or offsets from any remaining growth.

You will be surprised how easily succulents propagate, and they can be propagated from any remaining parts of your succulent that look, comparitively healthy and free of yellow rot.

Watch this YouTube video for how to propagate succulents from cuttings:

Succulent Turning Yellow at The Bottom? (Cold Temperatures and a Lack of Light)

Succulents turn yellow at the bottom often because of a combination of overwatering, poor drainage, a lack of sunlight and cold temperatures. However, it is important to note that your succulent may be turning yellow and then brown as part of the succulent life cycle.

If the leaf turns yellow, thin, and then dries out, then do not worry, as I can assure you that there is nothing wrong with your succulent. Simply wait for your leaf to turn brown and dry out. I would caution against pulling the leaf off if it is resisting, but wait until the leaf can be easily removed, or you can cut it off with a pair of pruners.

Another common reason I see yellowing leaves at the bottom of a succulent is because it does not have enough direct light. Most succulents need about 4 hours or more of direct sunlight (although this can vary with string of pearls plants preferring indirect light, whereas aloe plants prefer full sun; check your succulent species, and I would google its sun requirements).

Without enough light succulents can grow leggy, droop and the bottom leaves turn yellow as there is not enough energy to support their growth.

Most succulents are also dormant in Winter, which reduces their demand for water and reduces the rate at which the soil dries.

This can promote the conditions for root rot and basal stem rot, which results in the lower leaves or lower part of the succulent stem turning yellow and mushy.

Cold temperatures are also contrary to their natural growing conditions and can contribute to the stress that turns the base of the succulent yellow.

However, if the leaves are yellow but not mushy, I must emphasize that this is typically a natural process as the succulent matures and does not necessarily indicate anything is amiss with the plant.

How to Save it…

To save it, follow instructions pertaining to overwatering, by only watering when the soil is dry and re-pot the succulent in well-draining ‘succulent and cacti soil’.

Reduce how often you water the succulent in Winter, as it requires much less water whilst it is dormant. Typically I water my succulents every 4 weeks in Winter, however, this can vary if, for example, the pot is near to a source of indoor heating which can cause the soil to dry out quickly.

I always test the soil to see if it is dry before watering and periodically lift my succulent in its pot to assess its weight, as it should feel much lighter when the soil has dried out.

Keep your succulent in a room that is above 50°F (10°C) to prevent cold stress exacerbating this risk of root rot.

If the rot starts spreading upwards, then I recommend propagating the succulent from cuttings, as this can be the only way to save the plant.

Succulent Scorched Yellow by Too Much Direct Sunlight

Most succulents can tolerate several hours of direct sunlight as they are adapted to growing in open areas. However, there are some species of succulent (such as the snake plant) that are adapted to growing in bright indirect light, shaded from direct sunlight by an overhead canopy.

When snake plants are grown in full sun, they can scorch yellow or brown (depending on the intensity of the sun).

Some succulents, such as jade plants, can turn yellow and pink or red in reaction to too much sunlight.

Therefore, as I previously stated, it is important to check the species of your succulent to see its preference for light and make any adjustments as necessary.

However I must highlight that whilst some succulents (such as aloe vera) are capable of growing in direct sunlight, they can scorch yellow if they are moved from a more shaded area to an area of strong sun, suddenly.

Succulents are very adaptive to their environment, and if they have been in lower levels of light, they need time to acclimatize to higher intensities of light as the succulent creates its own form of protection from the sun, which takes time.

I spoke to some specialist succulent growers who told me it is always best practice to move the succulent into more light gradually by locating it in the sun for around 20 minutes longer each day over the course of 2 weeks, which gives the succulent enough time to acclimate to higher levels of light.

If your succulent leaves have been scorched yellow, and you have corrected the conditions then I would leave it to grow for the time being.

Any badly scorched areas cannot photosynthesize (however, they do not necessarily pose a threat to the health of the succulent, so you can leave them), and you can cut any leaves or parts back in the Spring (as this is when the succulent is most resilient to the stress of pruning).

(To learn more, read my article, how to revive a dying succulent).

Key Takeaways:

  • Succulents turn yellow and mushy as a result of overwatering. Succulents are drought-resistant plants that need the soil to dry out between each bout of watering. If the soil is consistently moist, the roots start to rot, which can turn the succulent leaves yellow, brown, or black with a soft texture.
  • If the leaves at the bottom turn yellow and drop off, this is usually a result of overwatering, poor drainage, and cold temperatures. In Winter, the succulent is dormant and has a much lower demand for moisture, which can increase the risk of yellow rotting leaves due to root rot.
  • Some species of succulents can be sensitive to too much direct sunlight, which can scorch them yellow initially and then brown if they have been severely burnt. It is important to gradually expose succulents to high light intensity when coming from relative shade rather than move one into direct sunlight suddenly, as this causes sunburn.
  • To save a succulent with yellow leaves, improve the drainage by repotting the succulent in gritty, well-draining soil, and always wait until the soil is dry before watering again. Cut away any yellow mushy areas with pruners, back to healthy growth.

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