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Aerial Roots on Succulents

Your succulent collection is growing, and all they look great. But now you notice one succulent growing roots from the stem. It looks kinda funky. Like most changes in your succulents’ appearance, this is a clue to its health, so pay attention. These roots that appear on the stem of some plants are called aerial roots. Read on to see what aerial roots on succulents mean, and why they occur.

Why is My Succulent Growing Roots from the Stem?

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What are Aerial Roots?

Aerial roots on a Kalanchoe blossfeldiana
Aerial roots on a Kalanchoe blossfeldiana

Roots are a vitally important part of plants, from succulents to oak trees. While there are a number of different structures and some specialty roots, all roots support their plants in the following essential ways:

  • Roots take up moisture and transfer it to the rest of the plant
  • Roots take up nutrients and transfer them to the rest of the plant
  • Roots anchor plants in place, typically in soil

Usually, roots form at the base of the plant and live in the soil, performing these tasks. Sometimes, it’s just not enough — the plant’s need for water or an anchor point are not sufficiently met by the underground roots, so they develop roots on their stems. When you see a succulent growing roots from the stem, it is developing aerial roots to address some need. Most often, aerial roots on succulents indicate a need for more moisture or additional anchor points for the plant.

What Do Aerial Roots Do?

Kalanchoe houghtonii Mother of Millions with aerial roots at plantlets
Kalanchoe houghtonii Mother of Millions with aerial roots at plantlets

Aerial roots are able to collect water molecules from the air and transmit it to the rest of the plant. This supplements the supply of moisture in the soil. (Some plants, like mangroves, grown in very wet or swampy conditions actually use aerial roots for the reverse process — to help the plant to breathe. Succulents are likely to die from such wet conditions before aerial roots could be developed.)

Aerial roots also provide support for plants in a few ways. They may climb a structure, in the case of vines like ivy, or assist ground cover plants in spreading by forming new rooting spaces. Aerial roots on succulents typically form where a piece of the plant is likely to fall, due to damage or evolution. If the plant is weakened due to an injury or etiolation due to insufficient light, it will sprout aerial roots in anticipation of coming into contact with the earth, at which point, the aerial roots will be able to root into soil, taking up water and nutrition, while providing an anchor for that part of the succulent.

The image above shows the plantlets of Kalanchoe houghtonii, each with a spray of aerial roots forming on the tiny stem attaching them to the leaf of the mother plant. In a short time, these little stems will dry up and break, sending the baby plants to drift to the ground. At that point, their aerial roots will be ready to establish them in the soil to grow a new generation of Kalanchoe. In this case, the aerial roots on succulents are anticipating part of the plant to drop and are preparing to support the new plantlets when they do.

What Aerial Roots on Succulents Mean

Sedum rubrotinctum 'Aurora' with aerial roots
Sedum rubrotinctum ‘Aurora’ with aerial roots

Aerial roots on succulents mean the plant has a need it is trying to meet. Sometimes these roots growing from the stem are sufficient to meet the plant’s need. But you should always strive to recognize such changes in your plants and to understand what they mean. It may lead you to change the succulent’s care to ensure its health an vitality.

This sedum rubrotinctum ‘Aurora’ is thirsty. See how a few of the leaves are just a bit wrinkled? This is a sign the succulent needs more water. Overall, the leaves are nice and plump. I likely would not have noticed the small signs of puckering just yet. But the plant is responding by developing aerial roots to supplement its supply of water. That is a clear signal that the plant needs a bit more water. Watch for signs like this to inform your succulent care. Just don’t go overboard in your response and give it too much water.

Sometimes it can be difficult to know if a succulent is stretching for more light, or if that’s just the way it grows. If it develops aerial roots along the stem, it is a clear indication that it needs more support, and may anticipate that part of the plant falling to the earth. Etiolation is serious — don’t wait for the development of these roots before you act. However, aerial roots can clarify the issue in some cases.

Aerial Roots on Succulents

Kalanchoe tomentosa 'Silver Panda',
Kalanchoe tomentosa ‘Silver Panda’, photo credit by Karina Marinho Garcia

This Kalanchoe tomentosa Silver Panda is healthy and happy growing indoors. The aerial roots indicate that it is looking for a bit more water. The leaves of the succulent are plump and firm and all other indications are that the plant is healthy. You could increase the amount of water for the plant a very little bit, but keep the frequency the same. However, it is likely that this succulent growing roots from the stem has solved its need for additional water.

Aerial Roots Looking for Support

Kalanchoe fedtschenkoi with aerial roots
Kalanchoe fedtschenkoi with aerial roots, photo credit by Debbie Bray

This kalanchoe is growing quickly, and became a bit etiolated, reaching for more light. As this stem bends down, and over, it is developing aerial roots to provide anchor points when it reaches soil. The best way to handle this one would be to cut this stem back and root it on its own in another pot of soil. This is the essence of stem cutting propagation. With such well-developed aerial roots, this stem would soon form an actively growing plant on its own.

