Succulent Pests, Diseases and Problems

Keep your succulents healthy, happy and looking their very best

When a succulent isn't looking quite right, you may wonder if you've done something wrong. Here's what to look for: symptoms, causes, severity, prevention, and treatments for common succulent pests, diseases and problems.

VIDEOS: On my YouTube Channel, be sure to view the Pests and Diseases playlist (eight videos) and Oh, No! Something's Wrong with My Succulent! (12:19), which shows 27 common succulent concerns.

NOT FINDING WHAT YOU NEED? Describe your plant's problem in a comment on this site's Pest and Diseases Forum

'Sunburst' aeonium showing abrasion bruises
'Sunburst' aeonium showing abrasion bruises

Abrasion

  • Not Serious but unsightly.
  • Plants eventually outgrow it.

Aeoniums are especially prone to brown marks from being handled. Lines and blotches show up a day after something or someone has touched the leaves. If you're making a bouquet of aeoniums or taking cuttings, hold them by their stems only, and don't let them brush up against anything.

 

See my video: Aeonium Leaves, What You Need to Know (1:23).

Edema on Agave attenuata (c) Debra Lee Baldwin
Edema on Agave attenuata
Agave grease mite (c) Debra Lee Baldwin
Agave grease mite

Agave edema

  • Not serious but unsightly.
  • Plants eventually outgrow it.

Blotchy patches appear on leaves and the top layer sloughs away. Unlike sunburn, the damaged area is lower than the surrounding leaf surface. Unlike frost, which typically "burns" tips, edema shows on the wider part of the leaves.

Edema on 'Sharkskin' agave Edema can happen when agaves that are used to a cool, mild climate like the Bay Area's go through an intense heat spell.

Inconsistent watering also can cause edema. Blistering on one of my agaves happened after a pipe broke beneath it. If there's a way to anticipate or prevent the damage, I'm unaware of it.

Agave Grease Mite

  • Serious and unsightly

Dark, greasy blotches on agaves result from an eriophyid mite infestation, which can spread to your other agaves. It's best to remove and destroy the plants, but if this isn't possible, experts recommend drenching affected agaves (and those nearby) monthly, during the spring-fall growth season, with miticides, alternating two or three. Those that are earth-friendly include Neem Oil and GrowSafe. Continue treatment until new leaves show no sign of disease---which may take up to a year.

Agave snout weevil infestation of Agave americana 'Mediopicta Alba'
Agave snout weevil infestation of Agave americana 'Mediopicta Alba'

Agave Snout Weevil

  • Serious, potentially fatal
  • Prevention is essential: Drench the ground beneath agaves in your garden in spring and fall with systemic insecticide.

If your agave wilts and has dark patches at leaf axils, it likely has snout weevil, a thumbnail-sized black beetle that punctures an agave's core and inserts its eggs. Grubs hatch, consume the core of the plant, turn it to mush, then tunnel into the ground to pupate.

Aloe mite on Aloe arborescens 'Variegata'
Aloe mite on Aloe arborescens 'Variegata'

Aloe Mite

  • Serious because it spreads
  • Disfigures the plants

A microscopic mite causes bubbly, tumorlike growth on aloes, especially along leaf margins and flower spikes, and where leaves meet the stem. Once in a plant’s tissues, the mite continues to cause cancerous growth. Discard the aloe unless it's important to you to keep it, in which case, cut out any affected tissue and bag it for the trash. Sterilize the tools you use with bleach or isopropyl alcohol. Aloe mite is still going to show up on that particular plant, so even if it looks fine, don't give friends cuttings.

Echeveria infested with ants
Echeveria infested with ants

Ant infestation

  • Serious
  • Plants recover if caught in time.

Ants nest in the soil beneath aloes, haworthias and gasterias in late summer and fall, and feed on the plant's core, which fills with dirt as the pests push it up from below. Peel away damaged leaves until you have a clean, unblemished core, and wash the roots. Replant in fresh soil where ants can’t access it. One way to do this is to place a potted succulent on an elevated stand surrounded by a moat of water.

Diatomaceous earth is a "green" alternative to powders containing pyrethrum. It scratches and penetrates insect exoskeletons, dehydrating them.

Aphids infest a cotyledon's flower buds
Aphids infest a cotyledon's flower buds

Aphids and Thrips

  • Usually not serious
  • May cause distorted growth

Juicy, pinhead insects latch onto and suck the juices of tender new leaves, flower stems, and buds. Ants place aphids on plants in order to feed on the bugs' sweet, sticky secretions. Blast pests with a strong spray of water, release ladybugs and other beneficial insects, remove severely infested stems and buds, spray remaining aphids with Isopropyl alcohol, and take measures to prevent ants from accessing the plant.

