The succulent world is a colourful one and the palette these mazing plants come in is quite extensive. Some of you already familiar with succulents may have noticed they tend to change colour based how they are grown or what month it is. Sometimes the change in colour can be quite random. Below I’ll explain all the reasons for succulent colour change we’ve come across at our nursery.
Why do succulents lose or change colour
Size of pot
The vast majority of succulents like to be exposed to some degree of direct sun so they can perform photosynthesis. Just how much sun varies from species to species. Sun also activates colourful pigments in succulents and more sun usually equals more colour.
Succulents and all other plants need the sun to survive. If the sun suddenly disappeared for good, all plants on Earth would die. The reason for this is photosynthesis.
Photosynthesis is a process plants use to convert direct sun light into energy which they then use to grow. Different plants will have different requirements. Shade-lovers have evolved to only need very little sun exposure and would in-fact burn if they suddenly found themselves in too much sun while other plants almost need to be exposed to sun’s rays all day long to be healthy.
This is also the case with succulents. Whole genera such as Haworthia or Gasteria are not that keen on full sun and grow in shaded spots in the wild while many species of Echeveria or Crassula grow best in a full-sun position.
Sun also brings out the colour in most succulents and keeps them growing in a compact fashion. Different pigments in succulents give them different shades of colour. If succulents do not get enough sun, they usually turn green and start growing larger leaves, spread apart further and elongating in search of more sun.
This phenomenon can be seen best in succulents that are grown indoors- no matter how sunny your window, true sun-loving succulents will start turning towards the brightest light and grow tall and leggy.
There are a few things that needs pointing out in relation to the sun and that is climate change, movement of succulents and hybridization. I am going a bit off topic here, but feel this is quite important as in some parts of the world simply putting succulents out in the sun to get them colourful can burn or kill them.
While sun loving succulents do like to be exposed to the sun all day the rising temperatures and ever increasing heatwaves can make it difficult for them to survive the extremes. Direct sun on a 40C/104F day can be a death sentence for many plants, even if they are sun lovers. We have an article on how to care for succulents in heatwaves that you can read here.
Because succulents are so popular they can often be found thousands of miles away from their natural habitat, in a completely different climate and time zones. This can make it challenging for them to adjust and while many do, it really pays to know a little bit about the particular species you’re growing and where they originally come from. Many succulents, for instance, are not frost hardy and so exposing them to freezing temperatures will almost certainly kill them.
It can be a bit hard to find out the origins of some modern succulents as they have been hybridized. The origins of their parents are in the Genus, so for example, while there are hundreds if not thousands of Echeveria that are not found in nature, only in cultivation and these have been cross bred and hybridized to the point of not being able to trace the parentage, they are still likely to behave like their distant wild ancestors.
Echeveria are mostly native to Southern America and come from dry and arid regions. They will like exposure to the sun, but should be shielded from extremely hot, direct sun in summer. Many are sensitive to humidity and dislike being constantly watered. While there will be differences between Echeveria species, as a group of plants from this genus, they are likely to grow well if they are grown in a sunny spot in autumn, winter and spring and are given afternoon shade over summer in climates where mid to high 30’s (95-104F) are not unusual. This will keep them growing compact and colourful.
Seasons tend to be by far the most influential factor when it comes to succulents and colour. Almost all succulents start showing bright colours in autumn and winter and will then fade to greener tones over late spring and summer.
Cold tends to stress succulents and their pigments get activated. Some succulents will start colouring up as soon as temperatures start dropping in winter. Others only change colours at a certain time of the year. There is, for example, Sempervivum Winter Red that is completely green end from of Spring to start of Winter and ends up almost fully red hallway through winter, even if the temperatures have been very cold beforehand.
A great deal of succulents will only colour up fully in the cold months, no matter how much sun they get in summer. It is one of those things that is purely dictated by nature.
Colder weather and low temperatures can influence how colourful succulents are. Lower temperatures stress succulents which brings out all those vibrant colours. When it’s lovely and warm, the green will be more prevalent.
Growing succulents indoors is one of the main reasons why succulents lose colour. The lack of light and fresh air are likely to turn all colourful succulents pale or green. They will also stretch and many, that are not meant to be grown indoors, will eventually die.
Very few succulents will grow indoors happily. There are Haworthia, Gasteria, Sansevieria and other shade-tolerant succulents that will survive being grown indoors, but even they will look a world apart from their counterparts grown outdoors.
Plant growing lights can help, but you’ll really need to do your homework and spend some money to get lights which will be good enough for succulents.
Succulents that are watered regularly, especially in the growing season, can be less colourful than succulents that are kept dry. Lack of water stresses succulents, which in turn activates the coloured pigments.
When water is readily available, succulents will grow at a faster rate and are likely to lose some of their colours. At the other end of the spectrum, succulents that are only watered every so often will be smaller, more compact with thicker leaves and stalks and also, more colourful.
Good quality potting mix that is just right for succulents can cause less colourful succulents in the growing season, especially when freshly re-potted. Potting mix that is either too heavy or extremely free draining is likely to bring the colour out more.
While colourful succulents are beautiful if the potting mix is not right they can start suffering in the long term. The growth will be slow, few or no pups will appear and leaves may start drying out and falling.
We have tried many potting media over the years and although our favourite mix does cause a slight loss of colour in the growing season, especially in spring, it makes succulents grow big, beautiful and strong.
Size of pot
Succulents left in small pots for long periods are likely to be more colourful than regularly re-potted plants. This is because they are rootbound which stresses succulents into displaying colour.
Bigger pots encourage new growth as the plant has more root space. This will, in turn, cause plants to grow bigger, but also a little less colourful.
Many succulent growers, including myself, purposefully stress succulents into being more colourful by leaving them in smaller pots and if done right, this does not really hurt the plants. It is like growing a bonsai. Plants in small pots will grow slower, more stubby and more colourful with less offsets. But not all succulents like being root-bound and in small pots. There are species that can die if left in small pots for long.
When succulents have more space available, they will be bigger than plants in small pots and they will also lose colour, especially in the growing season. While plants in small pots, even though they want to grow, will have their growth stunned by the boundaries of the pot, but succulents in big pots have extra room and so will produce bigger but less colourful leaves.
When a succulent is re-potted it will immediately start putting all its energy into producing new growth. Growth, especially in the warmer months is done at the expense of colour and in general, succulents will lose colour when they are re-potted.
Losing colour is not a bad thing and if you want a succulent that is big, lush and growing offsets, then re-potting is a must. A freshly re-potted succulent will have lots of new nutrients and root space available and it will happily respond. If a re-potted plant is grown in enough sun the colour loss will not be as bad and, once temperatures start dropping in autumn, it is very likely the vibrant colours will appear regardless.
The take-away from all this is that most succulents will gain and lose colour naturally without our intervention, but there are factors that will influence succulent colours we have control of. These factors will cause the succulent to get stressed and will have a knock on effect on how the plant grows. If you’d like to go down the road of stressing succulents into more colour I would suggest to do a bit of research into the species of plant you’d like to stress and how to do it, so the plant does not die.