How to Make Succulents Change Color?

How to Make Succulents Change Color?

How to Stress Succulents

Don’t you just love colorful succulents? Me, too. Last week, I took an in-depth look at how and why stress causes succulents to change color. This is important to understand to provide the best care for your plants. A change in color will alert you to important issues. But now you may want to know how to make succulents change color. Let’s look at how to stress succulents without harming them.

{Please note, some links in this post may be affiliate links to sites that pay me a small commission if you click on the link and make a purchase. This commission is at absolutely no cost to you. I only recommend products and companies that I have worked with and truly love! ~Kat}

What is Physical Stress?

aeonium sunburst changes color in response to stress

As discussed in detail in last week’s post, physical stress can be understood as any change in optimal conditions that requires a physical response from a living being. This is true for plants, animals and people. Although we usually think of “stress” as something very negative and to be prevented, physical stress is much broader than that. We tan, we build muscle, we lose weight and we strengthen our immune systems – all in response to forms of physical stress.

Many forms of succulent stress cause the plants to increase their production of anthocyanin and carotenoid. These are pigments that protect the plant from damage due to changes in lighting, water and temperature, while producing vibrant color changes, as shown in this Aeonium ‘Sunburst’. These are changes you can cause or influence, to result in more colorful succulents. A gentle application of stress is how to make succulents change color. This is known as stressing succulents.


Is Stressing Succulents Cruel?

It would be cruel to damage the health of something you love, just to make it “prettier”. But are stress and the biological responses to it always a sign of strained health? No. Stress and the production of anthocyanin in response to it is simply a set of natural conditions that succulents have adapted to over millennia. All plants and animals have developed strategies for responding to environmental stress. Attempts to prevent an organism from experiencing its natural environmental fluctuations can, in fact, be damaging to it.

Years and years ago, when I first started gardening, I was so excited! I planted all manner of beautiful plants in my southern California garden, certain they would love the climate. Who doesn’t, right? I figured if a plant could actually survive the harsh winters of the Midwest – think how much happier it would be in San Diego! 🙂 Well, of course, my misplaced kindness resulted in a lot of dead plants. I hadn’t realized that I was forcing them to live in an environment they were not suited for. The very stress I wanted to “save” them from was necessary to their survival and thriving. Both Echeveria ‘Black Prince‘ above are quite healthy.


We often want to spare those we love from stress or discomfort of any kind. At the same time, we diet and exercise and tan, all in an effort to become healthier and fitter. It’s all stress. And an organism that has never experienced stress or environmental change is at greater risk when the next change occurs.

Stress is Part of Life

While the human body is certainly capable of running more than 26 miles to complete a marathon, it requires a gradual and steady application of stress to achieve. No one going from an entirely sedentary existence could walk, let alone run even a single mile without risking real injury. The stretching, exercise and training necessary to develop the strength and endurance are all forms of applied stress. But you don’t want your plants to run a marathon, right? And you will always protect them from stress?


Even the most careful and committed gardener cannot be certain their plants will never experience stress. Illness, injury and emergencies happen, distracting you. The neighbor’s dog jumps the fence and knocks the potted plant off the shelf. Heat waves, droughts, cold spells happen in the garden. Shade trees fall, letting in direct sun. Nearby plants grow and cast new shade. Life happens. And when any of these changes suddenly occur, perfectly protected plants will not fare as well as those that have experienced and overcome stress in small, manageable doses. The Kalanchoe luciae ‘Flapjacks’ above demonstrates the color changes caused by changing sun exposure due to changing seasons.

Which Succulents Change Color Due to Stress?
echeveria melaco develops deeper color in response to stress of more sun exposure

Before you decide to stress a succulent to make it more colorful, be certain to choose a variety that develops color in response to stress! 🙂 Some varieties are green in ideal conditions and remain green no matter what. Most silver varieties remain that same, silvery tone. A good way to choose is by the name. If the succulent’s name includes a color, like Echeveria ‘Blue Ruffles’, or Sedum adolphii ‘Golden Glow’, it is almost certainly one that colors well under stress. Another good indicator is a plant that already shows a bit of contrasting color on the margins and tips of the leaves.


Yet another good indication is when the plant’s name does not seem to match its look. Above, is Echeveria ‘Melaco’, which means “molasses”. Looking at the image on the left, it is hard to see why it would be named after the deep, dark syrup. Seeing the one on the right – it is very clear!

