Kalanchoe luciae (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

How to Stress Succulents (And Why You Should)

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.

Give aloes and crassulas a bit more heat, sun or cold and less water and richer soil than they really want, and they'll turn brilliant shades of orange, red and yellow. This doesn't harm the plants, which I deem "well-stressed" when they show the brilliant colors they're capable of. A case in point is Aloe nobilis, which in my garden grows in nutrient-poor decomposed granite with minimal water.

Aloe nobilis. Left: winter (cool temps, bright shade). Right: summer (full, hot sun).

In winter, the same plant reverts to green.

Such "stressed" succulents---which survive on moisture in their leaves---are fine. They perk up and send out new growth when the weather cools and the rains return.

Not all succulents turn shades of red, pink or orange when stressed, in fact, the majority don't. But many common aloes and crassulas do, plus certain kalanchoes, euphorbias, sempervivums, sedums, aeoniums and echeverias. Agaves normally don't; the one above is an exception. The reason is that it's post-bloom and dying, which has revealed the anthocyanin in its tissues.

It's all about anthocyanin

In the same way deciduous trees turn color in autumn, sunset hues become visible. The pigment also is found in berries and fruits---and is considered a powerful antioxidant. Anthocyanins, according to Wikipedia, "are not synthesized until the plant has begun breaking down chlorophyll, it is presumed for photoprotection..." i.e. protection from excess sunlight, much the same way melanin tans skin. Wikipedia also wisely states that "plants with abnormally high anthocyanin quantities are popular as ornamental plants."

How to Stress Your Succulents

After seeing my YouTube video, "How to Stress Your Succulents...and Why You Should," a non-gardening friend observed, "I'd probably stress them so much, they'd croak." Good point. How do you give a succulent the right amount of stress, but not too much? And how do you know which are worth stressing, and which aren't?

Basically, observe the plant. If it's leaves are margined or tipped in red, it's a likely prospect. But if excess heat, sun or cold makes its tips shrivel and turn beigey-gray, it's suffering. Move it to a kinder location, keep the soil moist (but not soggy), and/or repot it. Also check its roots. The problem may be that roots can't access moisture and nutrients, as in the case of a cutting that's sitting atop the soil instead of snugly planted.

This specimen of Crassula ovata is beautifully stressed (how's that for an oxymoron?). Its leaves have reddened due to less water than the plant would like plus more cold than jade prefers (frost will turn the leaves to mush, but temperatures near but above freezing reddens them).

Most succulents---especially those with fat, fleshy leaves---can last weeks and sometimes months without water, even in hot sun, nipped by frost, and/or rooted solely in gravel. But eventually they need a respite, lest stress turn life-threatening.

A few common succulents that redden when stressed:

Kalanchoe luciae

 

Aeonium canariense

 

Aloe dorotheae

Related Info on this Site:

Succulent FAQs and basic info

Learn more in my book, Succulents Simplified"The Well-Stressed Succulent," pp. 54-55.

Also on my YouTube channel:

Most succulents are sun lovers, but how much do they really need? And what happens if they get too much or too little light? (From my presentation a the Succulent Extravaganza.)
How to Stress Succulents and Why You Should, my first video (now with 80,000 views!) gives additional examples and includes before-and-after photos.

 

 

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8 Comments

  1. Kit Lynch on December 9, 2020 at 12:23 pm

    I have some large grasshoppers that I tried to catch unsuccessfully Ithink they’re eating my succulents
    What can I get to get rid of them?

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on December 9, 2020 at 1:25 pm

      Hm. I also have grasshoppers as part of my garden’s natural biome, and as far as I know, they haven’t chewed my succulents. I suppose they might, but any measures taken to stop them would involve harsh pesticides that might upset the predator-pest balance. I suspect that overall, the odd grasshopper does more good than harm.

    • Heather on August 10, 2021 at 2:05 pm

      We encourage garden lizards that love to snack on grasshoppers!

  2. Diane Rose Partoza Dimaano on December 24, 2020 at 4:50 pm

    how do you stress it in lowlands in a tropical country?

    • Debra Lee Baldwin on December 24, 2020 at 4:55 pm

      I’m afraid I lack expertise on regions significantly different from Southern California’s. I suggest you pursue what I’d have to, in order to help you: Check with succulent vendors and collectors in your area. If there’s a chapter of the Cactus and Succulent Society nearby, that’s a good place to start.

  3. […] are always green, but there are a few varieties that will turn brilliant colors when places under healthy stress. To do this, you simply need to provide them with more direct sunlight or less water. Of course, […]

  4. […] petite trailing succulent is beautiful in its own right, but give a little healthy stress and it will turn into an even more beautiful plant with vibrant red leaves. It is this unique look […]

  5. Rohit das on August 14, 2021 at 11:51 pm

    Hello sir, you mention in the article that give succulent bright sunlight to achieve their colour. But actually I am living city where weather temperature is in winter min 13 & max 30°c and in summer min 25 & max 40°c. So please suggest me what can I do in winter and summer to achieve succulent colour. Please help me🙏

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