Why are My Succulent Leaves Shriveling?


Why are my succulent leaves shriveling

Like many succulent enthusiasts, I have grappled with this problem. My aloe vera had somewhat shriveled leaves, so my solution? Water more often! In this case, it actually made the problem worse, as overwatering was the culprit.

However, one of my favorite succulents has shriveling leaves. I assumed my jade plant was shriveling due to overwatering, but upon further investigation, I was able to diagnose the problem as being due to underwatering!

I think these two personal experiences of mine highlight the complexity of the problem and the potential difficulty in diagnosing the cause!

In this article, I’ll share with you all my firsthand expertise, tips, and tricks to help you diagnose the problem and how to save your shriveling succulent…

In a hurry? Here is my 3 sentence explanation…

Succulent leaves shrivel because they are either overwatered or underwatered. Succulents need the soil to dry out between bouts of watering. If the soil is damp, the stress causes the leaves to shrivel and turn yellow and mushy. Underwatering causes succulents to shrivel and turn brown.

How to Differentiate Succulents that Shrivel due to Underwatering or Overwatering

From my research, the primary difference between succulents shriving due to too much or too little water is that overwatered succulent leaves also turn yellow, black, or translucent and have a mushy texture, whereas underwatered leaves shrivel and eventually turn brown.

Sting of pearls shrivelling
Here is my String of pearls, which was shriveling due to a combination of underwatering and excessive heat.

But how do we tell? Another clue as to whether your succulent is suffering from overwatering is to test the soil for moisture. What I do is use my finger to feel the soil at the bottom of the pot through the drainage hole to see if I can detect any moisture.

If the soil is damp, then overwatering is your cause for shriveled leaves, or if it is dry, then it is underwatered.

I also like to test the weight of the pot! If it feels lighter than expected, it is often because the soil is dry, or if it is on the heavy side, this is because the soil is retaining too much moisture.

Keep reading about how to revive shriveled succulent leaves due to either underwatering or too much moisture around the roots…

Don’t Panic! How to Revive Underwatered, Shrivelled Succulents

So, for us to revive our succulents, let’s think about how they grow in the wild…Succulents are native to deserts, and they are adapted to drought conditions, but they can still suffer from under watering if they are neglected.

If it has been more then two weeks since watering and your succulent leaves are shriveling up then under watering is the most likely cause.

Succulents store moisture in their fleshy, thick leaves as an adaptation to growing in desert conditions across the world, so the leaves shriveling is usually the first indication of your succulent being underwater.

From my research, when faced with drought our clever succulents use their moisture reserves stored in the leaves. When these reserves are depleted, we see that wrinkled appearance.

The good news is that if your leaves appear to be only somewhat shriveled, the succulent can likely recover with a more appropriate watering frequency. I can tell you from experience it is far easier to revive a succulent suffering from underwatering than overwatering!

How often you should water succulents can depend on many factors, so I am always reluctant to give generalized advice about watering but, typically watering your succulents once every two weeks is appropriate in most circumstances but this can vary significantly.

Just make sure the soil feels dry between each bout of watering.

Generally speaking, your succulent should return to its full and plump appearance after two watering cycles if you are watering with a good soak.

However, we need to consider factors that exacerbate drying or increase moisture for the succulent that can cause leaves to shrivel, for example:

  • Sources of heat and air currents. Succulents are accustomed to growing at room temperature, but if they are placed next to a source of heat, then this increases the rate of evaporation from the soil and can cause your succulent to shrivel. This happened to my string of pearls plant. It was on a window sill, which was above the radiator, hence why it shriveled and dried out! Air conditioning currents can lower the humidity around your succulent, which can be advantageous for preventing shriveling due to too much moisture in humid climates.
  • Temperature and humidity of the climate. The hotter and dryer your climate is, it can increase demand for water, so look for early signs of leaves shriveling as a cue to watering your succulent. Succulents are adapted to low humidity and thrive in such conditions. High humidity can cause problems with overwatering as it decreases the rate of water loss from the leaves.
  • Sun exposure and intensity of sunlight. Our succulents differ in their requirements for sunlight, with some preferring bright indirect light and others preferring partial or full sun. If your succulent requires sunlight, then the morning sun is less intense, and the temperatures are usually cooler, whereas the afternoon sun has a higher intensity and higher temperatures, both of which can dry out your succulent quicker and cause it to shrivel.

An element of experimentation is required to find the perfect water frequency for your succulent variety in your personal conditions.

Remember, it is easier to revive an underwatered succulent than an overwatered succulent so keeping your succulent on the dry side is better. My method is to feel the soil at the base of the pot through the drainage hole with my finger. If the soil is still damp, I wait until the soil feels dry then gve it a really good soak!

