Succulents and light

Are you wondering why a succulent no longer looks as good as when you bought it? If a succulent is otherwise healthy, the first thing to consider is light.

Succulents growing in less than optimal light lose color from their leaves. They'll turn from red, yellow or orange to faded shades of blue or green, and may flatten or stretch (etiolate). On the opposite extreme, when given too much sun, succulents may show beige patches on their leaves or close their rosettes.

At the nursery, don't just look down, look up. When you bring your purchases home, give them sun intensity that they're used to. As they settle in and seasons change, they may surprise you. With the benefit of time and room to stretch their roots, it's not unreasonable to expect them to look even better than before.

How Much Light Do Succulents Need?

The answer is "it depends." What's the type of plant? Where do you live? What's the climate like? Even altitude can make a difference. For example,  most haworthias and gasterias prefer shade but can handle some sun along the coast. Many but by no means all cacti are fine in desert sun. As a general rule, the majority of soft-leaved succulents want half a day's sun (in mild climates) and dappled or "bright" shade the rest of the day.

Light is essential to any plant's survival, but too much can damage it. Too little can ruin its shape. Providing optimal light often comes down to observation.

Succulents and light

Above: If these plants could talk, they'd say, "The light is over there." When succulents lean, it's usually because they're seeking more sun. The phenomenon of growing toward light is "phototropism." Stretched growth in low-light situations is "etiolation."

How much light succulents need

This aloe closed its rosette to protect it's vital core from too much sun and resulting dehydration. Pigment similar to that of autumn leaves protects it from burning. The plant is "stressed" -- not necessarily a bad thing. It'll recover when the rains come and sun is not as harsh, just as it would in the wild.

Sunburn on agave

This large agave in my garden has leaves that bend and curve. Stretched cells are vulnerable to sunburn. There's not much I can do to prevent it. I don't like looking at burned patches, so I trim the damaged leaves back to the trunk.

Etiolated echeverias

These neglected echeverias have flattened their leaves to expose more surface area to available light. The plants' are coping as best as they can to being indoors. The answer is not to immediately put them outside in full sun, because they'll burn. They need to be "hardened off" to greater sun gradually.

Sunburned aeoniums

Hot, sunny days can come so quickly that garden succulents don't have time to adjust. I probably could have prevented sunburn on these aeoniums if I'd tossed a sheet or (even better) floating row cover on them. They eventually outgrew the damage, but it was evident for months. See "Summer Care for Succulents: Heat and Sun Concerns." 

Sunburned agave recovered

This Agave 'Cream Spike' has recovered from sunburn. You can still see the damage on the outer leaves, but new growth is fine.

How much light succulents need

Here's another sunburn survivor. The damaged tissue is white and the new growth, green.

More examples

Above: Etiolated echeverias.

Aloe maculata fall and spring

Above left: Aloe maculata, late summer; right: same plant in spring.

Related info on this site:

How to Keep Succulents Happy Indoors 
Place your succulents near a window. Maximum sun exposure is on the south and west sides of your house. The farther north you live in North America...[Continue reading]

Summer Care for Succulents: Heat and Sun Concerns

Don’t let summer sun and heat harm your succulents! Heat generally isn’t a concern. Although some succulents (like sempervivums) tend not to thrive in temps above 80 or 90 degrees F, the majority are fine. It’s heat plus sun that’s the concern.

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Is there a way to make succulents bloom? Yes and no. It partly depends on a plant’s age. It may not be large or mature enough to gear up for reproduction (which is the point of flowers). But there IS something you can do to make a succulent bloom if it’s just sitting there, sulking,…

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Plenty of sun brings out brilliant reds and yellows in certain succulents, but how much to “stress” the plants varies depending on where you live, the time of year, and the kind of plant. If there’s a good thing about our too-hot Southern California summers, it’s that heat makes certain succulents stunning. Give aloes and…

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