The reason succulent leaves shrivel is because they are either over watered or under watered. Succulents need the soil to dry out between bouts of watering. If the soil is damp the stress causes the leaves to shrivel turn yellow and mushy. Under watering causes succulents to shrivel and turn brown.
How to Differentiate Succulents that Shrivel due to Under Watering or Over Watering
The primary difference between succulents shriving due too much or too little water is that over watered succulent leaves also turn yellow, black or translucent and have a mushy texture whereas under watered leaves shrivel and eventually turn brown.
Another clue as to whether the succulent is suffering from over watering is to test the soil for moisture. Use your finger to feel the soil at the bottom of the pot through the drainage hole to see if you can detect any moisture.
If the soil is damp then over watering is your course for shriveled leaves or if its dry then it is under watered.
You can also tell from the weight of the pot. If it feels lighter then expected it is often because the soil is dry or if its on the heavy side this is because the soil is retaining too much moisture.
Keep reading for how to revive shriveled succulent leaves due to either under watering or because of too much moisture around the roots…
How to Revive Succulents with Shriveled Leaves due to Under Watering
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 under watered.
The good news is that if you leaves appear to be only somewhat shriveled then it is highly likely that the succulent can recover with a more appropriate watering frequency.
How often you should water succulents can depend on many factors so it is difficult 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.
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 do 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 increase the rate of evaporation from the soil and can cause your succulent to shrivel. 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 dyer your climate is, 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 over watering as it decreases the rate of water loss from the leaves.
- Sun exposure and intensity of the sunlight. Succulents differ in their requirements for sun with some preferring bright indirect light and other partial or full sun. If your succulent requires sunlight then morning sun is less intense and the temperatures are usually cooler whereas afternoon sun has a higher intensity, with 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 you succulent variety in your personal conditions and remember it is easier to revive a underwatered succulent then an over watered succulent so keeping your succulent on the dry side is better.
However if your leaves are shriveling and its been a while since your last bout of watering, give the succulent a generous soak and it should show signs of recover in the following week.
Recording when you last watered your succulent on your phone or with a pen a paper is often helpful.
(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
Sometimes people misinterpret the advice that ‘succulents do not need much water’ and water the plant too lightly.
If you water too lightly then the top inch or so of your soil can be moist but the water does not infiltrate down to the succulents roots where it is required.
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 and 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.
Whilst they 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.
The soil should then be left to dry for about 14 days (this can depend on your climate) before watering again.
This watering regime mimics the moisture cycle in the succulents native desert environment where they receive an occasional down pour of rain followed by drought like conditions.
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 you succulent with the right quantity of water to prevent it from shriveling due to dehydration.
Shriveling is usually the first sign of stress due to watering too lightly but the succulent should recover well with proper watering.
Hydrophobic Soil Repels Water Away from the Succulents Roots
Some people diligently follow the advice of watering their succulent with a good soak and with the correct watering frequency yet there succulent still shrivels as if it is too dry.
This is most often due to succulents being in a potting mix that contains peat which can turn hydrophobic (repels water) when it dries out.
When soil dries out (as it should between watering your succulents) some potting mixes can bake to a hard texture which does not allow water to infiltrate and reach the roots of your succulent.
Instead the water is repelled and runs off the surface of the soil and down the side of your pot and sub-sequentially out the base of the pot.
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.
This effect then causes an extended period of drought that dries out your succulent leaves so that the shrivel.
Re-pot your 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.
Re-pot your succulent with a special succulents and cacti potting mix (available form garden centers and on Amazon) that recreates that drainage characteristics of the soil in which succulents live in their native habitat.
A specifically formulated succulent potting soil retains a porous, aerated structure even when it is bone dry.
This prevents the soil 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 contains more inorganic material (such as sand and grit at the right particle size) which drains at the optimal rate and also emulates the nutrient profile of the soil in which succulents thrive in the wild.
With the right soil mix your succulent roots can uptake the moisture they require, whilst also draining effectively so that the roots doe not succumb to root rot.
Succulents Shriveling due to Over Watering and Excess Moisture
Whilst shriveling is more typically associated with an under watered succulent, it can also be a symptom of the soil being too damp around the roots for a long time.
Typically over watered succulent leaves can turn yellow or a translucent color, with a mushy texture and droop which is a definitive sign of over watering.
Too much moisture around the roots that results in shriveling can be caused by:
- Watering the succulent too frequently. If you are watering succulents more frequently then once per week you are likely over watering your succulent which can cause it to shrivel and change color.
- Potting soil holds too much moisture and stays damp for a long time. Succulents require the soil to dry out between bouts of watering. If the potting soil is retains water then 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 people use trays and saucers underneath pots to prevent watering 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 succulents desert habitat.
So it is important to water the succulent the correct way and account for any other causes of excess moisture around the roots that can cause stress.
How to Revive an Over Watered Succulent with Shriveled Leaves
If your succulent leaves are shriveling and changing color to brown or even a translucent appearance then follow these steps…
- Scale back the watering. The most important factor 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 over watering.
- Replace the soil. If the soil is slow draining, then replace the soil with a special succulent and cactus soil which allows water to drain away from the roots more effectively to avoid over watering 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.
- Move you succulent to a less humid room if possible. Succulents often suffer from water stress when they are located in bathrooms. 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 leaves any healthy remaining parts of the plant.
Propagation of succulents is very easy as they naturally reproduce vegetatively, by their leaves which develop roots. Propagation from cuttings also has a very high success rate. Watch this YouTube video for how to easily save you succulents:
- The reason succulent leaves shrivel is because they are not receiving enough water or there is too much moisture around the roots. Shriveling leaves is the first sign of an under watered succulent. Over watered 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 due to under watering. Plant succulents in a well draining soil.
- Allow succulents to dry out between bouts of watering, plant in a well draining soil mix, in a pot with drainage holes in the base to avoid succulents shriveling due to over watering.
- Under watered shriveled succulents can be revived easily by increasing the frequency of watering, watering more generously and changing the potting soil. Over watered succulents should be allowed to dry out before watering again.