Etiolated Succulent Growing Tall & Stretched

Succulents Stretching and Etiolated

Do you have a succulent growing tall, thin and stretched looking? Every succulent lover eventually encounters this. If this has happened to you, you may have noticed that the plant’s color is paler than it once was. It may be leaning over to one side, possibly dramatically so. This is an etiolated succulent. The problem is succulents stretching due to insufficient sunlight, and it can really damage your plant. In extreme cases, it can lead to death. The good news is that this can be fixed, and you can get your succulent healthy and happy again! To recognize the issue and to correct it, let’s take a close look at succulents, sunshine and etiolation.

Etiolated Definition

etiolated white asparagus grown without light

Etiolate (EE-tee-oh-late) means to grow a plant in a lack of sunlight, resulting in pale, weak growth, often thin and stretched. The Oxford English Dictionary defines etiolated as “(of a plant) pale and drawn out due to a lack of light”. Without light, plants fail to form chlorophyll, the substance that gives leaves their green color and that is the key element for absorbing energy from light. So without light, plants don’t “green up”, and are instead, pale and weak. This condition is not always accidental. White asparagus and white celery are grown with all access to sunlight deliberately blocked to result in white spears and stalks. These are considered a delicacy – with prices to match. When it comes to succulents, there is no upside to etiolated plants. While it happens most often indoors, it can also happen outside.


Why Do Succulents Need Sun?

closeup of sunlight on sempervivum

Succulents need sunlight for photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process where a plant converts energy from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into energies it can use, in the form of sugars and starches. Essentially, plants convert sunlight into carbohydrates or food. These carbohydrates fuel the plant’s growth, development of new leaves and roots, its flowering and reproduction. This food fuels the plant’s entire life cycle. All life on earth is dependent upon photosynthesis. That’s a staggering statement, isn’t it? But it’s true. All plants need photosynthesis for food. And all animals, insects and people rely on plants for food. Even carnivores eat animals that eat plants. And the foundation of this entire food chain is sunlight.

Succulents Stretching for Light

echeveria succulents stretching for light

Given the vital importance sunlight is for a succulent, let’s look at what the plant does when it doesn’t get enough light. We tend to think of plants as static, immobile – even passive. But this is just how it seems. It’s certainly true that plants move much more slowly than most animals, but they are anything but passive. And they do move. While a plant cannot get up and walk into better lighting, it has developed adaptations to enable it to make the most of the light it does get, and to try to get more. A plant changes the orientation of its leaves to catch more light on the surface of the leaf. It will put on a quick flush of new growth, stretching to reach more light. In the picture above, you can see three specific changes this echeveria is making in response to insufficient light:

  • First, the lower leaves are pointing downward. This exposes the greatest surface area of each leaf to the light that is available, maximizing its ability to photosynthesize.
  • Next, note how the plant leans to the left. It senses the greatest concentration of available light, and bends toward it.
  • Third, the stem is gaining height at a faster rate than new leaves can be developed. Large gaps are developing between the leaves. These gaps, too, expose each leaf to more light.
Etiolated Succulent Fenestraria
etiolated fenestraria from healthy to stretched and collapsed
Photos by Nadine E.

The echeveria above is beginning to stretch for more light, but the plant is not unhealthy yet. It has lost some of its graceful form, but is still vigorous, and will respond well to an increase in light. But etiolation can be deadly. This photo progression of a fenestraria baby toes plant demonstrates this all too well. On the left is the healthy, compact plant with its deep green leaves short and pudgy, like the little toes it is named for. Note that fenestraria do not form a stem, just upright leaves connected to the root structure. Because this plant is in too little light, it begins to stretch, as shown in the middle shot. Eventually, the leaves become a pale color, and so thin and stretched so tall, they have collapsed, and are no longer able to remain upright. This is inhibiting the plant’s ability to transfer water from its roots to the leaves. The plant is struggling to live.

Thank you, Nadine Eggenberger, for the photos to demonstrate this!