Black spots on Aloe arborescens
Black spots on Aloe arborescens

Black Spots

  • Not serious but unsightly
  • No known cure

Not much is known about this, but it's likely a fungus. It affects aloes, haworthias and gasterias. It spreads, especially in coastal areas, perhaps due to moist air. Keep leaves dry, locate plants where there's good air circulation, and remove affected leaves, sterilizing tools after each cut.

Blotchy color on Graptoveria 'Fred Ives'
Blotchy color on Graptoveria 'Fred Ives'

Blotchy leaves

  • Normal

Leaves of rosette succulents such as graptopetalums, graptoverias, aloes and echeverias change color according to light conditions (the more light, the more rosy the leaves). When transitioning from green to red (or vice-versa), leaves may appear blotchy.

A paddle cactus (Opuntia sp.) with cochineal scale.
A paddle cactus (Opuntia sp.) with cochineal scale.

Cochineal scale

  • Unsightly; serious if uncontrolled

Cochineal scale forms dots of white fluff on paddle cacti and will dye your fingertips red if you mash it. Blast the plant with a hose to dislodge the pests, scrub infested pads with a Safer soap solution in summer (use a soft bristled, long-handle brush). Spray with Neem oil in winter, and release beneficial predatory insects (ladybugs) in spring. Poor air circulation, heat and humidity make cochineal scale worse. It's difficult to get rid of if not caught early. If the infestation is severe, pads or entire plants may need to be removed.

Watch my YouTube video (2:01).

Aloe nobilis showing greater and lesser sun exposure
Aloe nobilis showing greater and lesser sun exposure
Mycoplasma on echeveria (c) Debra Lee Baldwin
Echeveria infected with mycoplasma

Color change (reversion to green)

  • Normal if plant is otherwise healthy

Certain succulents---notably crassulas (jades) and aloes---blush red or orange when environmentally stressed, that is, given more sun and less rich soil and water than ideal for optimal growth. Nurseries are pros at producing colorful, healthy succulents because they sell better than plain green ones. When you bring a red, orange, yellow or purple succulent home,  give it the same amount of sun, lest it revert to green. Solid green succulents do tend to be more vigorous. To stress a green succulent, increase exposure gradually for a week or so, lest it sunburn.

Crackled, scabby patches

  • Serious

This indicates mycoplasma infection. The bacteria enters the plant's roots and then its leaves from nursery soil that contains horse manure. Once a plant has it in its tissues, there's no getting rid of it except by extreme measures. “It’s not worth trying to treat it,” says echeveria expert Dick Wright. "It's best to simply discard the plants." Notify the plant source, too.

Dead, dry lower leaves are normal on dudleyas and other rosette succulents
Dead, dry lower leaves are normal on dudleyas and other rosette succulents

Dead lower leaves

  • Normal, if center growth is healthy

New leaves form at the center of a succulent's rosette or from the tip of its stem. Older lower leaves wither and die, and may persist on the stem, thereby shading it from harsh sun and insulating it from cold.

Certain succulents, notably dudleyas, close their rosettes during their summer dormancy to protect their vital cores, so all you see are dead leaves. It’s generally better for the plant to leave them on, because they do have a purpose, but if you find them unsightly, peel them away. Another reason to remove them is they may harbor pests such as mealy bugs.

Leaves of these Agave attenuata plants were eaten by deer
Leaves of these Agave attenuata plants were eaten by deer

Deer

  • Serious

Large bites taken out of leaves as well as uprooted plants are usually a sign of deer. At first sign of damage, apply a deer repellent. If the situation becomes intolerable, the only recourse may be to surround your garden with 7-foot fencing.

Cactus paddles shrivel, indicating desiccation due to insufficient water.
Cactus paddles shrivel, indicating desiccation due to insufficient water.
Agave beginning to bloom (c) Debra Lee Baldwin
Agave beginning to bloom

Desiccation

  • Normal

When formerly plump leaves become wrinkled and lose their sheen, it's a sign that they're drying out. During times of drought in their native habitats, succulents live off the moisture in their leaves, so they can survive a lack of water that would kill other plants. So long as the succulent's vital core is healthy and hasn't been compromised by pests that prey on weakened plants, it will recover when watered or the rains return.

