Unfortunately, there are a lot of pests and other animals out there that include succulents in their diet. Even if it is not their natural food, animals seem to like water filled, succulent leaves and drive succulent enthusiasts around the bend with all sorts of damage done to our precious plants. So what eats succulent leaves?
The list varies depending on where in the world you are, but the most common animals that eat succulents around the world are aphids, mealy bugs, caterpillars, grasshoppers, snails and slugs.
Larger animals that like to eat succulent leaves
Here in Australia (and possibly America) we have a huge fan of succulent leaves that likes to eat the tender new growth in the middle. Aussie succulent enthusiasts will, of course, know I’m talking about the possums. They can mow several plants right down overnight and love chomping on the centre of Echeveria, Graptopetalum and all the other beautiful florette- like succulents.
If you have possums and your succulents are within their reach and are missing big chunks of leaves, it is extremely likely the possums are the culprit. We are a working nursery based in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney and the healthy numbers of possums could really wreak havoc on our plants. But because we like animals, rather than trying to completely eliminate them from the nursery we possum-proof our plants.
All the plants are on fairly high tables with smooth legs that possums can’t grip on and the perimeter of the succulents gardens is planted out with more spiky plants like low growing Agaves. We have also heard of garlic and onion concentrates (steep garlic/onion in boiling water and when cool spray on your plants). Although we haven’t tried this method yet, it apparently works a treat.
Wallabies and kangaroos are also said to love succulents. Thankfully, we don’t have any problems with these, but it is said that planting lavender, rosemary and citronella varieties will keep them away as they dislike the smell.
It has been reported that deer love succulents as well. While not very common in Australia, they can readily be encountered in other parts of the world. A good fence will keep the deer away. The alternative is to buy or make a spray that will deter deer from eating your succulents (and other plants).
Domestic animals such chickens, ducks, geese, horses, goats and cows also like eating succulent leaves. To keep these out, you will really just need a fence.
Small animals that like to eat succulent leaves
The smallest animals that succulent lovers will encounter eating their leaves are aphids and mealy bugs. Although they don’t take chunks off, they suck on the leaves juices leaving them deformed or scarred. Aphids and Mealy Bugs can multiply quickly and colonize plants within days.
Despite being small Aphids are fairly easy to spot and eliminate. They come in green, black, brown and even orange, and can range in size. People usually notice them once there is a fair few on the plant.
The good news is that Aphids are quite easy to get rid of and they don’t move fast. If there is only a few, they can be squashed and then washed off. If the infestation is quite significant a pyrethrum based spray will kill them quick smart. Pyrethrum can be bought natural (extracted from the Pyrethrum Plant) or synthetic. They both have the same effect and will kill insects on contact. It is best to use Pyrethrum in the evening, when beneficial insects are not flying around anymore as they will also get killed if sprayed. Pyrethrum breaks down fast and is biodegradable, so is quite a good pesticide to use.
Natural Pyrethrum is the more eco friendly option. Neem and other natural remedies can also be tried and have been reported by other succulent growers and gardeners as effective, but in our experience they do not work well (that is not to say they do not work at all).
Mealybugs are a bit of a tough nut to crack. They hide from plain sight, become resistant to pesticides and are pretty much impossible to avoid. In our opinion, everyone will encounter them at some stage when growing succulents. Mealy Bugs are usually found in a white cocoon, in-between leaves, close to the stems and are often spotted once the damage is done. One mealybug won’t do much damage but a few can completely deform a healthy succulent.
The best way to keep them in check is to inspect plants often for any deformities or white spots. If you find them, squash them with a skewer. You can also use available pesticides specially formulated for mealy bugs, but they are quite harsh and kill hordes of good insects too. Also, mealy bugs are likely to become resistant to pesticides and their cocoon protects them. Natural remedies are available (neem oil, rubbing alcohol) and again, they have been reported effective by some, but we did not find they killed all mealybugs, especially large adults.
Our solution is to inspect our many thousands of succulents regularly, keep plants around the nursery that attract beneficial insects such as ladybirds, lacewings and parasitical wasps. We also buy mealybug predators and release them around the nursery. Mealybugs can sometimes hide in leaf debris on the table and so it helps immensely that the area where you have your succulents is cleaned regularly, including the pots.
Some of you may wonder if it's possible to drown mealybugs. Well, I've done an experiment that you can read about here.
Caterpillars are another hungry little animal that will happily munch through succulent leaves and are considered a serious agricultural pest. There are chemicals that can be used to spray plants with that will kill the caterpillars, however again we don’t recommend their use as they poison so many other good insects (and are very propbably not good for you either).
Caterpillar will also turn into a butterfly/ month/ other insect that are important pollinators and play a vital role in the ecosystem. When we find caterpillars on or around our plants they get moved into a jar and then relocated elsewhere on the property.
Netting will prevent butterflies from laying their eggs as well so if you have a greenhouse, make sure it is secure with no larger gaps at all times (butterflies lay their eggs during the day and moths at night). For ventilation, change your plastic greenhouse doors to shade-cloth.
Other animals that have been reported eating succulent leaves are mice, birds and bats, though we have not seen any actually eating succulents and have plenty of all at the nursery. For those who have problems with mice and have seen them eating succulents, we would recommend keeping plants on tables with smooth legs, so the mice can’t get a grip and climb. If birds/bats are eating your plants you can put skewers in pots to discourage them or cover plants with netting.
In conclusion, there will always be something that will have a go at some of your plants. The natural world is facing a difficult time with insect and other animal numbers decreasing rapidly and so we would recommend to always take a ‘nature friendly’ way of dealing with animals that eat your plants.
Try and discourage the succulent munchers rather than kill them. The only exception would be Aphids and Mealy bugs as they can quickly multiply and are not beneficial in any way, other than being food for predators, but even predators cannot eat all the aphids and mealy bugs on your plants unless you purchase some. Buying predators is a great and natural way of dealing with truly bad pests.
Before you go and turn your garden into a bio hazard by spraying harsh pesticides everywhere, try the natural remedies/ pesticides that are derived from natural sources and other protective measures.
Have you witnessed animals other than those mentioned above eating your succulents? You can share your experience in the comments below :)