Etiolated Succulent Growing Tall

etiolated succulent growing tall and stretched with label

This sedeveria Letizia on the left is a more typical example of a succulent growing tall and stretched. The leaves point down and the stem is stretching tall, leaning way over to the side toward the light. Because its stem is growing faster than its leaves are developing, there are wide gaps between the leaves, exposing them to more light. The vivid green color tells us that this stretching is enabling the plant to reach enough light to continue to form abundant chlorophyll. It is still quite vigorous.


If the plant on the left is never moved into more light, eventually, the stem would break under the weight of its tall growth leaning to the side. You know what? In the wild, this is another adaptation to enable the plant to survive! In nature, if this succulent stretches way off to the side, to the point of breaking, the stem would fall to the earth. And that stem would begin to sprout new roots, eventually forming a new and separate plant now anchored closer to the sunlight! My thanks to Emily Danielle Griffin and April Dailey for sharing their photos of sedeveria Letizia!

Correcting Etiolated Succulent with Long Stem

correcting etiolated succulent by cutting stem and replanting

“As the twig is bent, so grows the tree” – Alexander Pope. But succulents are more resilient than trees. While it is true that a stretched stem will never shorten again, you can achieve a compact plant from an etiolated succulent. Simply cut the top rosette from the stem, remove the lower leaves, and replant it. Essentially, you are “beheading” the succulent! I know it sounds drastic, but just look at the beautiful results! This echeveria blue rose was a badly stretched, etiolated succulent. After cutting back the top, and shortening the stem, it became a beautiful new plant! For an in-depth guide to propagating your succulents from cuttings, including cutting back etiolated succulents, read here.

Do Succulents Need Sun All Day Long?

echeveria in full day sun

So just how much light do succulents need? From all of the discussion above, you might wonder, do succulents need sun all day? Fortunately, they don’t. In fact, some succulents have adapted to growing in lower light conditions, and are ideally suited to growing indoors. And while most succulents do need a lot of light, most cannot handle direct sun all day long. So how do you know how much light to give them? Let the plant guide you.


Remember how succulents tip their leaves down in insufficient light, in order to maximize the amount of leaf surface exposed to the sun? When you see your succulents doing this, move them into a bit more light right away, rather than waiting for a long, gangly, stretched out stem to form. And with this in mind, what do you think of this echeveria, here? Not only are its leaves not pointing down, it is looking pretty closed up, isn’t it? Do you see how this plant’s leaves are tilting to minimize the amount of leaf exposed to the light? In fact, each leaf is shading the next. This rosette is more closed than echeveria typically are. This tells us that the plant is getting a lot of light. Perhaps not dangerously too much, but the plant is using its adaptations to conserve water rather than to maximize photosynthesis. So this plant could certainly handle less sunlight.

Adjusting Succulents to More Light

bright sun on sempervivum

Make changes to brighter light gradually. Add more light by just 30 minutes per day, every third day. Be sure to watch the plant carefully for signs of stress. As long as the leaves are tipped down, continue to add more light on this gradual plan. Too much direct light can cause the leaves to sunburn. This can happen from adding too much light too quickly, before the plant is able to adapt to it. Think of when you start to develop a tan. You don’t spend the first day in direct sun for 6 hours! A half hour the first day might be a bit much, even though, in time, you will be able to handle much more. The same is true for your succulent.


There you have it! You can now diagnose an etiolated succulent, and you know how to correct it! 🙂 If you have any questions, please take a moment and leave a comment. I will get right back to you!

Because life is just better with succulents!

P.S. For my FREE course, 7 Steps to Succulent Success, please subscribe! Thanks so much!

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why succulents stretch and how to correct it

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26 thoughts on “Etiolated Succulent Growing Tall & Stretched”

  1. Thank you very much for this information. For years I have lost succulents this way and not understood why. This is awesome thank you again

    1. Hi. I recently started reading your blog and I have learned so many tips. Thank you!! I recently noticed my burro tails is stretching and I don’t know what to do? I can send a picture if easier. I’m wondering if I should cut off the long part. I placed it in a sunnier spot. Sigh. Just when I thought I was getting better. Are there any succulents that do better in low light?

