Are your succulents getting enough winter sunlight?

By Alice Liles

Alice’s note: This story first appeared in my cactus blog, Cactus are Cool, on November 6, 2015. Since winter is upon us and plants are being moved in, I thought a reminder of the importance of sunlight for succulents might be helpful.

Now that plants have been brought in for the winter, sunlight becomes an issue, especially for cactus and succulents. My cactus deal with the reduction of sunlight during their winter incarceration indoors pretty well, probably because they are in the greenhouse rather than our house. Their growth rate slows down, and they keep their shape well for the few months of the cold weather. Some cactus will get pointed at the top where they should be round if they have been out of the sun too long, and they won’t go back to their correct shape once the damage is done.
Succulents, on the other hand, continue to grow and will reach for the light, causing them to become leggy and misshapen. This can happen outside as well if they are in a location without enough sunlight, which is what started the problem with this staghorn cotyledon, which was in too much shade and started reaching before I caught it and moved it to a better location. Now that it is inside the problem has continued. When the space between sets of leaves gets longer and longer, the plant is trying to tell you that it needs more light as it is reaching for the sun (1).

Photo by Alice Liles

 

 

This is what the plant is supposed to look like (2).

Photo by Alice Liles

Considerable difference, huh? Once the plant has become disfigured, there is no going back. The only solution is to prune the plant, move it to a sunnier location, if you can find one, and wait for it to put out new growth as you both wait out the winter inside.(3).

Photo by Alice Liles

You will want to make your cut down low, close to part of the plant that has not been reaching. Be patient and soon new crowns will appear between the top leaves and the stem, like you see on this graptoveria (4).

Photo by Alice Liles

You can cut the removed piece into several sections, let the ends dry and scab over and root them to make another plant. As before, make your cut close to a set of leaves as you see here. This allows you a stem to plant and will have the new growth come in low in the pot so it will fill in properly (5).

Photo by Alice Liles

Here’s an example of a pachyphytum that has already started reaching since being moved in for the winter (6).

Photo by Alice Liles

Here it is after being cut back (7).

Photo by Alice Liles

And this is what this plant should look like. Notice how close together the leaves are on the stem. That is what you want in all succulents. That is sand and dirt on the bottom leaves, by the way, not mealy bugs! I failed to clean it before taking the picture (8).

Photo by Alice Liles

If you can remember to move the pot back in when a freeze is coming, taking the pot outside for warm spells and sunshine can help, but the danger there is remembering to bring them back in! Try to find a place closer to a sunny or at least bright window for the remainder of the season, or put it under a grow light, which I have not done, but would be better than nothing. And in the spring if the plant has not responded, you might still have to cut it back again and give it some time to fill out.
I think succulents get a bad rap because their owners don’t know to provide enough light, and then when the plant looks ugly, they toss it and give up on the species. If this consistently happens to you, then it is time to try something else; substitute an ivy or some other low light foliage plant instead of subjecting a cactus or succulent to unfavorable growing conditions in a dark corner of your house.
Cactus and succulents are very forgiving if you give them half a chance, but they need their sunlight.
For more stories on cacti and succulents, go to www.aliceliles.com and click on the Cactus are Cool tab.

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