 

 

 

Dying after flowering

  • Normal for a few kinds of succulents, mainly agaves

Plants that are "monocarpic" die after they bloom. Certain succulents, like aeoniums, take several years to flower. Sempervivum rosettes also die after blooming, but like aeoniums, not all in a cluster elongate into bloom at once, so the loss isn't great. Agaves are best-known for being monocarpic, but some (like A. americana) take 15+ years to flower---hence the name "century plant." Less common monocarpic succulents include furcraeas and orostachys. Paddle plants (Kalanchoe luciae) do bloom themselves nearly to death, but unlike true monocarps, plants can be saved if you cut the flower stalk as it forms.

Read my post "Big Blue's Life and Demise" about my own Agave americana and its chain-saw exit on my YouTube channel: Agave americana Bloom and Removal” (4:44).

Also on YouTube:“What You MUST know about Century Plants” (2:50).

Echeverias show stretched growth indicative of too little light (etiolation)
Echeverias show stretched growth indicative of too little light (etiolation)

Etiolation (elongated stems)

  • Not serious

Succulents tend to grow in the direction of greatest sun exposure. Leaves and stems that appear stretched or leaning are "etiolated," a term that means growth that results from inadequate light. Etiolated rosette succulents will flatten to expose more of their surface to the sun.

Provide the plant with more light (gradually, lest it sunburn) and rotate potted succulents and wreaths for even light exposure and to avoid lopsided growth.

Go to my article, How Much Light Do Succulents Need? 

See my YouTube video: Sun and Your Succulents (1:41)

Leggy, leafless stems are a normal growth pattern for many succulents, including Aeonium 'Zwartkop'
Leggy, leafless stems are a normal growth pattern for many succulents, including Aeonium 'Zwartkop'

Exposed Stems

  • Normal

Over time, as a succulent's oldest leaves wither, die and fall (or are trimmed) off, branches and stems become denuded.

Snip the healthy tip growth and replant it as cuttings. If you cut above healthy leaves, the stem may branch, creating a fuller plant. If there are no leaves on the truncated stem, new growth along it is unlikely (exceptions are fancy ruffled echeverias).

In the example shown here, a single aeonium has the potential to yield 50 new plants. There's no point in keeping a leggy, leafless succulent, so after harvesting cuttings, discard the plant roots and all.

See my video: How to Redo an Overgrown Succulent Garden (4:49)

Leaf of Agave attenuata damaged by frost
Leaf of Agave attenuata damaged by frost

Frost Damage

  • Mild to Fatal

Depending on the type of succulent, how low the temperatures drop (water freezes at 32 degrees F), and how long the frost lasts, plants may show damage only on leaf tips or collapse into mush. When moisture in the cells of a frost-tender plant freezes, it expands and bursts cell walls.

However, some succulents do have a built-in antifreeze, and can survive temperatures well below 32 degrees F---below zero, in fact. Learn more about them on the Cold Hardy Succulents page.

Wait until spring to trim damaged tissue. In winter, check the weather report for your area and cover susceptible plants with frost cloth, floating row covers, or bedsheets.

A gopher ate the root of this agave and continued upward into the plant's core.
A gopher ate the root of this agave and continued upward into the plant's core.

Gopher

  • Not serious if caught early

Gophers are fist-sized mammals that live underground. If you notice a low mound of fresh soil a foot or so in diameter, or a hole that has been plugged from below with soil, you probably have a gopher.

If an agave keels over and there's a clean, concave depression at its base, a gopher likely got it. However, far more often the cause of agave collapse is snout weevil.

See my video: If I Can Catch Gophers, You Can Too! (2:44)

Update: Thanks to Grangetto's Farm and Garden Supply (in the San Diego area), I now prefer the GopherHawk, a new device that's more efficient than the classic trap I show in this site's How I Get Rid of Gophers post.

A thin-skinned succulent (Glottyphyllum linguiforme) shows pitting from hail
A thin-skinned succulent (Glottyphyllum linguiforme) shows pitting from hail

Hail

  • Usually not serious

Pock-marked and pitted leaves of succulents often result from impact damage. Not surprisingly, soft-leaved and thin-skinned succulents are especially susceptible.

Prior to a winter storm that might bring hail, move vulnerable potted plants beneath an overhang. Protect in-ground succulents with a lightweight mesh that won’t crease or break leaves and that will let rain through, such as a lean-to constructed of old window screens.

Mealy bugs infest a graptoveria rosette
Mealy bugs infest a graptoveria rosette
Mildew on agave (c) Debra Lee Baldwin
Mildew on agave

Mealy bugs

  • Serious

What looks like bits of white lint in leaf axils are mealy bugs. They won't go away on their own, and they can spread rapidly and infest other plants. They lay eggs in tiny cracks and crevices, so even if your plants seem fine, the pests may lurk. If the infestation is serious, start over---with squeaky-clean cuttings from existing succulents or new plants altogether---in a different location.

