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The Secret to Colorful Succulents? 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.

Succulents Changing Color Due to Stress

{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?

Crassula Ovata color change due to stress

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

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

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.

At the Succulent Cafe, one of my favorite haunts, they grow a lot of aeonium kiwi. I took the photo on the top left last October. This April, I returned to take the other 3 photos. The same plant in the same blue pot shows far more color in the spring due to more hours of daylight. As the plant receives more sunlight, it produces more anthocyanin, resulting in vibrant yellow and red margins to the leaves. Another kiwi was growing in a lot of shade, demonstrating a far softer coloration altogether in an absence of the flavonoid. A third plant was in full sun all day long, and it has developed the most protective pigmentation.

All of these plants are healthy and happy. The plant shown in the top 2 photos is actually grown in the correct amount of sun exposure. Changes in the season caused enough change in the amount of sunshine to result in an increase in anthocyanin and carotenoid production in the spring months. Or, put another way — the sun exposure stress led to more colorful succulents.

Seasons, Temperatures and Succulents Changing Color

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. Because both sunshine and heat are more plentiful in the spring, the rosette flushes with purple anthocyanin for protection, as shown on the left. The rosette remains a bit more closed, with each leaf partially shading the next.

In the cooler temps and lower light of fall and winter, the Sempervivum opens up wide, exposing each leaf to much more light, to maximize photosynthesis. Because the threat of UV ray damage is lessened, the protective pigment is reduced as well, resulting in a far different color. 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

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

Aloe nobilis demonstrating stress coloring

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!

Kat McCarthy, The Succulent Eclectic

P.S. For more information on succulent care, crafts and design, please subscribe! I’ll send you my FREE e-course, 7 Steps to Succulent Success! Thanks!

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P.P.S. Why not join my Facebook Group for succulent-lovers? We talk succulent care, propagation, succulent identification and design. It’s a warm and welcoming group that would love to meet you!

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This Post Has 44 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! 🙂

      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! 🙂

  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! 🙂

  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!

  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!

      1. Dan

        Hi Kat. Very info’ve article!! I myself don’t subscribe to doing anything to a plant, as for ex. stressing or bonsai-ing it. It seems to me, sorry to say so, cruel. In my opinion, it’s the same as distorting the foot to the chinese women in the days of old. It also interferes w the normal growth process causing thinner and smaller or taller plant, which I don’t seek. I do hope that my stand is received w understanding. I don’t intend to offend in any way. Best, Dan.

        1. Kat McCarthy

          Hi Dan,
          Thanks for weighing in!
          This is not offensive at all – and I understand how you feel, completely!
          You bring up an interesting idea. I think there is a continuum, from say, improving your health and fitness through exercise, to unnecessary plastic surgery to harmful, painful binding of others to cause deformation. I’m sure many people draw their lines at different places on this continuum.
          For me, I prefer to grow my plants “hard” or exposed to some variations in their environment. Professional growers grow them “soft”, carefully sheltered and pampered for the best size and coloring. I prefer a more natural approach, that leaves my plants better able to survive when things happen beyond my control that may expose them to more time without water or shade than ideal. If I get sick or there’s an emergency that takes me from home.
          But I completely respect your position! Thanks so much for sharing it! 🙂

  5. Angela Gray

    Very informative! Thank you!

    1. Kat McCarthy

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

  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!

  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!

  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.


    1. Kat McCarthy

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

  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

      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!

  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!

  11. Sonja Lewis

    Wonderful that you’re including the hows and whys of stress & pigments it produces. Love how you brought in children’s immune responses! My info on why anthocyanins become visible may be outdated: (2012) and (2001) Their gist is that anthocyanins increase to protect nutrient withdrawal, from the stressed leaves, to the stem or roots. There’s stuff in the death-threatened leaves that the parent plant wants to hang onto. But in spring, in thin-skinned first leaves of Kellogg Oak and some grapevines, protecting photosynthesis from excess light (and cold?) with beautiful lavender is the rule. Is this first-leaves response less common in succulents than in other stages of stress?

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Sonja,
      Thanks so much for the added information! Isn’t it fascinating the many ways plants protect themselves? It’s easy to think of them as so much less-than because they are stationary. But this just gives them a whole different set of problems to solve for – and their solutions are endlessly fascinating! =)
      Thanks for sharing this!

  12. patricia overbey

    I have plante sedum all over the rocks on our Koi pond it has spread like wild fire it gets yellow flowers looks so pretty. the down side is to cut it all back in the fall/winter ir else it falls into the pond thak you Elaine for your helpful article God blesas have a great day, Pat

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Patricia,
      It sounds beautiful! When you cut it back, bring it indoors to propagate and plant it out in another part of the garden ccome spring!

  13. Anuprita

    Nothing like your blog. It’s Very Informative and excellent tips with reasoning. It’s a tool not only the beginners but all succulent lovers. Thank you so much.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Thanks SO much, Anuprita!
      I’m so glad you find it valuable!
      I am always so fascinated in the why’s behind the what’s, that is what I try to offer in my blog posts.
      Thanks so much for reading!

  14. Janet

    Thank you soo much for your wonderful information on succulents! I am a true succulent lover! I have a few beautiful succulent windows boxes i made up this year but was wondering the best way to overwinter indoors!

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Janet,
      Thanks so much for reading! SO glad you’re finding it helpful.
      Remember that some succulents can remain outdoors year-round because they are winter hardy. This will depend upon the varieties you have and your climate.
      For those succulents you overwinter indoors, consider getting a grow light or placing the plants near an insukated window or artificial lamps. The lighting will help to prevent your succulents from etiolating – stretching for more light – while you have them indoors.
      Stay tuned! I’ll be publishing a blog post on how to overwinter succulents in a couple of months! 🙂

  15. Marlene

    can I use the water from my dehumidifier for the succulents

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Marlene,
      Yes, the water from your dehumidifier should be safe for watering succulents!
      Thanks for reading!

  16. Zemeena

    Hi Kat, I’m Zemeena from Kerala India.
    Thank u somuch for wonderful tips.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Zemeena,
      Welcome all the way from India!
      So glad you’re enjoying the site! Thank you!

  17. dolly

    hello !
    can you use any chemicals to change the color of the succulents ?

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hello Dolly,
      Chemicals won’t change the color of your succulents. That can be used to change the color of cut flowers like carnations, but not living succulent plants.
      Stress is the key to changing the color of the varieties than tac be colorful!

  18. CimmieS

    ‘Stumbled’ on your Pinterest article. I’m planning to grow succulents in large pots as a pathway border. Hadn’t known they change colour! Ours remain green throughout the year. Wonder if it’s due to their growing in a cool temperature zone. Interesting article, thank you.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi CimmieS,
      Some varieties don’t change color, so that s the most likely issue for yours, I think. But many do change color quite dramatically, with the temperature, water availability and hours of sunshine! 🙂
      Thank you!

  19. Just read above article…..Fantastic??. I am new 2 succulents & this info was what l needed??. Thanks.

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Donna,
      SO glad you found it useful!

  20. kath fry

    Your site and blogs are so helpful, thank you Kat
    What is going wrong with my Aloe veras? From growing like mad and being a firm green, they go reddish and unhealthy looking. What am I doing wrong?
    best wishes Kath

    1. Kat McCarthy

      Hi Kath,
      Some Aloes develop really intense red coloring with the heat and greater intensity of the sun. This is a normal change as the plants respond to stress. But if you’re worried this is something else, and you think it may be due to poor health, please snap a couple of photos and send them to me. I’ll be happy to take a look for you!. Send them to kat [at] thesucculenteclectic [dot] com

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