Mountain Crest Gardens supplied the first image of echeveria Melaco.

How to Make Succulents Change Color
Euphorbia tirucalli 'Sticks on Fire' develops bright color in response to stress and more sunlight

As we have discussed, stress is a natural part of life. In small or manageable doses, it can even be beneficial, like exercise, or vitamin D intake from sunshine. The key is those manageable doses. While sunshine is good for you, too much too soon, and you get a nasty sunburn. Excercise is good, too. But again – too much, too soon and you are risking serious injury. Think of it as the difference between “stretch” and “strain”. Consistently reaching to the point where you feel the stretch makes you more limber over time. But push it to the point of strain, and you have a painful injury that reverses your progress. An easy-does-it approach is always important when you choose to deliberately invite stress, whether for yourself, your kids or your succulents. The Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ above is thriving in different amounts of sunlight.


Stressing Succulents with Sun Exposure

How to make succulents change color while remaining healthy and happy is all about slowly introducing stress. If you allow your succulents to experience too much stress too quickly, it will be damaging to them. Instead, take it very s-l-o-w-l-y, just as you should for yourself. When acclimating succulents to more sun, do so gradually. Changing seasons naturally changes the lighting, and does so slowly and gradually. You can see the results with the Aeonium ‘Kiwi’ in the top two shots above. This plant is grown in the same location and shows the color changes that occur with the seasonal changes in lighting.

Stressing Succulents with More Light

Increasing the sun exposure for your succulents is the most common form of stressing succulents. You can mimic the changes of the seasons by gradually adjusting the sun exposure for your plants. I recommend increasing sun exposure just about 30 minutes per day, every third day. Keep an eye on them, and make sure they are not demonstrating an aversion to the sun exposure before increasing it again. You will see this if the plant’s leaves fold up toward the stem, minimizing their exposure to the sunlight. Succulents’ closing response to excess sunlight is described in greater depth here.

The Sempervivum Purple Passion above shows color changes due to both temperature and sun exposure shifts. Notice how on the left, in greater sun exposure, the leaves of the rosette are far more closed than on the right? In more sun, the plant is responding both by producing more anthocyanin as well as creating more shade for each leaf by partially closing. As you increase the lighting for your plant by 30 minutes every three days, watch to see if/when your plant begins to close up like this. If you see this, give your plant an extra week or so before increasing the sun exposure again. As long as it retains its shape, increase the sun exposure every third day. If it begins to close, give it 10 days before increasing its sun exposure again.

My thanks to Mountain Crest Gardens for the use of their sempervivum Purple Passion photos!


Stressing Succulents with Temperature
sempervivum jowan shows color changes due to seasonal temperature changes

For temperature stress, never – ever – risk exposing tender succulents to freezing. They will die. Instead, unless you know precisely the temps your succulent can tolerate, just let the change in seasons produce color change gradually due to temperature shifts. Nights in the 40’s and days in the 50s will yield brilliant results in many tender varieties. The Sempervivum ‘Jowan’ above demonstrates just how colorful a change of seasons can be for cold-hardy succulents.

Thank you, Mountain Crest Gardens for the use of these sempervivum heuffelii ‘Jowan’ images!


How to Stress Succulents with Water Restriction
sedum rubrotinctum jelly beans develops colorful leaves in response to more sunlight

When you stress succulents with water, it must always be by restricting their water intake. Too much water is the surest way to kill your succulents! To induce colorful water stress, continue to water only when the soil is dry. But leave it dry an extra day. Continue to provide abundant water when you water – just extend the dry time by an extra day. You are stretching the succulent’s ability to tolerate drought. Continue this pattern over time, with an extra day of dry soil between waterings. This will eventually result in a flush of colorful anthocyanin, demonstrated by the Sedum rubrotinctum jelly bean plant above.

Stressing Succulents? Keep it Simple
echeveria perle von nurnberg develops better color with more sunlight

As you begin stressing your succulents for color changes, try just one approach at a time. Rather than increase the sun exposure and restrict the water — choose just one approach. This way, you don’t overburden your plants with too much stress too soon. It will also make it much easier for you to determine exactly how your succulents respond to each change you make. This very slow and gradual approach to stressing your plants will result in more colorful succulents that are not just healthy, but more fit to survive.