When watering, don't just pour water onto the soil, spray the centers of the plants and leaf axils to dislodge any lurkers. Good air circulation will help keep airborne pests from settling. Check indoor plants weekly. At the first sign of infestation, spray your collection with Isopropyl 70% (the standard solution). If you find mealies, treat and then isolate the affected plant/s lest the pests spread.

Mildew and Fungus

  • Persistent in damp climates

Dry-climate plants need low humidity and infrequent water. If leather mildews where you live, your succulents likely will too. Those from arid climates don't thrive in moist, humid, rainy conditions. A tendency to mildew and rot, plus a need for nights colder than days, are generally why it's difficult to grow succulents in the southeastern US, Hawaii, the Philippines and other tropical regions. You can treat with a mildew spray (like those sold for roses), but the problem will likely persist.

Red apple ice plant that has succumbed to mildew.
Red apple ice plant that has succumbed to mildew.
Pot-bound aloe (c) Debra Lee Baldwin
Pot-bound aloe

Mildew on red apple

  • Serious
  • No known cure

First seen during the winter of 2014 in Southern California, entire embankments covered with red apple (Aptenia cordifolia) withered and died, leaving a tangle of dry stems.

Remove them, and when you replant, don't install any kind of ice plant. (The susceptibility of other kinds has yet to be determined.) Go with a nonsucculent instead, such as prostrate acacia shrubs, ornamental grasses, or mat-forming Dymondia margaretae.

Pot-Bound (Root-Bound)

  • Not serious

The Aloe arborescens in the photo seems unaware that its roots are cramped and lack soil. I suspect that it split its nursery pot, then whoever owned it lazily set it, container and all, atop a soil-filled terra-cotta pot, which being topheavy fell over and broke. This shows how succulents get by with minimal nourishment from their roots. After all, succulents by definition are able to subsist on moisture stored in their leaves. The fatter and juicier a succulent's leaves, the longer it will look OK despite being pot-bound or rootless (although its growth will likely be stunted).

Damaged leaf tips of this Aloe brevifolia colony were caused by rabbits
Damaged leaf tips of this Aloe brevifolia colony were caused by rabbits

Rabbit and squirrel damage

  • Serious

In areas where predators like coyotes are kept out (like gated communities), bunnies and squirrels tend to proliferate. Measures that can help include: Installing an owl box; dusting the plants with crushed red chilis or spraying a repellent. Also, there are solar- and battery-powered electronic devices that emit a high-frequency sound. This one, for about $30 on Amazon, can be set for cats, dogs, skunks, squirrels and raccoons.

Lack of drainage caused this haworthia to rot.
Lack of drainage caused this haworthia to rot.

Rot

  • Serious

Mushy tissue at a succulent's core results when its roots sit in water and rot. If the plant has collapsed, or its leaves have fallen off and the core is mushy, it's not salvageable. If there's still some healthy tissue, remove the plant from its pot or garden bed and trim away damaged stems and leaves until you have a clean, unblemished cutting. Replant in fresh soil that drains well. See my videos, The Squish Test for Succulents (3:36) and Why Succulents Rot and How to Prevent It (2:02).

Opuntia paddles infested with scale insects.
Opuntia paddles infested with scale insects.

Scale

  • Serious

Grayish-white or brown dots that pepper a succulent's skin are scale insects, which latch onto the plant and consume its tissues. The pests are protected by a hard outer coating, which protects them like armor and makes them difficult to get rid of. It's generally best to bag the plant and put it out with the trash. Thoroughly clean the area around it, and don't put another one in that location for six months.

To prevent scale infestation, give your indoor plants good air circulation and check them often. At the first sign of scale, isolate the plant so it doesn't spread. Scrape off the pest with a plastic knife, wash the leaves with Safer soap, and spray with Neem oil.

This echeveria leaf has been permanently damaged by a hungry snail.
This echeveria leaf has been permanently damaged by a hungry snail.

Snail damage

  • Seldom serious, but unsightly

Snails latch onto leaves and gnaw on them, creating thumb-sized oval holes. Hand-pick the pests and treat the infested area with a biodegradable snail bait that's nontoxic to pets, such as Sluggo.

Stretch marks on cactus (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Stretch marks on cactus

  • Normal

What looks like snail tracks on cactus pads are stretch marks. They appear after winter rains in early spring when the plants are growing rapidly. They don't go away and can't be prevented, but on the plus side, they do indicate that your cacti are thriving.