However, if your leaves are shriveling and it is been a while since your last bout of watering, give your succulent a generous soak and it should show signs of recovery in the following week.

When my aloe vera and string of pearls were shrivelling the leaves looked noticeably more plump after a week and they looked fully recovered after 3 watering cycles.

Pro Tip: I find recording when you last watered your succulent on your phone or with a pen and paper is often helpful, if you have a lot of succulent like me!

(Read my article, how often to water succulents to learn how to water succulent plants at different times of year and in different conditions).

Watering too Lightly Causes Shriveled leaves

So I find that sometimes, people misinterpret the advice that ‘succulents do not need much water’ and water the plant too lightly.

If you water too lightly, the top inch or so of your soil can be moist, but the water does not infiltrate down to the succulent roots, where it is required. This is a classic mistake I see people make.

The moisture then evaporates from the soil, and the roots of your succulent do not have the opportunity to uptake any moisture, which causes a deficit. The first sign of stress is usually shriveled leaves, and the color of the leaves can start to look somewhat brown after an extended period of drought.

Waht we need to know is that whilst succulents should not be watered too frequently, succulents actually require a really good soak so that water trickles out the base of the pot to ensure that the water reaches the roots.

As we discussed earlier, the soil should then be left to dry for about 14 days (this can depend on your climate) before watering again.

Remember how we talked about how succulents grow in the wild? This watering regime mimics the moisture cycle in the succulent’s native desert environment, where they receive an occasional downpour of rain followed by drought-like conditions.

The solution

I always water your succulents so that water visibly trickles out the base of the pot (which should have drainage holes) to ensure that you have watered your succulent with the right quantity of water to prevent it from shriveling due to dehydration.

What I like to do to ensure the soil is absorbing the moisture properly is to pick up my pot after watering as it should feel significantly heavier, so that I know the water has infilrtated the soil and reached the roots.

Shriveling is usually the first sign of stress caused by watering too lightly, but I always find that my succulents recover well with proper watering.

Hydrophobic Soil Repels Water Away from the Succulent’s Roots

Some people diligently follow the advice of watering their succulents with a good soak and with the correct watering frequency, yet their succulents still shrivel as if they are too dry. Why is this?

This happened to me when I bought a Jade plant straight from the store the leaves began to shrivel and drop off. I was watering with the same frequency as all my other succulents, which were thriving. What gives?

Then, I noticed that the water was trickling out of the drainage almost immediately. When I picked up the pot after watering, it was surprisingly light, which indicated to me that the moisture was not being absorbed by the soil properly.

Jade plant
My jade plant dropping its leaves.

I discovered that this is most often due to succulents being in a potting mix that contains peat, which can become hydrophobic (repel water) when they dry out.

When soil dries out (as it should between watering your succulents), some potting mixes can bake to a hard texture, which prevents water from infiltrating and reaching the roots of your succulent.

Instead, the water is repelled and runs off the surface of the soil, down the side of your pot, and sub-sequentially out the base of the pot, which is exactly what happened with my succulent!

This can give the impression that the succulent is well watered, whereas in reality the soil underneath the surface and around the roots remains dry after watering.

What I’ve found also contributes to this effect is if you have your succulent to near a radiator or perhaps in the sun.

This effect then causes an extended period of drought that dries out your succulent leaves so that they shrivel.

The solution.

So the solution is really simple: we need to re-pot the succulent and fill the pot with a more appropriate potting soil.

Succulents grow in very gritty soil in their native habitat that drains very quickly and does not hold water around the roots.

What I did was re-pot my succulent with a special succulents and cacti potting mix (available from garden centers and on Amazon) that recreates the drainage characteristics of the soil in which succulents live in their native habitat.

A gritty succulent soil mix is perfect for growing succulents and avoiding root rot.
A gritty succulent and cacti soil mix is perfect for growing succulents and avoiding root rot.

From my research, I discovered that a specifically formulated succulent potting soil retains a porous, aerated structure even when it is bone dry.

This prevents the soil from becoming hydrophobic and allows water to infiltrate the soil freely to reach the roots without it running off the surface, which causes drought.

Succulent soils contain more inorganic material (such as sand and grit at the right particle size), which drains at the optimal rate and emulates the nutrient profile of the soil in which succulents thrive in the wild.

When I water my succulents now, the water does drain efficiently as it should, but it feels reassuringly heavy after watering!

With the right soil mix your succulent roots can uptake the moisture they require, whilst also draining effectively so that the roots do not succumb to root rot.

