15 Reasons Your Succulents Are Dying & How to Revive Them

Are your succulents struggling? There are many different problems that can cause succulents to die off when not properly cared for. In this article, gardening expert and houseplant enthusiast Madison Moulton walks through the most common reasons succulents die prematurely, and how you can revive them!

succulents dying

Succulents are wonderfully low-maintenance plants to add to your plant collection, both indoors and out. Their ease of care makes them popular houseplants for new plant owners, as well as experienced indoor gardeners alike. However, this ease of care does not mean they are without problems.

In fact, their tolerance of neglect is often what trips up even the most experienced gardeners. Because there are many different succulent types, plant owners can struggle to manage the differences in care across this vast group of plants.

The following factors may all lead to your succulents dying, or at least, looking like they’re dying. Apply the fixes and avoid these problems in the future to turn your succulent black thumbs green again.

Poor Drainage

Close-up of a woman in a beige apron pouring expanded clay - drainage pebbles from a small iron pail into a white decorative ceramic flower pot. There are 5 more white ceramic pots of different sizes on the table, 4 of which have beautiful succulents. There is also a small garden shovel and rake, and a white tray of succulent potting mix on the table.
Make sure your soil is well-drained and the pot has good drainage to prevent root rot in succulents.

One of the quickest ways to promote root rot in succulents is to plant them in soil or pots with bad drainage. When watering succulents, the water needs to flow through the soil quickly to match the native habitats of these drought-tolerant plants.

Whether in containers or in the ground in the garden, drainage is essential for succulents to remain healthy. Signs that there may be a drainage problem with succulents include yellowing, transparent and mushy leaves. They may even get black spots and will eventually fall off the plant.

The Fix

In simple terms, the drainage has to be improved. For containers, repot using a specialized succulent potting mix. You can also make your own using 60% potting soil and 40% perlite or vermiculite.

In the garden, remove the plants and adjust the soil. Add grit and compost to lighten the consistency and improve drainage. Replant the plants. You can also heap the soil up, but be careful not to gather soil around the base too much to prevent rotting.

Overwatering

Top view, close-up of a dying succulent due to overwatering against a blurred background of ground soil. The succulent has a rosette of dark green, wilted, wrinkled leaves with pointed tips.
Over-watering succulents can lead to yellowing, browning, and wrinkling of the leaves.

One of the most popular problems with succulents always seems to be killing them with kindness – in this case, overwatering. Succulent leaves have adapted to hold moisture, requiring far less water than other plants. Water when the soil is still moist and you will quickly notice several growth problems.

Signs that plants are being overwatered include yellowing leaves and edema. Edema is a build-up of pressure in the leaves caused by excess water. The pressure eventually bursts the skin of the leaves, causing unsightly marks. Other signs include mushy and brown leaves that pull off easily from the plant.

The Fix

Make sure you have a proper watering routine for your succulents. Check the soil to make sure it’s totally dry before watering again. Things like edema cannot be reversed. But the plant can sometimes be saved if the problem is not too severe.

You can attempt to save your plant by removing any of the damaged leaves and changing the frequency of watering. If you catch it in time, the plants will eventually start producing new leaves.

Underwatering

Close-up of a withered Schlumberger plant in a flower pot with dry, cracked soil. Two green sluggish stems of the plant look like leaf-shaped pads, connecting one to the other. The margins of the stem segments are sharply saw-toothed.
It is recommended to water the succulent when the soil is completely dried out.

As much as you should never overwater a succulent, underwatering will also cause the plant to die. If a succulent’s leaves start wrinkling, wilting and drying out on the ends, it’s past time to water them. This problem usually starts on the upper leaves and moves down to the lower leaves.

The Fix

This one is a simple fix if the situation is caught soon. Water the plant well and make sure the water drains out the bottom of the container. You don’t want to add root rot to the problem and go as far as overwatering.

Check the plants every two weeks and water if the soil is completely dry. In a month or two, the plant should have recovered completely and will be back to normal.

Excessive Sunlight

Close-up of an Echeveria plant with shriveled dry leaves due to excessive sun. The plant forms a dense basal rosette of fleshy green oval leaves with pointed ends. Many sunburned leaves have brown tips that are slightly curled inwards.
Too much sunlight can cause succulent leaves to sunburn.