      1. Hi Liza,
        The best/most frustrating thing about loving succulents is that there is always more to learn! πŸ™‚
        Yes, it sounds like your burro tail needs more light. Please do send me a photo so I can see what you are seeing. Send it to me at Kat@thesucculenteclectic.com.
        Please be sure to increase the light slowly! No more than an extra half hour each day. And watch the succulent carefully as you do. You don’t want to risk it getting sunburned.
        There are some succulent varieties better suited to low light. Try haworthia, sansevieria, kalanchoe blossfeldiana or Flaming Katy, faucarica or tiger jaws and crassula ovata – the classic jade are all good options for lower light.
        I’ll watch for your photos!
        ~Kat

  2. I have an African Felt plant that has stretched. Too much water ,too little sun. I would like to restart it , but am fearful of loosing the entire plant. How would you suggest it be restarted? Most my other plants I just behead (as you said) them and repot, but this plant cost more and is more uncommon, so I’m reluctant. I appreciate your article on etiolation. I will start moving some things around. I live in SoCal and our sun is rally harsh sometimes. Thanks, again.

    1. Hi Teresa,
      Kalenchoe beharensis is such a lovely plant! I will be happy to assist you with this. I think you will find a series of stem cuttings to be the best approach. You can read all about this process here: http://thesucculenteclectic.com/propagating-succulents-stem-cuttings/ Please send me a photo or two of your plant, and we can look it over together to figure out exactly where to make your cuts. πŸ™‚
      Also, be sure to take extra care with the moisture levels during this process. The velvety foliage on this plant must be kept dry.
      ~Kat

  3. Hello! My suculents got a little bit of a purple color in their leaves. Does that mean that they have too much exposure to light?

    Thank you!!

    1. Hi Coni,
      Likely, the purple flush you are seeing is related to their sun exposure, though it might also be just the time of the year. What type of succulents are they?
      I will be posting an article all about color changes in succulents on Tuesday! πŸ™‚
      Please send me a photo or two so I can see what you are seeing. Likely, they are absolutely fine!
      ~Kat

  4. Hello,
    Over the past coupld of days I have been reading a few of your posts. They are wonderful, clear, good information. Thank you so much. I had just read this post and a friend the next day gave me two succulents in a tiny pot and they were etiolated! One has babies growing out of two leaves. I am wondering what they best way to divide and propagate it would be. Could I send you a photo of it for your thoughts?

  5. Hi, Kat!
    Thanks for the great article. I’ve got a couple pics of my echeveria that illustrate this in an outdoor setting. While they do get some shade as the sun moves, they receive sun all day… could this be caused by something else?

  6. A friend gave me a succulent about 3 years ago. It was real tiny and in a small Brandy Sniffer with colored beads. It stared to grow and we transplanted it soil but the root of if does not stay tight in soil and it is really growing but we can’t get it to grow straight. what are we doing wrong. It is real nice and green.
    I need help because this plant means a lot to me.

    1. Hi Joan,
      It was a pleasure speaking with you!
      Please stay the course, send me a photo when you can, and let me know if yo9u have any further questions! πŸ™‚
      ~Kat

  7. Thank you for this! I was gifted a succulent for Christmas and it immediately started growing tall. I thought it was odd, but have never cared for succulents. I’ve been trying to identify it but since hardly anyone posts pics of the leggy version, it’s been challenging. I am going to go behead this plant, pronto!

    1. Hi Margie,
      SO glad to have helped! πŸ™‚
      It will thrive for you and stay more compact with more light.
      Thanks so much for the comment!
      ~Kat

  8. This is great info, thank you! I have a plant that I think is an Echevaria – it was growing downward in a dome shape, and suddenly it started stretching out. It sits in a window in my office so I thought it was getting enough light. I’m hoping this info might help me save it!

  9. I have a plant that I have been told is a succulent.
    I have tried to find out what type on the email but finding this is impossible
    The stem grows very long and is square at the base of the leaves.
    Please may I send you a photo.
    thanks
    karen

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