What to Do with Aerial Roots

Sedum rubrotinctum 'Mini Me' has developed many aerial roots
Sedum rubrotinctum ‘Mini Me’ has developed many aerial roots

Aerial roots on succulents are an important indication of the plant’s well-being. If you understand this, you will be better able to keep your succulents healthy. When you see succulents growing roots from the stem and you understand and address the plant’s need that caused the aerial roots, feel free to remove them or clip them back if you don’t like the way they look. But don’t simply dismiss them as unimportant and remove them without first investigating the underlying issues. The succulent devoted time, energy and resources to developing those roots for a reason.

This Sedum rubrotinctum ‘Mini Me’ is a low-growing, ground-cover plant — not a truly hanging succulent. As its stems grow longer, they develop aerial roots in search of the ground to spread out. While these roots could be trimmed back, the plant will just develop new ones. The stems can be cut back and rooted in soil to make many more plants.

Sedum dasyphyllum var, glanduliferum ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy’ succulent with aerial roots
Sedum dasyphyllum var, glanduliferum ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy’ succulent with aerial roots

Aerial roots on succulents tell you the plant needs something its regular root structure cannot provide. This is good feedback on your care. While some varieties develop these roots more frequently than others, the message they convey is the same.

I hope this article was helpful to you! If you have any questions, please leave a comment and I will respond within 24 hours. ‘Til next time –

Happy gardening!

P.S. For more information on succulents and their care, please subscribe to The Succulent Eclectic. You’ll receive my FREE e-course 7 Steps to Succulent Success!

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aerial roots on succulents

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This Post Has 18 Comments

  1. Helena

    I’m moving to an apartment and the family who lived there before had some succulents, but they look so sad! There’s one which doesn’t even have a pot, and it grew so many aerial roots it stuck to the wall and I can’t take it out. Then there’s this other one which I don’t think is even alive but there is a stem but it’s all dried up and hollow inside. Does it have a chance?

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Helena,
      Succulents are so well adapted to survive in extraordinarily harsh conditions, these poor plants may well survive and even thrive with some care. I’ve had succulents grow for months outside of their pot. Take cuttings and experiment with rooting them. If you want to send me a photo, I can give you specific advice. [email protected]
      Have fun with this!

  2. Barbara

    Thank you for writing such in-depth yet easy to understand care instructions for succulents. I’ve been enjoying your blog and appreciate the links you provide to additional information you’ve written elsewhere.

    This is my first winter with succulents and have noticed aerial roots developing on some of them. I have them under grow lights for about 12 hrs a day during this time, otherwise they are outdoors when the weather gets warmer. I’ve been watering the winter dormant plants less often to avoid root rot. After reading your article I’m wondering if I have aerial roots because they actually haven’t gone dormant and want their water as usual. I’m getting a lot of flower spikes too. Do you think my succulents don’t know it’s winter because they still get a good dose of light and the temperature only fluctuates between 58° – 70°F?

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Barbara,
      Welcome! 🙂
      It sounds like you are right on the issues with your succulents! The vast majority of succulents that have a winter dormancy are considered “opportunistic” in that they will go dormant if the conditions suggest they should, but remain actively awake and growing in more temperate conditions. I have Aeonium Kiwi all over my garden. Some go dormant every winter because they grow out in the open and are very exposed. Others, in more sheltered locations, typically remain active all winter long.
      Brining your succulents indoors will definitely cause some to remain awake that would normally be dormant in a colder winter.
      So – the aerial roots may well be telling you a good drink of water is in order. How do the leaves feel? Are the plump and full or sort of weak and soft?
      If you’d like to send me a photo — I’ll be happy to take a look!

  3. Isaac Schmitt

    Aerial roots do not absorb water from the air! This is impossible, and the statement results from a fundamental misunderstanding of plant physiology. The primary function of roots is collecting water to transport to the shoots. Tiny pores in the leaves or stems of plants, called stomata, are involved in gas exchange and water transport. Plants are able to “pull” water from the soil into the rest of the plant because of the hydrogen bonds holding water molecules together. As water evaporates from the stomata, hydrogen bonds that hold water together pull new water up through the xylem to replace the water that is lost. This is how plants move water into their leaves. This can only happen because the so called “water potential” of the air is much lower than that of soil. Water flows from regions of high water potential to low water potential. If the soil is moist and the air is dry, the plant is able to move water from the wet soil to the dry air. A plant cannot collect moisture from the air to fill its tissues because a plant has higher water potential than the air. A plant can only drink water BECAUSE it can lose some of that water to the air.