Although we would think that succulents enjoy sun all the time, there are occasions when too much sun will give them sunburn. This is especially the case for semi-succulent type plants.

These plants are more sensitive, and may not be used to a full day of sunlight in their native habitats. This can easily be identified by scorch marks or brown spots on the leaves. The whole plant or parts of the plant may also turn black.

The Fix

Once the plant has sunburn marks, those leaves are not going to recover. But, if the damaged leaves are removed and the plant is moved into a shadier spot or given some sort of shading in the afternoons, the plants will recover and start producing new leaves.

Low Light

A close-up of a pale green succulent that has lost color due to lack of sunlight. The succulent forms a rosette of loosely spaced pale green, fleshy, oval leaves with pointed ends.
Due to the lack of sun, your plant will begin to reach for the light and develop long stems, as well as the leaves will lose color.

Most succulents need at least six hours of sunlight per day. Some succulents can survive in low light conditions, especially those that have been newly planted. They do, however, require a lot of light compared to other plants, especially indoors.

Plants will start stretching towards the light and developing long stems in low light, known as etiolation. They may also have stunted growth and can lose their color.

The Fix

To fix the problem, deal with a lanky plant by cutting off the top of the plant with some leaves. Leave the rest of the plant with some leaves to form new leaves once it’s placed in a brighter area.

Leave the cutting aside for the stem to dry out and callous for a few days, then plant in a good succulent soil mix. Any stunted succulents simply need a new sunnier position and some time to recover.

Root Rot

Close-up of an Agave macroacantha succulent plant affected by root rot. This plant is in a bright red plastic flower pot. Agave macroacantha forms a basal rosette of greyish-green fleshy leaves of medium size with sharp black spikes at the ends and serrated edges. Most of the central leaves are rotten and black.
Your plant may be suffering from root rot due to overwatering and poor drainage.

There are various reasons why succulents can suffer from root rot, the most common being cold temperatures, overwatering and bad drainage. For root rot to appear, the roots must be waterlogged with no air or oxygen flowing around them. Much like humans, the roots will drown in these conditions.

Signs that you have a root problem are yellowing leaves, mushy leaves and lackluster plants losing their healthy color. If you suspect you may have a root rot problem, uproot the plants gently to check the roots.

Healthy roots should be white or yellow. If they are brown, black or slimy you have a problem. The degree of the problem can be identified by the smell. A bad odor or complete rotting of the stem means your plant may need to be discarded.

The Fix

If the problem is not too bad, simply cut off the damaged roots and replant in soil with good drainage. Change the way they are cared for by avoiding overwatering and keeping away from cold temperatures.

Cut any damaged leaves or stems off the plant. Succulents are easily propagated from stems or leaves, so if you have some good healthy parts left on the plant, start a new plant by propagating.

Pests

Close-up of a Sedum succulent infested with aphids against a green blurred background. The succulent has narrow, fleshy, pointed, light green leaves attached to a long stem. A lot of aphid insects are sitting on the leaves of the succulent. Aphids have soft green bodies and thin legs.
The most common pests of succulents are aphids, mealybugs, and spider mites.

Sucking insects damage plants by punching holes in the flesh of stems and leaves, causing scarring and unsightly marks.

Insects like mealybugs, aphids and red spider mites can hop over from surrounding plants and may attach to your succulents. If the problem is severe, it could cause plants to die.

The Fix

The problems need to be identified and fixed according to what pest you have. Usually, pests are easily removed by spraying with soapy water and washing off any you can see.

For bigger problems, success is often achieved using neem oil or rubbing alcohol. Don’t forget the hiding place for many insects is under the leaves. It may take a few treatments before the bugs are completely gone.

Scale

Close-up of a green cactus infested with scale insects that suck the juice from the plant. A lot of round brown-white formations on the surface of the cactus are scale insects, the body of which is covered with a wax shell. The cactus also has white streaks after the dried water.
To get rid of scale insects, spray them off with soapy water, rubbing alcohol, or a solution of neem oil and water.

Also a sucking insect, but a real problem for succulents (especially aloes), scale certainly deserves its own heading for the amount of trouble it causes.

Although there are thousands of different species of scale, they can be divided into just 2 groups for succulents. The armored scale, like its name suggests, has a tough outer shell and dark brown color that is hard to remove.

