Etiolated Succulent Growing Tall & Stretched

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


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, not just drooping. 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! You might see the development of aerial roots indicating the plant expects to break. 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! πŸ™‚ 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!

* indicates required



why succulents stretch and how to correct it
(Visited 65,033 times, 9 visits today)

This Post Has 53 Comments

  1. Judith Prasad

    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. Kat McCarthy

      You are most welcome, Judith! πŸ™‚
      Please feel free to reach out with any questions!
      ~Kat

    2. Liza Lagdamen

      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. Kat McCarthy

        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. Teresa Sharp

    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. Kat McCarthy

      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: https://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. Coni

    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. Kat McCarthy

      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. Tammie

    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?

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Tammie,
      Absolutely! πŸ™‚ Please send the photos to me at Kat@TheSucculentEclectic.com
      I will be happy to help you with your succulents!
      ~Kat

  5. Fred

    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?

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Fred,
      Please send me your photos – I’d like to take a look. Send them to kat@thesucculenteclectic.com.
      Could they be getting more shade during the day than you think?
      ~Kat

  6. Joan Phillips

    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. Kat McCarthy

      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. Margie

    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. Kat McCarthy

      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. Alyson

    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!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Alyson,
      I hope it does help!
      If you would like to send me a photo, I would be happy to take a look!
      ~Kat

      1. Alyson

        Thanks! I’ll send one via email!

        1. Kat McCarthy

          Perfect!
          ~Kat

          1. Leilani

            I’m so glad I found your pinterest page πŸ™‚ I have a pot full of a variety of different succulents. Some seem to be growing fine while others are stretching. I thought that they were just that type of succulent that grow that way. Is it because some of them need more light than the others?

          2. Kat McCarthy

            Hi Leilani,
            Thanks so much for your comment! Yes! Some succulents need much more light than others. You’ll find some key characteristics for many succulents here. You can identify your succulents to provide specific care for each, or what their response and adjust their conditions as necessary.
            One important point – please don’t take the succulents that are stretching and move them straight into a ton of sun! Go more gradually to avoid the risk of succulent sunburn.
            Let me know if I can help!
            ~Kat

  9. K

    What a well written and illustrated article. Thank you!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      You are most welcome, K! πŸ™‚
      ~Kat

  10. karen

    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

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Karen,
      Absolutely! πŸ™‚
      Please send me a photo – more if you have them – to kat@thesucculenteclectic.com
      I will do my best for you!
      ~Kat

  11. Michele

    Have researched succulent care a lot!!! Your articles are very well written & very informative, even for a succulent ADDICT! Would love to send you some pics on “weird” happenings on a couple succs.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Michelle,
      Thank you so much!
      Please do! Send me your pics at Kat@TheSucculentEclectic.com. I will be happy to take a look for you!
      ~Kat

  12. Joanna

    Hi! Thank you for this great post. I have a succulent that I have had for a few months now. It had started growing tall ever since I got it and at first I thought it was just how it was supposed to grow. Recently it has shot upwards and started to really stretch. However, the plant sits on a south-west facing window and gets plenty of Florida sun and gets watered same as all my other plants. Any ideas as to why it’s stretching?

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Joanna,
      Glad you found it helpful!
      Remember that even a plant a south-facing window in Florida will not get nearly as much sun as the same plant would sitting just outside the window. Modern windows filter out a lot of light to protect our upholstery and rugs from fading due to the sun. Also, make note of how many hours it is getting a lot of sun through the window, and when does the sun move it into shade? It sounds like you have a variety that needs a great deal of sun, possibly direct sun outdoors. Do you know the variety name? Or can you send me a photo so I can take a look for you? Feel free to email it to me at kat@thesucculenteclectic.com. I will be happy to take a look for you!
      ~Kat