Now you know how to make succulents change color! Whether or not you choose to use stress for more colorful succulents — it is important to understand the nature and effects of stressed succulents. It will help you to best meet their needs in a changing environment. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask! I am here to help!

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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how to stress succulents for more color


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This Post Has 32 Comments

  1. Elaine Olson

    I continue to love your articles; in fact, I have recommended your website to two more people just today so think I am your latest fan! Keep it up.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Awesome!!!
      Thanks SO much, Elaine! I truly appreciate the support!
      ~Kat

    2. Josie Junghans

      I also read the article of stressing our babies for them to be beautiful. lol It is interesting. I was wondering how I can make the pencil sticks go on fire. Hope to see mine change for it is so green right now. I thought I have to buy the firestick species. Thanks for sharing.

      1. Kat McCarthy

        Hi Josie,
        I don’t know about stressing for beautiful babies! 🙂 BUT! I do know if you always keep the room dark and absolutely quiet for the baby to sleep – the growing child will always need perfect conditions and have trouble sleeping when conditions are a bit more real world. It is a good thing to be able to survive and even thrive when conditions are less than perfect!
        Are your euphorbia firesticks getting a lot of sun? They typically turn the firey reds and yellows when they get lots of sun and the temps warm up for the summer. If your firesticks are in a lot of shade, make changes to more light very gradually, so they do not burn. Stress is one thing, damage is another.
        Thanks so much for the comment!
        ~Kat

  2. Tammie

    Wonderful and interesting post. I had no idea as to the coloring and that it can change. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Tammie,
      You bet! Succulents will tell you everything you need to know to take care of them well! 🙂
      ~Kat

  3. Marcy

    I really liked your post also and subscribed as well. My problem is my hens & chicks….common variety green in color, when I get them they are flat…after I water there leaves or petals reach for the sun…how do they get them to lie flat?
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge of such wonderful plants to have and grow.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Marcy,
      Thanks so much for subscribing!
      It sounds like you have them growing outdoors, in quite a bit of sun, yes? This is where they belong! But, if the sun is on them for a long period each day, the rosettes will close up a bit in the spring and summer. This is a natural defense against getting a ton of sun. They will open and lie flat again come fall and winter. You can read more about this here: https://thesucculenteclectic.com///etiolated-succulent-growing-tall/
      If this is not the situation you have, please snap a photo and send it to me so that I can see what you are seeing? Send it to me at Kat@TheSucculentEclectic.com
      Thanks so much for the question! 🙂
      ~Kat

  4. Loreta

    I am new to your blog and spent a better part of the weekend reading your posts which I thoroughly enjoyed.
    I just need some clarification on increasing exposure to sun for 30 minutes every third day. My succulents are clearly in need of more sun. Am I moving them to a brighter location every third day and then moving them back after the 30 minutes? Can you explain this a bit more.
    Thanks.
    Loreta

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Loretta,
      Thanks so much for the opportunity to clarify this!
      The goal is to increase the light your succulent receives without risking sunburn by moving it into too much sun too quickly. You may find that you have a location part way between the shade it gets now and a sunnier spot, where making incremental changes would be possible by moving the pot several inches every 2-3 days. If this is not possible, and if the only option is lots of sun or lots of shade, then yes. Move it into more sun for a 1/2 hour today, then back again. Tomorrow do the same, and the day after. Then, on Thursday, leave it in the sun for an hour, and so on. Between the extra time and attention this requires, and the serious risk of sunburn if something prevents you from moving it back again, I would urge that you get some shade cloth to make the lighting for your succulents more flexible.
      Does this make sense? Please let me know if you have any other questions!
      ~Kat

  5. Annie

    As an inside succulent grower on a tree tunneled lane, I am faced with my studio dark in the summer, and bright in the winter when the leaves fall. For summer I have 1 pole LED Grow light, 3 backlit LEDs on the wall, an Aquaphonic grow light above. Still, the colors have mostly gone all green on my succulents. You would think with all that light, artificial as it may be, I would have colorful succulents. Any thoughts on this?