Soft-scale species are lighter in color and a little easier to eradicate. Soft scale in particular like to suck on the sap of plants, damaging the structure and allowing other diseases to penetrate.

The Fix

Depending on the severity of the infection by these insects, you may be able to wash off the scale with a spray of soapy water. For heavy infestations, spray with rubbing alcohol, or a solution of neem oil with water sprayed onto the plants. It may take a few treatments to get it right.

Isolate the plants where possible to stop the spread of these pests. Alternatively, dig out the plants if they are in the ground, wash off any soil including the insects from the roots and spray the whole plant with rubbing alcohol or soapy water. Allow to dry out for a few days and then replant in fresh soil.

Lack of Nutrients

Close-up of a woman in a beige apron and black gloves demonstrating potting soil mixed with granular fertilizer in a white tray.  There are small bucket of drainage round stones, several bowls of various granular fertilizers in white, brown, and black color, and a large green succulent plant in a white decorative pot on the table.
It is recommended to fertilize succulents in the spring with a balanced fertilizer or one formulated for succulents and cacti.

All succulents benefit from extra feeding occasionally, especially when planted in containers. If plants are not fed, the soil will leach out nutrients and there will be nothing left for the roots to absorb. Stunted or deformed growth may form or the plants will start to discolor with yellowing leaves and a dull lackluster color.

The Fix

The general rule is to feed with a balanced fertilizer containing low amounts of nitrogen and equal parts potassium and phosphorus.

Alternatively, use a fertilizer that has been formulated for succulents and cacti which will have the perfect balance of nutrients for these types of plants. Feed in spring each year to keep the plants at optimal health and prevent problems in the future.

Age & Development

Close-up of a Topsy Turvy plant in a black plastic pot outside in full sun. The succulent forms rosettes of silver-green leaves growing with a longitudinal fold that drops the edges down. In the other direction, the leaves curl up and towards the center of the rosette. The tips of some leaves are slightly damaged.
It is normal for succulents to shed old lower leaves to make space for new ones to grow.

If you find the bottom leaves of a succulent (especially those in a rosette form) are dying off, it is likely just a part of the plant’s lifecycle.

These leaves die off and drop to make space for new leaves to grow from the center of the plants. If all the other care factors have been taken care of, then there is probably nothing to worry about.

The Fix

There is nothing to fix here, but withered brown and dried leaves should be pulled off the plants to stop pests from hiding under the leaves and causing problems.

Pooling Water

Close-up of a woman in a beige apron watering a succulent plant from a white watering can on the kitchen table. The watering can is large, white with a thin long stem and a golden thin handle. Succulent in a snow-white ceramic pot, has fleshy, elongated, pointed, dark green leaves with jagged edges that form a rosette. Also on the table are secateurs, gardening tools, a clear water spray bottle, and three houseplants in white pots.
Use a watering can with a thin stem to help water penetrate the soil better.

When watering succulents, it’s important to water the soil and not the leaves of the plants. In succulents like Hawarthias especially, if water is allowed to gather in the crown and between the leaves, it may lead to rotting.

If that water does not evaporate quickly, especially for succulents placed in lower light, they will quickly begin to die off.

The Fix

The best way to avoid this problem is to water the soil rather than the plants. Indoor plants are easier to handle this way as a thin-stemmed watering can will get to the soil better than a large one. If outdoor succulents have enough sunlight, then the water droplets from rain and watering should evaporate before they cause any damage.

It’s only really in long-term cloudy and rainy weather or in cold weather that this may become a problem. In these cases, plants may need to be covered for a while to prevent them from rotting.

Incorrect Soil Mix

Close-up of female hands preparing soil substrate for transplanting indoor succulent plants. A woman holds in her hands a transparent plastic tray with soil, which she pours with a pink spatula into a white plastic tray standing on a gray table. There are also 4 small empty brown flower pots, an iron small bucket with drainage stones, two transparent bowls of white and brown fertilizers, and a beautiful green succulent plant in a white decorative pot on the table.
Use a succulent specific potting mix, or make your own.

Using the incorrect soil mix for succulents can result in poor drainage or waterlogged roots – deadly to any succulent that needs minimum watering. There are various schools of thought when making your own succulent mix, but it must have added drainage materials included to make it work.