  13. Gwynn

    Thank you for all of the succulent care information that you share…it has been so helpful.
    I have a question about growing succulents indoors. I recently got a grow light system that can accommodate most of my plants but am not sure how best to use it. At this time, I have the lights (LED) on for 14 hours each day. Is that too much for some succulents? I wondered particularly about the Haworthia and Kalanchoe…how can I learn the light requirements of each kind and how Led grow lights differ from regular outdoor sunlight in regard to what it does for/to succulents. Thanks.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Gwynn,
      Thanks so much!
      Great job getting grow lights! They will help your plants to thrive indoors for you. 14 hours on, with 10 hours of darkness should be a good setting to start with for your varieties that love a lot of light. Read my post on grow lights here to learn more about how to use your grow lights – pay close attention to the spacing between your plants and the led fixtures!
      I would place the haworthia at the outer edge of your group of plants under the grow lights – then keep an eye on them. It is possible for succulents to “sunburn” in too much light. This is unlikely under grow lights, but it can happen. Review my post on sunburned succulents here. If your kalanchoe is a blossfelidiana, then I would add it to the outer ring with the haworthia. However, many other kalanchoe varieties like full sun.
      Learning the specific requirements of the succulent varieties you have can be tricky, because each genus has members that want very different conditions. Feel free to send me any photos, and I will be happy to help you to identify them. Or, I would suggest you explore Mountain Crest Garden’s website. Click on each variety you own, and review the care information for each one.
      Another great resource is the “succulentopedia” at World of Succulents.
      Be sure to watch your haworthia and kalanchoe for early signs that the light is too extreme. If you see the leaves closing up, to shade each other, this is a sign the plant is in a bit more light than is comfortsable. This will happen indoors well before any burning from grow lights.
      Please feel free to ask any other questions!
      ~Kat

  14. Cheryl

    I have a plant called a kalanchoe, how often are they supposed to flower? The flowers all fell off last summer and it is now March and has not had any flowers on it but it’s still green.
    Thanks Cheryl

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Cheryl,
      Generally, most plants will bloom on a yearly basis, if the growing conditions are right. If your kalanchoe is the blossfeldiana – the one often found in grocery stores, with bright, colorful blooms and deep green leaves, the one that grows well indoors – it can be a bit of a challenge to re-bloom indoors. You’ll find my blog post on how to rebloom Kalanchoe blossfeldiana here. The issue this plant is that it needs to experience the same environmental cues that it would in its natural habitat. The key is that the plant needs significant time in complete darkness every day for a full six weeks. Once you understand what it needs, you’ll be able to reliably bring it back into bloom.
      If your Kalanchoe is a different variety, please let me know!
      ~Kat

      1. Cheryl

        Thanks Kat for your reply…I will try that.
        Cheryl

        1. Kat McCarthy

          Perfect!
          Please let me know if you have any questions on it!
          ~Kat

  15. Susan J. Reinhardt

    Do you have a list of succulents that don’t require as much sunlight as other varieties? I currently have a few small succulents, including a Jade plant. They’re on my kitchen windowsill (northern exposure). My Christmas Cactus, mini orchid, and two African Violets are happy. Will my succulents survive? (I just got them.) Thanks, Susan

  16. Rebecca S

    Hello Kat!

    Glad to see this thread is still active. Thank you for the helpful info!
    I found this because I was looking for a solution to my latest succulent issue. It’s growing tall, but the leaves or “body” or the plant are not spreading out- instead there is just a lot of space between the plant body and the roots, and it looks like the exposed stem is growing new roots. Does this mean i need to plant my succulent in a deeper pot, or is there another solution? The plot I have is probably 4ish inches deep right now.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Rebecca,
      This may be a different issue. Some succulents, like aeonium, graptoveria, graptopetalum, sedeveria and others β€” think Ghost Plant β€” do have stems that grow longer and sometimes twist. It looks a lot like what you are describing and it is just the nature of some succulents. If you know what type your succulent is and it’s one I have lusted β€” you are all set! πŸ™‚
      If you are unsure what type your succulent is, or just want me to take a look, please send me a photo or two by email to kat [at] the succulent eclectic dot com
      I’ll be happy to take a look for you! πŸ™‚
      ~Kat

  17. Ingrid Chen

    Hi Kat, I’m new to your site and really enjoying the distance learning! If you are an expert on any other kind of plants, please do tell.
    Thanks for your generous sharing!
    Ingrid
    Bethnal Green, London

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Ingrid,
      SO glad you’re enjoying the site! I do have some extensive experience with flower bulbs and can be helpful with some other plants, too. But it’s a huge world of gardening out there!
      I am happy to help if I can! πŸ™‚
      ~Kat

  18. Becky

    Hello!
    I think every one of my succulents are elongated. They have long stalks (leaves fall off but a beautiful head remains) and there are arial roots on many.
    I’ve got a bit of a trellis going on for them right now. Do you think I should just lay them down so that the roots can grow or should I cut off all of the heads? I have tiny ones growing from some spots and they do produce babies (growing beside the plans and from leaves that have fallen off.). What do you think?