This Kalanchoe synsepala, a tropical succulent, has sunburned patches on its leaves.
This Kalanchoe synsepala, a tropical succulent, has sunburned patches on its leaves.

Sunburn

  • Seldom fatal, but unsightly

Succulents that haven't been in full sun and that are exposed to it without time to acclimate will sunburn. This shows up as white or brown patches on the leaves. Unless a secondary condition sets in, such as rot, the plants usually recover.

Sunburn is common on newly planted cuttings that have yet to develop roots, and when bright, hot sun follows days of dim light and cloudy skies. Protect vulnerable plants with a barrier that adds shade or diffuses the sun, such as old window screens, overturned lawn chairs, or whatever else is handy and easily removed.

See my YouTube video: Succulents, Sun and Summer (10:34).

Agave desmettiana showing weak growth
Agave desmettiana showing weak growth
Wind damage to succulent (c) Debra Lee Baldwin
Wind damage before and after (4 months).

Weak growth

  • Preventable

Thin, pale, and spindly leaves often result from undesirable growing conditions: too much sun, too little or too much water, poorly draining or nutrient-deficient soil, too much heat or cold, or pest infestations.

Dig up the plants and re-establish them in amended soil in a more ideal location. If you must leave them where they are, mulch surrounding soil and apply a balanced fertilizer. If too much water is a concern, add a channel to enhance drainage. To prevent water from running off, form a basin around the plant.

 

 

 

Wind (Impact Damage)

  • Normal
  • Also see Hail

Most succulents sail through periods of high winds undamaged. Often the worst that happens is a topheavy potted succulent blows over, breaking the pot and spilling the contents.

Aeoniums in particular are vulnerable to impact damage. Wind-driven sand particles will pit the leaves, resulting in brown dots. If your aeoniums show this but winds haven't been strong, a gardener may have blasted them with a leaf blower---especially if the plants are low to the ground, near a pathway.

Not finding what you need? Want more? Go to...

Mycoplasma on echeveria (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Succulent Pests and Problems Q&A Forum

Are pests or mysterious maladies causing problems with your succulents? This page is a forum for you to ask questions, leave comments and share what works for you. Others can see and benefit from the answers. Your own tried-and-true solutions are welcome, too! 

Echeveria being sprayed (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

How to Deal with Mealy Bugs on Succulents

If you grow succulents, sooner or later you’ll deal with mealy bugs. For newbies, mealies often come as a surprise. Suddenly the plants are dotted and webbed with what looks like lint. Veterans are more vigilant. We check for

Agave Snout Weevil Prevention and Treatment

Agave experts, growers, and pest management specialists advise drenching the soil around healthy agaves with a systemic insecticide containing imidacloprid.* Untreated agaves are at high risk of infestation. If treated early enough, an infested agave may survive.  The agave snout-nosed weevil is a half-inch-long black beetle with a downward-curving proboscis that enables it to pierce an agave’s…

Rinse ants out of rootball (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Ants in Your Succulents? What to Do

Late summer into fall, Argentine ants like to nest in the root balls of potted plants. Haworthias, aloes (especially dwarf varieties), gasterias and gasteraloes are highly vulnerable. Ants overwinter in the soil and consume the plant’s juicy core. Leaves eventually fall off and the plant dies. The first line of defense is to create a barrier around your pots using ant…

Cochineal scale on Opuntia (paddle cactus) (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

Cochineal Scale on Paddle Cactus, What To Do

White fuzzy lumps on paddle cactus are cochineal (coach-en-ee-al) scale, a parasite that pierces the plant’s skin and consumes its juices. It’s used to make carmine dye.

Frost and Succulents: What You Need to Know

See the video Depending on how long temps stay below freezing (32 degrees F), “frost tender” succulents may show varying degrees of damage. When moisture in the cells of a vulnerable plant freezes, it expands, bursts cell walls, and turns leaves to mush. In a “light frost,” leaf tips alone may show damage (“frost burn”). In a “hard…

Aloe mite (c) Debra Lee Baldwin

How to Manage Aloe Mite

They seem everywhere in spring: mite-damaged aloes ranging from dwarf cultivars to tree ‘Hercules’. The microscopic pests (Eriophyes aloines) are not insects but spider relatives. They cause deformed flowers, a bubbly fringe on leaf edges, and orange-and-green growths where leaves meet stems. Google “aloe mite treatment,” “aloe mite prevention,” “aloe gall” or “aloe cancer,” and you’ll discover that distinguished experts, landscape designers, succulent societies…