A bit of experimenting may be needed to get it right for your climate and the type of plants you want to use. Alternatively, there are plenty of cacti and succulent planting mixes that are available online or in stores, ideal for use in the garden.

The Fix

When planting in pots, use a mix of 60% potting soil and 40% perlite, vermiculite or small bark bits. Outdoors, you need to be a bit more scientific and know the base of the soil you are planting in so that it can be corrected for succulents. The better the soil quality, the bigger and better they will grow.

The ideal soil is sandy loam with plenty of added compost for nutrients and aeration and at least 50 – 80% fine gravel or coarse sand for excellent drainage and aeration. Avoid planting in clay soil or adjust by adding compost, bark and gravel to the soil.

Sudden Changes in the Environment

Close-up of yellow and green leaves of a flowering succulent Crassula rupestris Springtime on a blurred blue background. The plant has plump dark green and bright yellow, triangular leaves folded into dense clumps. In the blurred background, there is a blooming inflorescence that consists of many tiny white flowers with red centers.
Sudden changes in the environment can stress the plant, manifesting in leaf yellowing, brown tips, dry or withered leaves.

Just like most plants, succulents are not happy if there is an abrupt change in temperature or an unexpected heatwave or drought. Burnt leaf tips can be a sign that plants have been moved from a cool environment into direct sunlight too quickly, as you would find if moving plants from indoors to outdoors. This abrupt change will cause the plants to stress and burn.

Plants that experience sudden drought or extended heatwaves may become dark brown in color and leaves may become dry and withered at the base of the plant.

When there is a sudden change in temperature from warm conditions to freezing and frost, succulents will be greatly affected. Cold-damaged plants may have yellow leaves and the tips of leaves will turn brown or black.

Out of all the species of succulents available, most of them are frost-tender. In frost areas, stick to plants like sempervivums, some sedums, and some cacti, or grow them in a sheltered area in containers. Most succulents prefer temperatures between 40F and 80F.

The Fix

When moving plants from an indoor area to an outdoor setting, a period of hardening off is essential. Gradually expose them to outdoor conditions by exposing them to increasing levels of sunlight over a period of time. Over several weeks, move them from shade to dappled shade to full sunlight so they are not burnt by the harsh sun.

For sudden shifts in temperature from warm to freezing and frost conditions, keep on hand some frost protection fabric that can cover your succulents in the event of a severe weather forecast.

Snails

Close-up of a large snail crawling on a long leaf of the Aloe succulent. The snail is a brown slug with a dark brown outer shell. Aloe has long, fleshy bright green leaves with serrated reddish edges.
Snails are one of the main pests that feed on the juicy leaves of succulents in cool and humid conditions.

The succulent nature of succulents makes them especially appealing to snails and slugs. They are usually active at night which makes them hard to track down in daylight, leaving just a snail trail behind them.

These pests prefer cool, moist conditions and lay between 20 and 100 eggs several times a year. They will eat the leaves of succulents, making large holes and inviting in other pests and diseases.

The Fix

A snail infestation is a tricky one to fix. The eco-friendly removal option is to hunt them at night with a torch and drop them into a bucket of soapy water. There are several other methods that include snail traps with beer to entice them into the trap or more drastic measures like snail baits.

Overhandling

Close-up of two large echeveria succulents in a pot against the background of other echeveria rosettes. Succulents have fleshy, light green, rounded leaves with pointed ends that form a beautiful rosette. The lower leaves of succulents are covered with small brown spots.
Handle succulents as little as possible to avoid unwanted brown spots on their delicate leaves.

Last on the list is overhandling succulents. Some succulents have delicate leaves that can mark easily and cause blotches and even brown marks.

These abrasions are permanent and although not terribly damaging to the growth of the plant, they don’t look great and invite several other growth problems. 

The Fix

The simple solution is to handle succulents as little as possible. When planting, only pick them up by the stems. When planting or adding decorative stones or small pebbles around your succulents, use a dry paintbrush to brush away any soil or mulch rather than touch them with your fingers. Also, don’t put them in a position where people can brush up against them.

Final Thoughts

So, now that you know the primary problems that may be causing your succulents to struggle, your next step is to take action in rehabilitating them. If you catch potential problems early, you should have enough time to revitalize your plant.

As always, prevention is always the best treatment, so make sure you provide your succulents proper care to avoid most of these common problems in the first place.

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