Succulent Leaves Shrivelling- the reasons and fixes

The great majority of succulents are incredibly hardy and survive where many other types of plant would perish. It is for this reason, and their cute looks succulents are so popular. But as their popularity increases so does misinformation about how to care for them. For instance, some say to keep succulents bone dry most of the time, others indorse succulents as the perfect indoor plants. While this advice can be true for some succulents it certainly isn’t for the majority.

Shrivelling leaves on succulents can scare new succulent parents who may often think that it is a sign of the plant dying. I know this as our nursery gets many queries from customers worrying about all these seemingly strange things succulents do. Well, there is some good news- in the great majority of cases, shrivelling leaves do not mean imminent death, are perfectly ok and easily fixable. In fact, succulents in their natural habitat would have some leaves shrivelled most of the time. Below I will try and list all the reasons succulent leaves shrivel and how to fix them.

Why do succulent leaves shrivel?

  • Lack of water
  • Rootbound succulents
  • Hydrophobic potting mix/soil
  • Strong wind
  • Potting mix that dries too fast/ wrong potting mix
  • Extreme weather
  • Too much exposure to strong sun
  • Terracotta pots
  • The roots or part of stalk has died

Lack of water

One of the most common reasons succulent leaves shrivel is lack of water. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of succulents and cacti (certainly the 300+ different species we grow) do like to be watered regularly. 

Yes, they do not like to sit in waterlogged soil and some more touchy species (usually hybrid succulents) will not like being exposed to frequent rain, but most succulents will grow better if they are watered regularly, especially if in pots.

Having said all of that, if the leaves are a bit shrivelled because of lack of water there is no need to panic. Once the plants have a proper drink, they will bounce back very quickly. I even dry succulents on purpose when I want to separate leaves for propagating (they come of easier, especially on chunky plants) and when posting them as dried out, slightly shrivelled succulents are less likely to break in transit.

The only time dried leaves on thirsty plants may be of concern is when they have been too dry for too long. In this case some species with thinner leaves (aeoniums arboretum, small leaved sedum & crassula etc.) will also start losing their leaves to conserve water. Succulents with thicker leaves and stems will take a lot longer to start drying out.

The quickest fix to get those shrivelled succulent leaves plumped up again is to put the pot in a bucket of water for half hour to make sure all of the roots get a good drink. The pot can also be drenched thoroughly by hose. Beware of hydrophobic potting mix/ soil which I’ll explain below.

Rootbound Succulents

When a succulent is rootbound it means the roots have reached every bit of space available to them and are circling around trying to find a way out. Depending on the species, this can stress a plant to a point of shrivelling and dying leaves.

Often the roots will start escaping through the holes in the bottom in search of a new bit of soil, nutrients and water. While for many succulents being rootbound is not a big deal and they can stay in the same pot for a few years, other will suffer and can even die if their roots are constrained for too long.

Watering more often can solve the problem short term, but what rootbound succulents really want is more space. Re-potting into fresh potting mix and a bigger pot will almost definitely solve this problem.

Hydrophobic Potting Mix/ Soil

In extreme cases of drought or when water has been withheld for too long the soil in the garden or potting mix in pots can become hydrophobic. This means it is so dry the water will jus flow through without actually seeping in, leaving the roots bone dry. 

The top of the soil will look wet but once that thin wet layer is scratched off, everything below will be dry. Hydrophobic potting mix will almost certainly dehydrate succulents to the point of shrivelled leaves and sometimes even death.

So you may think you’re watering your plants, but in reality if the potting mix is hydrophobic, the water just flows right out of the pot.

To fix hydrophobic potting mix in a pot the whole plant can be re-potted into fresh potting mix and the old mix shaken off the roots. Soaking the pot in a bucket of water for 30 minutes will also work.

Strong wind

Wind dehydrates plants very quickly, especially if the overall weather is also warm and it has not rained for a few days. The effects of dry wind can be seen on non-succulent plants much faster (droopy leaves, stressed plant) but succulents can suffer as well. A couple of windy days coinciding with drought can most definitely cause succulents to shrivel as their leaves lose water.

