The Secret to Colorful Succulents? Stress!

The Secret to Colorful Succulents? Stress!

Succulents Changing Color Due to Stress

Have you ever purchased beautiful, colorful succulents, only to have them turn mostly green in a short period of time? Or have you seen your succulents changing color and wondered why? This post is for you! The short answer is stress. Stressed succulents frequently flush brilliant colors in response to more sunlight, less water or a change in temperature. Now tell me – are you interested in soothing succulent stress? Or do you want to learn how to cause it? 🙂 Don’t worry — I won’t judge! Let’s take a closer look at what causes more colorful succulents.

{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 Succulent Stress?

succulent stress illustration with crassula ovata in sun and shade

Stress comes in many forms. It is a simple fact of life, for our plants as well as for us. We tend to do a great deal to limit our stress, and to protect those we love from it. But this is based on a very limited notion of “stress”. Yes, sometimes stress can be very damaging. But some stress, in limited doses, can actually make us stronger, and more fit.  We now know that exposing very young children to germs actually results in them developing a more robust immune system. But it is also exposing them to stress. When they play in the dirt, their immune system is stressed by encountering microbes. The strengthening of the immune system in response to this is just like muscles building strength in response to exercise — which is another form of physical stress.

Plant stress can be seen as any deviation from optimal growing conditions that requires a physical response from the plant. When plants grow very tall in low light, that etiolation is a response to stress. This is an example of damaging stress. When a plant is grown in sufficient sunlight, it retains a more compact growth habit. If the same plant gets even more sunlight, it often develops more intense coloring, like the crassula ovata above. This is due to the plant’s production of anthocyanin and carotenoid to combat the stress of excess sun exposure.


Anthocyanin and Carotenoid

Anthocyanin and carotenoid are pigments in plant tissue that protect the plant from a range of environmental stresses. Anthocyanin is typically a blue, violet or red, while carotenoid are generally yellow, orange and red in color. When a plant senses an environmental stress, like an increase in sun exposure, it produces more anthocyanin and carotenoid to protect itself. In this way, these antioxidant pigments are similar to melanin, the brownish-black pigment in the skin of people and animals. Anthocyanin, carotenoid and melanin all protect against damage due to UV radiation from sun exposure. When we spend time in the sun – a form of stress – we tan, or become more brown, as our bodies increase their production of melanin. So, too, do plants produce more pigments in response to an array of stresses, including increased sun exposure. The more anthocyanin and carotenoid a plant produces, the more intensely colored it becomes. When they experience stress, we see more colorful succulents.

Most Common Forms of Colorful Succulent Stress

illustration of succulent stress with sempervivum heighman red in spring and fall

Many environmental changes can cause succulent stress. Predation by insects and herbivores, trampling by kids, etc. We’re focusing on the types of stress that cause succulents to increase their production of anthocyanin or caretenoid. For this, there are 3 types of stress that are the most common causes of succulents changing color:

  • Changes in sun exposure
  • Temperature fluctuations and seasonal changes
  • Changes in water levels in the soil

Each of these types of succulent stress will cause a plant to change its production of anthocyanin. When a plant is getting more sunlight, it will increase its production of anthocyanin, in order to combat potential damage due to UV rays. The colorful flavonoid also provides protection from dropping temperatures. And, when water is especially scarce, this, too, will cause a succulent to increase its production of anthocyanin.


The images of Sempervivum ‘Heighman Red’ were provided by Mountain Crest Gardens.

Changes in Sun Exposure & Stressed Succulents
aeonium kiwi demonstrates succulent stress in fall, spring, sun and shade

As we have discussed, anthocyanin in plants is similar to melanin in animals and people, and it acts in much the same ways. When you play in the sun and develop a tan, your skin produces melanin in greater quantities, giving you a browner color. The melanin protects you from damaging UV rays. So, too, do plants develop more colorfully pigmented anthocyanin in response to sun exposure. The pigment protects the plant’s leaves from damage due to the sun’s rays and UV radiation. Increased sun exposure causes the stressed succulents to produce more anthocyanin for protection. The color changes can be quite remarkable.

Seasons, Temperatures and Succulents Changing Color
color changing succulents illustrated by sempervivum in spring and fall

When the seasons change, plants experience temperature differences in addition to lighting changes. For the cold hardy sempervivum 'Purple Passion', the seasonal fluctuations cause the rosettes to dramatically change color as well as shape. The mild temperatures and abundant sunlight of spring produce soft peach rosettes that shade to plum at the base of the leaves. In the plunging temps and lower light of fall and winter, the sempervivum flushes a deep, amethyst purple. What could easily be mistaken for two very different, colorful succulents, is actually the same plant growing in very different conditions brought on by the change in seasons.

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

Water Stressed Succulents Changing Color
stressed succulents crassula ovata in sun and water stressed

The third common cause of stressed succulents changing color is water stress. Succulent plants are extraordinarily well adapted to growing where water is scarce. Their water storage capabilities are what make them succulents, after all.  Typically, their natural environment stays dry for long periods, punctuated by short bursts of rainfall. This drought and drench cycle is a natural condition for them, and no cause of stress. If the period of dry soil is extensive, however, and the amount of water they receive at the "drench" time is unusually limited over an extended period of time, the plants do become stressed. In response, they produce higher levels of anthocyanin.