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Becky,
      Without knowing what type of succulents you have, it’s a bit hard to advise… I would likely cut off the heads and re-root them, while letting the rooted bases continue to grow, but I would rather be sure before yu act. PLease send me a photo of your plant? You can email me at kat [at] thesucculenteclectic [dot] com. Or, you’re welcome to post them on The Succulent Perch Community on Facebook! We would love to have you join us!
      ~Kat

  19. Kaylee Vida

    Hi Kat! I have a succulent that I believe is a echeveria (as best I can tell from pictures, and it has etiolated. I know when we first got it it was not receiving adequate light. Now it grows really great, but it is at least 6-8 inches tall. I know I need to cut the rosette off the top and replant it. What do I do with the remaining stem? Also, I did read your article on propagating from stem cuttings, so do I follow that by leaving the rosette out for a few weeks to callous over before planting it?

    Thank you so much for this valuable information!!!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Kaylee,
      I would encourage you to keep the rooted stem in good light and water lighting when the soil dries out. There is an excellent chance that it will develop new top growth for you, even while you root the top rosette! πŸ™‚
      Then, yes, treat the cut-off rosette like a stem cutting: “plant it” in dry succulent soil, and in 2 weeks, water lightly. Then follow like a stem cutting.
      I know it seems scary, but it really works! And it is so exciting to see this plant regenerate!
      Thanks so much for the great question\!
      ~Kat

  20. Samantha

    Thank you for this, I am really enjoying my daily emails. I love your no nonsense explanations, which have probably saved two of my succulents already.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Samantha,
      You made my day! πŸ™‚
      Thank you!
      ~Kat

  21. Nadrina

    Hi Kat,
    Are there any tips for how to recognize signs of too much sun/sunburn early on with cacti? The piece with the leaves makes a lot of sense, but cacti don’t have leaves!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Nadrina,
      This is a GREAT question!
      It is harder to tell with a cactus when it is getting too much sun.
      Just before a succulent or cactus sunburns, it develops a silvery sheen to the skin. But it can be hard to see for certain. With a cactus, when you see it change color, often becoming paler or even somewhat yellow, that is a sign it is stressed by the amount of sunlight it is getting. I would take action when I see the color change. Sunburn is more serious in cacti than other succulents that can outgrow the scarred leaves. A sunburn is permanent on a cactus.
      Always introduce a cactus to full sun slowly, and keep an eye on them during the summer, when the UV rays of the sun are more intense and damaging!
      I wish I could be more help!
      ~Kat

  22. Jenn

    Kat, you have the BEST blog that I have found for succulent care. I just found you tonight and have literally been reading through your posts and all of the comments/questions for the last 3 hours straight haha.

    I love that you explain not just the what, but also the when, why, and how! I have been trying to figure out how much sun time to add each day to harden my succulents to the climate and you defined it perfectly. I can’t tell you how many blogs I’ve read that just say “don’t put them in full sun right away, do it gradually.” I’m always left wondering what gradually actually means but not after reading this thread.

    Thank you very much Kat, I have subscribed to your blog and joined the facebook group and I look forward to learning more from you. Sending you and your succulents my warmest regards! <3

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Wow, Jenn – You just made my whole month! πŸ™‚
      Thank you!
      SO glad we’ll be seeing you on Facebook – our group of succulent enthusiasts is just awesome!
      How much sun to add each day is so subjective and varies by the succulent variety, your climate and the season. I decided to give the most conservative answer that allows for all of those variables, so that people would err on the side of caution.
      Thanks so much for your kind words and your enthusiasm. And thank you for subscribing!
      ~Kat

Leave a Reply