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Annie,
      To get and maintain brilliant coloring in succulents, it almost always takes a great deal of light. And they will revert back to green in a short period of time (several weeks) if the light levels decrease. Is there an outdoor area available for your succulents during spring and summer, where they could get more light? Grow lights are excellent for maintaining a succulent’s health, but the amount of artificial light to develop and maintain the beautiful colors can be extraordinary. It sounds like you are providing a great deal of light indoors. My next question would be how close are the lights to your plants? If they are more than 12 inches away – try moving them much closer, while watching for signs of any burning.
      Keep me posted on their progress!
      ~Kat

  6. LESLIE

    Hi. I just bought an agave Americana mediopicta alba … the Century plant. I’m going to include a link on my site as I don’t know if I could put a photo on here (I just found you and signed up). I’m wondering if you know anything about the agave on the right. A variant? A stress? It is the fourth tweet down after the pinned photo. (The only plant.) Any information about getting this would be helpful. If not, I will still enjoy this beautiful plant. https://twitter.com/NoRiffRaff24

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Leslie –

      SO glad you asked! That plant is either spray painted or photoshopped. Please do not waste your money trying to find a plant that will grow like that!

      That’s why I wrote a blog post about Succulent Scams – take a look: https://thesucculenteclectic.com/beware-succulent-scams/

      While you can induce your plants to develop more vivid coloring, you’ll never get one to grow like the one in the image you sent.

      I’m so glad you asked before buying a plant or seeds! 🙂

      ~Kat

  7. Linda

    I love all your posts & I have learned a lot from you. I am 74 like to work with succulents because they easy to take care of after I read you post. You make it easy to read & understand for someone like me. I feed, water all my plants once a month that when I get my money to buy food so I feed ,water my plants then too. I only get food 1 time a month so we both can eat, drink & enjoy life together. I will keep reading them so we can be eat, drink & learning something new about my plants. Hope to hear from you and really make my day even better to know you did readed what I told you. I want to learn more keep up the good work. My email address is xxx will be watching my email to hear from you soon & make my day more enjoyable.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Thanks SO much, Linda! You just made my day! 🙂
      I love the way you share your life and love and joy with your plants. That sounds ideal! Just remember that when it comes to succulents, too much of a good thing can be trouble. Just feed them once a year, or possibly twice – in spring and fall. Too much food will cause problems for them. Otherwise, I am certain this is a schedule that will keep them healthy and happy! 🙂
      Please feel free to write in with any questions – I am happy to help!
      ~Kat

  8. Tilda

    I have mine growing in full sun so I’ll try the water stress thing. Although I find it very very hard to not water them. I feel sorry for them in the hot sun but they love it.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Tilda,
      I know just what you mean about feeling sorry for them!
      But here’s the thing… What you would want or what I would want is not what they want. And the reverse is true, too. Succulents have adapted for millennia to conditions with too much heat and not enough water for other plants. They know how to do this! They are adapted to it! When we give them the conditions we would enjoy more, that is when they truly suffer.
      Trust me – it took me a number of dead plants to really learn this lesson. I understand wanting to give care the ways you understand. It truly is kinder to give the conditions they will thrive in. As much as I love chocolate, I won’t let my beloved cat have a taste, right? Same idea.
      Pleas let me know if you have any questions!
      ~Kat

  9. Taylor Standifird

    I’ve got a 50 watt LED grow lamp that gives off both red and blue to make a purple hue. Will this make my succulents change colors? I currently have it about 8 inches above my plants. I live in the Seattle area so we don’t get a whole lot of sun and wamr between October and april

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Taylor,
      Excellent! Your grow light will help to keep your succulents healthy for you during the fall and winter months.
      It really won’t be enough light to cause your plants to change color. It just won’t be bright enough or warm enough to cause the kind of stress than makes succulents more colorful. But it will keep them healthy! 🙂
      ~Kat

  10. Shirley

    New to this site and to succulents. Live in the Phoenix AZ and our 112-115 weather can kill most anything that grows. Carefully reading and trying to learn as much as I possible can since I plan to use these on my SW patio. Looking forward to having more info on having a successful summer with these lovely plants.

    Shirley

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Shirley,
      That is a brutal summer climate!
      There certainly are some succulents that can grow in your climate, and more if you provide them with some protection from sunburn, like shade cloth. But I would urge you to wait for the cooler temps of fall before planting them outside, so they have months to become established and acclimated before they have to deal with your summer heat.
      Please let me know if you have any questions!
      ~Kat

  11. Linda

    HI,

    New to indoor succulents.