Above, you see photos of two green jade plants I have growing in my garden. The one on the left developed bright scarlet margins because it is grown in full sun. I have been experimenting with water stressing the one on the right for a couple of years. While it is grown in more shade than the one on the left, it has also developed considerably more red pigment, to combat the stress of the very low water levels it receives.


Succulent Stress and Good Health

sun stressed succulents sedum

Understanding the causes behind succulents changing color will help you to take better care of them. But don't let your love of the plants misguide you into trying to spare them from any and all forms of stress. Change, and the resulting stress, is a part of their natural world. Protecting them from nature can inhibit their ability to truly thrive. All forms of life encounter and respond to stress. So long as the stress is not crippling, and the response does not compromise its health, a life form that experiences and responds to stress becomes more healthy and more fit to survive.

Now let's see exactly how to stress succulents to bring out their vivid coloring. And most importantly - how to do so without harming them!

Enjoy your colorful succulents! If you have any questions, please let me know. I am here to help!

P.S. Check out my FREE course, 7 Steps to Succulent Success, and subscribe! Thanks so much!

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succulents changing color due to stress illustration

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This Post Has 24 Comments

  1. Elaine Olson

    Thank you for such informative information. I thoroughly enjoy your newsletter and have passed on to a few people who also are enjoying it. Thank you again.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Thanks so much, Elaine! You just made my day!
      And I hugely appreciate your spreading the word! 🙂
      ~Kat

      1. Elaine Olson

        I passed on your e-course on succulents to a couple of people in a garden group for students at a local high school. They loved it too! Thanks again for giving us such wonderful information. What a great education I am getting. Kudos to you Kat!!

        1. Kat McCarthy

          Hi Elaine,
          Awesome! Thanks so much for sharing this information, as well as for the feedback!
          You made my day! 🙂
          ~Kat

  2. Sonja crowe

    I just started trying to grow succulents and this blog is exactly what I need! Maybe I won’t kill them all if I keep reading your blog. I put all my succulents out in the sun today and they did indeed change color! Thank you!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Sonja,
      I am so glad you are finding this helpful! 🙂
      Please feel free to ask any questions. I am happy to help. I want you to really enjoy those succulents! 🙂
      ~Kat

  3. Yvonne-Ann Boshoff

    Isn’t it next week already? I have become a succulent-lover over the past few years and have read a lot, but this is probably the most helpful information I have read yet. Thank you!!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Wow! Thanks SO much, Yvonne! 🙂
      We’re nearly there!
      Please feel free to ask any questions!
      ~Kat

  4. martha

    Love your blog, it is well written, concise and very informative. Thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Martha,
      Thanks so much for letting me know you are enjoying it!
      ~Kat

  5. Angela Gray

    Very informative! Thank you!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      You are most welcome, Angela!
      I am glad you enjoyed it! 🙂
      ~Kat

  6. Elizabeth Fitzsimmons

    hi Kat, Thanks so much for all the fantastic information you give us. I am 76 and have just recently started to enjoy succulents. I am so grateful for all your help. I am in Australia, about 200 kilometres north of Sydney. Our Winter temps aren’t too bad – lowest about 2-5 degrees Celsius but our Summers are becoming very hot with quite a few 45 degree celsius days. Keep up the great work. Thanks again.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Elizabeth,
      I am delighted to be able to help you!
      Wow – 45 degrees Celsius? I would melt! Your succulents will fare far better than I would if you are sure to give them the protection of shade cloth.
      Thanks so much for reading, and have fun with your succulents!
      ~Kat

  7. Gary & Linda House

    Thank you for these informative articles on raising, understanding and appreciating succulents. I’ve been raising them for many years without really understanding their history of nature.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Gary & Linda,
      SO glad you’re enjoying it! That’s the part I find the most helpful for understanding their care. Coming to it from first principles.
      Thanks so much for reading!
      ~Kat

  8. M Clara Sala

    Dear Kat,

    Finding your web site has been a useful and inspiring source. The 7 steps e-course has been a perfect tool to introduce myself in this amazing succulents’world.
    Thanks very, very much.

    Clara
    Barcelona

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Thanks SO much, Clara!
      You made my whole day!
      Have fun with this! 🙂
      ~Kat

  9. Lazy K

    How timely! Just this morning I was wondering why my Graptosedum ‘Alpenglow’ is green instead of the orange it was a few months ago. I’m learning a lot from your blog.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Perfect!
      It can be difficult to impossible to keep some succulents really colorful all year round, depending upon your climate. But once you know what the color changes mean, you’ll be able to revive their color when the weather permits! 🙂 Graptosedum can not take freezing weather – be sure to protect your Alpenglow (one of my favorites!) over the winter!
      ~Kat

  10. Marjie

    I absolutely LOVE your articles!!! You really “get” it!!! You are so tapped into nature and how similar all living “beings” are!

    Thank you for sharing that perspective with others so that they may become more aware, thus fostering connection!!!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Marjie,
      Thanks SO much! I do appreciate your comment – I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at life from a plant’s perspective! 🙂 Turns out – there’s a lot to learn!
      ~Kat

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