Many of you may wonder what on earth is beheading a succulent and why would someone want to commit such a crime against a perfectly good plant. Although it all sounds rather drastic, there are circumstances when chopping the top part off your succulent is not such a bad idea.
The reasons for beheading a succulent
Fixing succulents that have grown too tall for various reasons
To encourage new growth
To help rejuvenate succulents that have suffered damage to the very top of their rosette.
When you decide to behead your succulent the How and When is also very important. Let’s have a closer look at all of this.
Why Would Anyone Behead a Succulent?
As mentioned above there are perfectly good reasons for beheading succulents or cutting the top rosette off.
Many people use this method to propagate difficult or rare succulent species such as Echeveria Romeo Rubin, Ebony or Graptoveria Amethorum that do not produce many offsets or chicks. Beheading a succulent, if done right, will spur new growth and will encourage new offsets to grow from the cut.
The top, beheaded part, can be re-planted as well. Depending on the plant, you can gain anywhere between 1-5 new plants by beheading one plant.
Another reason for beheading succulents is to fix tall growth. Many succulents such as Echeveria Blue Bird, Derenbergii or Opalina naturally grow a bit taller and can start leaning. To maintain the look, they can be cut and planted again.
When sun loving succulents are grown indoors or in too much shade they will grow tall, searching for the sun. Cutting the tops can help with trying to get them grow as they are supposed to. The growing conditions will, however, need to change too (place the plant in more sun etc.) so the growth is maintained.
As we’ve established above, many succulents will be encouraged to grow new heads when the main head is cut off. This will create an attractive, multi-rosette look.
Lastly, succulents can be beheaded if the top of the rosette has suffered some kind of damage. Hail, mealy bugs in the centre of the rosette or a hungry caterpillar eating the newest growth can all distort the look and by cutting the damage off, new heads will replace the damaged one.
When & How To Behead a Succulent
The best time to be cutting any succulent is the spring or the growing season of a particular plant (some succulents are summer dormant, the majority are winter dormant). Spring is however the best season as most succulents grow during this time. If you behead a plant outside of its growing season, there is a strong possibility it will die before it is able to send roots/ recover from being cut.
Beheading refers to cutting the top part off on rosette type succulents/ succulents that form a central main head rather than the ones that branch out. Some succulents are easier to behead than others.
To successfully undertake this, the ‘victim’ plant will need to have enough stalk so the top part doesn’t fall apart and there are still a few leaves left at the bottom, root end as this is essential for new growth to sprout. If there are no leaves left, some plants can never recover and may not make it. This can be quite difficult with some low growing plants, such as Echeveria Chihuahuensis, as their stalk is minimal.
The most important thing is to make sure your plant is of good size and can survive the chop. Second, as mentioned above, is to only do this to succulents in their growing season. It is no good when the plant is dormant and not growing as it is likely to result in the top part of the rosette not sending roots and bottom rotting away. Most succulents grow well in spring, so this would be an ideal time for any propagating.
Once you have your plant, gather your cutting tool. This can be a Stanley knife (it’s super sharp and thin, so a good choice), pair of sharp garden scissors or a strong piece of thin string (can be fishing line or similar).
Next, sterilize your cutting tool. Although not essential, clean sterile tools will prevent fungal infections or other nasties entering the open wound and killing your plant. A good way to sterilize anything is by dipping in methylated spirits. Metal tools can be heated up in boiling water.
To be entirely honest, I don’t always sterilize my cutters when propagating as I can do thousands of cuttings in a space of a few days, so it would just be very time consuming. I do, however, clean whatever I cut with before going on a cutting spree. I would still recommend to sterilize the tools, just in case, especially if you’re going to behead a particularly rare/ expensive succulent.
Once all that is done make sure you’re cutting at the lowest possible point, but so there are a few leaves left at the root end. If beheading a stretched succulent, make the cut at the top, where the concentration of the leaves is at its most thick, but also allow for a bit of a stalk. When the cut is done put the top and the bottom in a bright but covered and shaded spot to help the wound dry. This will stop diseases entering the plant through the cut.
The wound will dry off sufficiently in 24-48 hours. The top bit of the plant is now ready to be planted. Choose good quality succulent potting mix and place both, the bottom bit where only a few leaves and the roots are now left and the top cutting planted in potting mix, in a bright but protected spot.
Depending on the plant that has been cut, select a spot with a bit of a morning sun and then afternoon bright shade. 30% shade-cloth over the plants is ideal as this way they will be protected from harsh UV rays that would otherwise burn them and they will still get enough essential sunlight which they need to grow well. The cutting (top part) will be a little sensitive before growing a decent enough root ball.
Some plants, such as the Haworthia, prefer more and deeper shade than sun-loving succulents. If you’re beheading a Haworthia, place the cutting in a bright shade with no direct sun or filtered sun (under a tree) or under shade-cloth.
Sun loving succulents will need to be slowly introduced to sun otherwise they are likely to stretch again. If they are under shade-cloth though, this will let enough sun in to keep the happy all year round. Pretty much all succulent types will grow well if they are under 30% shade-cloth (more that 30% will be too dark for sun loving succulents). If you’re growing rarer plants it may be worth investing in a simple greenhouse and buying 30% shade-cloth to put over.
In my experience, not many succulents like to grow indoors (there are a few exceptions, of course). They prefer fresh air and loads of light and so I’d recommend not having your succulents inside, unless you have an extraordinarily bright place with good airflow. A bright veranda or a balcony are fine though.
In about a months time your beheaded succulent should have a few roots (some species may take longer, some will have roots in 2-3 weeks). The bottom stalk should also have new growth sprouting from the cut. How much growth will depend on the individual species. Some plants can have 3+ rosettes while others may only manage one. Tender growth attracts pests and so it is always a good idea to check for mealy bugs, aphids and slugs.
In conclusion, beheading succulents can be a fun way of propagating and experimenting with your plants. It may also serve as essential maintenance tool. However, if you're not sure how to go about it, feel nervous or have a very expensive plant, i would not recommend tampering with your plants.