    I have an Enchevia succulent that is tall and thin. Im afraid it will crack off eventually. Is there anyway to thicken it up so it does not turn into what looks like a bean pole. At one point it did get bent and it grew a new stalk from the broken section but still is just a tall thin stick with leaves.

    ty

    Linda

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Linda,
      Your Echeveria is stretching, reaching for more light.
      Most Echeveria need a lot of sunshine and need to be grown outside spring through fall, though they do need to come indoors over a winter that gets hard frost.
      You can cut back the long stem and re-root it to a shorter plant. Then, with sufficient light, new growth will be nicely compact. However, it is important to introduce it to more light very gradually, or you’ll risk succulent sunburn.
      A grow light is a good way to boost the light your succulents get indoors.
      I hope this helps!
      ~Kat

  12. Sharron Stroum

    Hi Kat!
    Your knowledge is invaluable and your responses are superb! So glad I’ve found you. I like many so enjoy succulents and cacti, Being new to this hobby losing any of my “children” is not something I want to happen. I am also a lover of macrame plant holders. My question is, if there is a rainstorm should I cover or take down hanging succulents and potted plants to protect them from a day of rain? Also, are their any of my plants that should not be hung? I’m working on hanging my elephant food plant. Many thanks in advance for your quick response and thank you so much for sharing of all your knowledge.
    Respectfully,
    Sharron

  13. Josephine

    Hello Kat!
    I really enjoy reading your articles, thanks for sharing your knowledge and ideas and for giving sterling advice, keep it up!
    I live in sunny Malta and Im relatively new to this amazing world of succulents. My very first plant was introduced to my garden exactly when the first case of Covid appeared here, i.e. last March. It was Spring and since then I bought and I received more succulents as gifts and I can tell you, Im literally in love with them. Luckily enough, my small garden seems to be quite welcoming to them, because I have both shady and also very sunny areas …. but now that Winter is fast approaching, Im starting to get very worried on those rare days when we get lots of rain and possibly hailstorms…. will they adapt naturally to this change of weather? Will they survive in hail?? Or should I prepare a shady canvas / plastic for cruel weather??
    Thanks!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Josephine,
      Thank you so much! And welcome to the adventures in succulent gardening! 🙂
      Those plants you have growing in pots can be moved under shelter in the case of a drenching rain or hail storm. Those in the ground should be protected from hail. If those in the ground are in very fast-draining soil, or you created raised-beds of fast-draining soil, they should be fine in the rain.
      I particularly like to use shade cloth outdoors for my succulents. It’s the perfect protection against sunburn, while letting enough light throuigh for the best coloring for your succulents. It will also protect from hail, and while rain will get through, most of the rain runs off, so the succulents typically don’t get soaked.
      I hope this helps!
      BTW – It sounds like you might enjoy my new Facebook group for succulent-lovers! We have members from all around the world, and many of us are ditching the bad news and stress of 2020 to play with our succulents! 🙂

  14. Evelyn Gillaspie

    Hi Kat,
    Just subscribed today!
    I made a succulent dish garden and have it in front of a glass siding door facing north. I live in Florida so
    I thought the bright light would be enough, apparently not. In two weeks since I put them in the dish garden
    they have grown about 2 inches and are already sending out tall shoots in the middle of the plant. Help!
    I have been rotating the dish 1/4 of a turn every day.
    Maybe I just need to keep reading your articles, but any advise would be appreciated. Thank you.
    Evelyn

    P.S. how could I send you a picture?

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Evelyn,
      You are describing exactly what happens when a sun-loving succulent is not getting enough light – they stretch! It sounds like the succulents you chose (or at least 1 of them) need a lot more light than they can get indoors. But don’t move them straight out into the sun, they could sunburn!
      Please do send me an email with your photos to Kat [at] The Succulent Eclectic [dot] com
      Or, why not join my new Facebook group for succulent-lovers? Just tag me so I see your post!
      I’ll be happy to give you some suggestions on the best succulents for growing indoors, too.
      ~Kat

  15. Josephine

    Thanks dear Kat …. I will provide some protection, yes, better!
    And btw, I’m already a very happy member of your fb group 🙂 it’s immensely helpful and all members seem like one big family…. 🙂 Thanks for everything and once again, keep it up!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Josephine,
      I’m So glad to hear you are enjoying the Facebook group for succulent-lovers! It’s a great group of people and we’re all eager to help others! <3
      Thanks!
      ~Kat

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