My Succulent is Stretching...What Should I Do?

With the sun setting at 4:30, you may find yourself really stretching to take advantage of that last bit of natural light. News flash - you’re not the only one. A quick look at your windowsill and you may notice your succulents getting longer, flimsier, and paler. This “stretching” phenomenon is part of a process known as etiolation which loosely translates to “I NEED MORE LIGHT!” (just kidding…sort of)

Succulent stretching with white background

What is etiolation?

Etiolation is the scientific term, but basically it refers to your succulent stretching out in an effort to receive more sunlight. At first, the growth may surprise you and even seem like a good thing, but it’s really a cry for help. Instead of growing in a balanced, compact fashion, your plant is performing a last growth function without actually strengthening its cell walls. This creates thin, weak stems with pale discoloration. In ideal circumstances, the chloroplasts (green) in your plants will photosynthesize and convert sunlight into usable energy to grow. When light isn’t present, etioplasts (pale yellow) are created as a byproduct of the growth hormones that your plant produces in order to stretch toward the light. 

What are the signs?

The main sign and symptom is stretching. In general, your succulent will take on an elongated version of its natural shape (think circle to an ellipse) and could grow outward or upward. With succulents especially, their strong, rigid nature will turn droopy and flimsy, visually showing their weakened plant cell walls. This is often coupled with a pale, yellow discoloration signifying the lack of chlorophyll that will almost look white translucent. Cacti also exhibit a similar stretching, growing in a longer, skinnier fashion than usual.

Stretching cactus in terracotta pot on dark background

Can it be reversed?

While it is difficult to reverse the effects of stretching on your succulent leaves, you can absolutely stop the process and begin to give your plant the nourishment it needs. Obviously the first step is moving your succulent into more light. Succulents need bright light to maintain their compact growth and bright colors. However, malnourished plants should be reintroduced gradually to avoid burning the leaves. Try increasing daily light exposure by 30 minutes per day and take note of the growth and color of the stretched leaves. It’s possible that your succulent will regain its bright colors and continue healthy growth on its own.

Unfortunately, sometimes we find our succulents too late, and the stretched out leaves are irreversible. In this case, it’s best to trim the stretched section with a sterile knife or pair of scissors and watch your succulent regrow new stems.

Potted plant with light bulb as a stem

What if I can’t give my plant bright light?

We get it - not every home has the sunny, south-facing windowsill us Lazy Gardeners covet. If your home or apartment does not receive a lot of natural sunlight, try opting for low-light plants such as a fernwood snake plant or zebra plant. Greener plants like these tend to succeed in environments without bright, direct light. Having said that, even they appreciate an occasional sunbathe so try to take them outside or prop them near a sunny spot every so often. Also, it’s best to avoid any cacti since they require lots of bright sunshine.  Lastly, grow lights are another option and can help gardens thrive in environments with little windows or light exposure.

Finding the right light for your succulents can be tricky. But thankfully, (like in a lot of plant care) our succulents will communicate their needs to us. We just have to look when they’re sending us signals.