Overwatering Warning! Signs Your Succulents is Shrivelling due to Overwatering

Whilst shriveling is more typically associated with an underwatered succulent, it can also be a symptom of the soil being too damp around the roots for a long time. Growing succulents is a confusing business!

Typically, overwatered succulent leaves can turn yellow or translucent color, with a mushy texture and droop, which is a definitive sign of overwatering. Although I’d like to highlight that jade leaves can wrinkle, they also often drop their leaves as a response to overwatering.

So they’re are loads of factors that can cause too much moisture around the roots rather than just overwatering, that we need to consider:

  • Watering the succulent too frequently. If you are watering succulents more frequently than once per week, you are likely overwatering your succulent, which can cause it to shrivel and change color.
  • Potting soil holds too much moisture and stays damp for a long time. As we talked about, succulents require the soil to dry out between bouts of watering. If the potting soil retains water, it can cause succulents to shrivel and potentially rot.
  • Pots without drainage holes in the base. Succulents should be planted in pots with drainage holes in the base to allow excess water to escape.
  • Trays and saucers. Sometimes, like myself, people use trays and saucers underneath pots to prevent water from spilling. If these are not emptied regularly, then water can pool around the bottom of the pot, causing the soil to be damp, which causes water stress and can result in the leaves shriveling.
  • Humid climates or conditions. High humidity can reduce the rate at which the succulent loses water through its leaves (transpiration). Water loss through the leaves is one of the key ways succulents regulate the balance of moisture, so high humidity can contribute to succulents shriveling due to water stress. Higher levels of humidity can also be caused by steam from bathrooms and kitchens.
  • Succulents require the soil to dry out between bouts of watering as this replicates the balance of moisture in the succulent’s desert habitat.

So, what we need to remember is that it is important to water the succulent correctly and account for any other sources of excess moisture around the roots that can cause stress.

Rescue Mission: How to Recover Your Overwatered Succulent with Shriveled Leaves

So, I’ve had a lot of experience saving succulents from overwatering, as it is so common. In fact, I think it is the mistake I see most often. If your succulent leaves are shriveling and changing color to brown or even a translucent appearance, then follow these steps…

  • Scale back the watering. My best tip is to reduce the frequency of watering to allow the soil to dry out. Try to judge when your succulent soil dries out. To do this, see if you can feel the soil through the drainage hole to detect any moisture. If the soil is still somewhat moist, wait a few days till it is dry before watering. This can help you establish a reliable watering schedule to avoid overwatering.
  • Replace the soil. Ordinary potting soil doesn’t cut it, I’m afraid. If the soil is slow-draining, replace it with a special succulent and cactus soil that allows water to drain away from the roots more effectively to avoid overwatering and shriveled leaves.
  • Re-pot the succulent so that it has drainage holes in the base to allow for proper drainage. Some succulents come in decorative pots that do not have drainage holes, which stops water from escaping and causes excess moisture around the roots. I often see succulents sold in ceramic pots without drainage holes in the supermarket, so this might be your problem!
  • Move your succulent to a less humid room if possible. I’ve had succulents suffer from water stress when it was located in my bathroom. The humidity was too much compared to their natural desert environment. Try to locate your succulent in a room that does not get artificially humid. A breeze from an open window can help.

By following each of these points, the succulent can enjoy a watering cycle that suits their requirements, and the leaves can restore from their shriveled appearance to a green, firm appearance.

However, if your succulent leaves do not look any better after 2 weeks and start changing color then to save the succulent you should cut away any parts that are turning black and try to propagate the succulent from cuttings and leave any healthy remaining parts of the plant.

I have had to do this personally, as succulents are particularly susceptible to root rot.

Propagation of succulents is very easy as they naturally reproduce vegetatively, using their leaves to develop roots. Propagation from cuttings also has a very high success rate. Watch this YouTube video for how to easily save your succulents:

Do you have any more questions or insights for shrivelling succulents? If so, please leave a comment below as I’d love to hear from you! It’s always interesting hearing other peoples perspectives!

Key Takeaways:

  • Succulent leaves shrivel because they are not receiving enough water or there is too much moisture around the roots. Shriveling leaves are the first sign of an underwatered succulent. Overwatered succulent leaves shrivel and turn yellow with a mushy texture.
  • Succulents should be watered once every 1 or 2 weeks with a good soak to avoid shriveled leaves caused by underwatering. Plant succulents in well-draining soil.
  • Allow succulents to dry out between bouts of watering, plant in well-draining soil mix, in a pot with drainage holes in the base to avoid succulents shriveling due to overwatering.
  • Under watered, shriveled succulents can be revived easily by increasing the frequency of watering, watering more generously, and changing the potting soil. Overwatered succulents should be allowed to dry out before watering again.

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