    Aerial roots probably form in low light or high humidity. Plant tissues can sense light and humidity. In nature if the light is low or humidity is high, it means a stem is rubbing up against the soil. In these conditions, it makes sense to build roots to tap into the soil.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Isaac,
      Thanks so much for the in-depth description of how succulents (and plants in general) take up water and supply the plant. You went beyond the point I was aiming for, but it’s always great to include more information.
      No, aerial roots can never fully supply the plant’s needs, nor fill its tissue simply from the air. I did not mean to imply that the aerial roots could ever suffice. But they are a good indication if the needs the plant is trying to address. This gives the succulent gardener a clear indication of how they need to change their care.
      Thanks so much for the comment!

  4. Gail Williams

    This is my fourth – could be fifth, I think, year of growing succulents here in London UK and I always find your posts excellent. I’ve learned so much and am feeling much more confident in caring for them (even when disasters strike) and about propagation. Thanks so much for your posts.

  5. Alan

    Hi, I decided to let an aerial root go down past the pot and into a glass beaker of water,, it is thriving and I have gradually added succulent soil mix to the beaker so it is now mostly soil.
    I can see there are many roots all looking healthy and circling the beaker and now at the stage where I need to transfer it somehow.
    Cut the root as it joins the stem?? Or cut the original stem so it’s a ‘new plantlet’?
    Have you ever tried this before??

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Alan,
      How cool!
      I’m sorry – I would need to see it before I advise you. Can you send me a photo? Email me at Kat [at] The Succulent Eclectic [dot] com
      I’ve never tried this, but I’m really curious now!

  6. David Carr

    comments please for a reader in the UK. Your posts are the best available for all aspects, thank you.
    For example I have Echeveria set oliver with a good 6″ of bare stem and healthy top growth, several inches but of course it is out of balance and now showing aerial roots, top to bottom. this replicates one or two others here. Is the answer to pot and reroot from the top of the stem, please? It is too long just to set further down.
    Another example of a long stem but no aerial roots is my Aeonium Sunburst, Again healthy but ungainly on a several inches bare stem.
    Some of the echeverias are showing aerial roots from near to the soil, others none at all.
    In general I suppose the best solution is to repot to gain a more compact plant. With all the different varieties not every one will be suited, but for the most part i am acheiving success inside on bright windowsill with sun. Ours is not an ideal climate which I realise doesnt help with etoliation.
    Thank you

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi David,
      Thanks SO much!
      For your Echeveria, I would cut the long stem about 2 centimeters above the soil line. Then, cut the stem again maybe 5-7 cm below the rosette.
      Treat the rosette stem like a succulent stem cutting and re-root it.
      Then, continue to care for the rooted base. Cut way back on the watering. It will likely sprout new top growth. You’ll get 2 plants from the one that has stretched! 🙂
      Set aside any individual leaves to propagate them, too.
      This is the approach to take for the Aeonium, too.
      Aeonium grow on woody stems that grow longer, no matter what the lighting conditions are. “:In the wild”, the long stems eventually break and fall to the ground where they re-root. You’re just hurrying that process along! 🙂
      In time, you’ll always need to cut them back and re-root them to keep them looking more attractive. With sufficient light, Echeveria remain compact and close to the ground. But sometimes, they need a bit of intervention.
      Thanks so much for reading!

  7. Kim

    Hi Kat
    I was wondering what plant is shown in the first and last photo? I was given a handful of this from a friend and it is dropping a lot of it’s leaves. Can they be propagated? What’s the best thing to do with the stems which are now mostly bare except for a few leaves at the top?
    Thanks Kim

    1. Kat McCarthy

      You bet!

  8. John

    I have some kalanchoe clippings that have developed some roots after 3 days. I follwed your directions from the propagation from cuttings article. The leaves look shriveled, especially on the ones without roots developing yet. Is that normal? Or is it a sign that they’re dying?

    Also, can you propagate an aloe vera from a leaf? Got a leaf but didn’t know if it would work.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi John,
      In time, as the baby plant roots and grows, it pulls moisture and nutrients from the mother leaf. The mother leaf whithers and eventually dries up and sloughs off.
      If the baby plant is growing, this is totally normal. if you do not yet have roots or a baby plant, mist the mother leaf. Don’t water the soil, but mist a little water on the leaf every other day to keep it hydrated until the roots form.
      Yes, you can, sometimes, with luck and patience, grow a plant from a single Aloe vera leaf. But it if far from certain. Far better to use that healing gel for yourself and to take pups or offsets or a stem cutting for propagation.
      If you want to try propagating the leaf, let me know and I’ll tell you exactly how. It’s a different procedure than normal.

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