The shrivelling leaves can be prevented/ fixed simply by watering the roots.

Potting mix that dries too fast/ wrong potting mix

Potting mix can alter the way succulents look and grow. Many people try and improve their already free draining potting mix with extra perlite/ pumice to make it drain and dry faster. While this is fine in wet climates with regular rain and mild temperatures, and works for certain plants, it can stress other succulents, make their leaves yellow and/or shrivel.

If you have a good quality potting mix that dries up sufficiently there is not much of a need to try and amend it further. Some succulent potting media can be too dry as well and if that is the case, more frequent watering or soaking will prevent the leaves shrivelling.

Extreme weather

Whether it be winds, heatwaves or drought extreme weather can cause a succulent to shrivel very quickly. The less hardy succulents are also at a real danger of dying during extreme weather events. The signs of a plant in distress from extreme will often start with shrivelling leaves.

Again, how bad a succulent will suffer and shrivel during extreme weather will depend on the particular species. Succulents with chunky leaves and stems tend to fair much better than smaller leaved plants. For instance a Crassula Ovata will not need that much attention even during hot/dry/windy weather, but a Sedum Little Missy can die very quickly if not looked after.

To keep your succulents happy during extreme weather events do not leave pot plants exposed to hot afternoon sun and water well when the potting mix is dry.

Too much exposure to strong sun

The majority of succulents need some sort of sun exposure to grow well, but very few can withstand direct sun over 35C/95F without burning. Hot, direct sun will cause succulent leaves to shrivel, burn and can kill certain plants in less than an hour.

During summer it is not unusual for temperatures to tip over 40C/104F where we are, and while the majority of our succulents survive thanks to shade-cloths we have extensive gardens with exposed plants and nothing to shade them. These are carefully chosen plants that have previously lived through 46C which is just a ridiculously hot temperature. Succulents planted in the garden will always withstand hotter sun than plants in pots as pots heat up and can literally cook the roots.

It is important to remember that forecast temperatures are temperatures in shade, so in direct blast of the sun, it is going to be much, much hotter.

While some shrivelling is almost a given on a hot day, exposure to direct sun for too long in a heatwave can kill a lot of succulents.

To protect your succulents from shrivelling in hot sun place pots in a shaded area for the duration of the heatwave or build a shelter with shade-cloth.

Terracotta pots

In climates with regular rain terracotta pots are a fabulous way of keeping succulents happy as the walls of terracotta are porous and will leach water out. This causes the potting mix to dry out quicker than conventional sealed or plastic pots. But when the rain is not regular, terracotta pots can cause a problem.

Because the water dries out so fast, succulents planted in terracotta pots may get a bit dehydrated and therefore shrivel as they face a shortage of water.

During dry and warm spells succulents planted in terracotta pots may need to be watered pretty much every day, if exposed to direct sun. This will prevent shrivelling leaves. If you don’t have time to water every day placing the pot in afternoon shade or re-potting in a sealed/plastic pot will do the trick.

The roots or part of stalk has died

It is entirely possible for a part of the stalk to die off causing the top bit of a succulent to dry out. The plant will still live and can be saved by cutting and replanting. Aerial roots and shrivelling leaves are a dead giveaway that this is what’s happened.

There are a few reasons a stalk can die. It can be eaten into by pests (slugs, grasshoppers etc.), can rot or burn. As the top part of the plant has no access to water and nutrients from the roots, it will slowly start drying out and shrivelling. Many succulents will start sending roots from the parts of the plant that are healthy in an attempt to reach into the soil.

To save a plant like this, simply cut off the top bit, let the wound heal for 24h and replant into fresh potting mix.

In conclusion, shrivelled leaves are quite normal in the world of succulents, though they do signal that a plant is experiencing s little bit of stress. While some plants will get through on their own, if the stress factors persist, they can severely impact the plant and in extreme cases even cause death. The good thing is that succulents are pretty hardy and it is unusual for them to die straight after some leaves have shrivelled. The best approach is to try and find the cause and act accordingly.