When succulents change colour suddenly it can be a bit worrying. Most of you will know that many succulents can turn different colours depending on influencing factors such as sun exposure, seasons, watering patterns etc.
But when succulent leaves turn yellow, for most succulents this means the leaf is dying off. In many cases this is just natural and nothing to be concerned about, though sometimes it can be a sign of succulent in trouble.
Why are succulent leaves turning yellow and falling off?
Too much sun
Not enough sun
Too much water
Not enough water
Bad potting mix
Being root bound
It is completely normal for succulents to have a few yellow leaves at some stage in their lives. Yellow leaves do eventually fall off but it does not mean the plant is dying. Some succulents also have yellow pigment that comes through mainly during winter/when exposed to the sun (Crassula Ovata ‘Red Coral’, Aeonium Kiwi).
When offsets grow at the bottom or through a rosette type succulent (usually an Echeveria), the bottom leaves they push against can turn yellow and die off. This is completely normal and can happen whenever a succulent is growing pups.
Too much sun
When a succulent is exposed to very hot sun, it produces a stress response. Different succulents will react to stress in different ways and some will have their leaves yellow. This can become a problem if the sun is too strong and can be direct reason for a succulent dying.
Most succulents can deal with heat when they are in shade but when exposed to very hot, direct sun of about 35C/95F they can really suffer (just like we humans would). The temperature at which succulents start getting burns, yellowing or dying is different from species to species and depends on many other factors. You can read another one of our articles on this topic here.
Not enough sun
The great majority of succulents need exposure to sun and do not grow well indoors or in too much shade. If a succulent is not getting enough sun the leaves can start turning yellow. In this scenario it means the succulent is suffering and can die.
There are exceptions, of course, and plants such as Haworthia, Gasteria, Rhipslais and other shade-tolerant succulents do prefer to not be in too much direct sun. But they too need some exposure or at least extremely bright spot so they can perform photosynthesis.
Not getting enough sun is a big deal for succulents and many can easily die because of this.
Too much water
Overwatering succulents may be an issue with some species and can cause the leaves to turn yellow and mushy. Succulents prefer their potting mix to dry out between waterings and do not like to constantly sit in water. Succulents also hate their foliage getting wet, so please do not spray them.
While most succulents will be fine when watered too much if they are planted in good quality succulent potting, in a pot that has drainage holes and placed in a spot with appropriate sun exposure, many (usually hybrids, some cacti and desert plants) can suffer even if overwatered just on a couple of occasions. You can read a more in depth article on succulents and water here.
Not enough water
Succulents will also suffer if they are not watered enough. Many people assume that succulents always like to be dry, but this is not the case. They need water and when they are dry for too long, leaves will start yellowing and falling off.
When a succulent is too dry, it will start losing its most bottom leaves, grows a thicker stem and leaves, and usually stops producing any new growth. But some succulents (small leaved sedums etc.) can suffer more from being too dry and completely die, especially in summer during hot days.
As mentioned above, a good potting mix and pot with holes should ensure good drainage which will help succulents if they are overwatered. In my experience, most succulents will happily live outdoors, even if it rains too much. Most of our nursery succulents grow outside and I have very little trouble with succulents dying or rotting when we go through weeks of rain. But potting mix and sun exposure is key to keeping them happy during wet spells.
Bad potting mix
Although many succulents will grow in any standard potting mix if they are in pots, they can develop yellowing leaves. This also largely depends on individual species. Some succulents can survive lots of neglect and others can easily die if planted in the wrong medium.
Succulents in pots should be given the best potting mix you can find and they will reward you with for it. Potting mix that is too heavy or rich in nitrogen (manure or compost rich mixes) can cause yellowing leaves, marks, splitting leaves and, in some cases, even death.
In the ground most succulents will survive in pretty much any soil, though if it is too heavy it will help to break it up and mix a bag of potting mix through. Heavy soil can stop roots from growing and therefore the roots will be bound to a small area which can also cause yellowing.
Hardy succulents such as most Crassula Ovata species or plants like Graptopetalum Paraguayense will grow even in bad soil/potting mix but more sensitive succulents will not do very well.
Root-bound succulents have reached all the available space in a pot and their roots are trying to escape to search for fresh soil and nutrients, often growing around in circles or out of the drainage holes. As a result, the plant will slow its growth, drop the bottom leaves (which often yellow first) and get thicker.
Many succulent growers, including myself, let some succulents become root bound on purpose as it brings the colour out and the shape also grows quite attractive. However, this does not work with all succulents and many can get so stressed, they lose most their leaves and can die in extreme cases.
Sucking pests such as Aphids love succulents and an infestation can cause yellowing leaves. If a leaf is eaten at the base, where it grows out of the stalk it can also yellow and die off. Snails, slugs, caterpillars and grasshoppers are known to eat succulents.
Succulents are quite popular amongst sap sucking insects such as mealy bugs, aphids and scale and should be regularly checked. Snails, slugs, grasshoppers & caterpillars will also munch on succulent leaves and can cause quite a bit of damage. We have an article on succulent pests here along with treatment solutions.
Most succulents are not big fans of humidity and can suffer yellowing leaves, brown spots and fungal diseases. This tends to happen more during summer months when rain, heat and humidity collide.
In tropical climates many succulents may need to be kept out of the rain and strictly watered only when the potting mix dries out. Foliage should also be kept dry.
If a wet and rainy summer is expected, it may be best to take succulents such as Echeveria, Cotyledon, Cacti and any others that you don’t want to lose and place them under cover. It is important that they get a few hours of sun and bright light exposure as well.
Should I remove yellow leaves from succulents?
It is not strictly necessary to remove yellow leaves, but it may be a good idea. Yellow leaves will eventually shrivel and either fall off themselves or stay attached to the plant. Mealy bugs in particular love hiding and lay eggs amongst dead foliage.
Yellowing leaves are essentially dying and still taking energy from the plant and removing them is a good way of getting rid of dead weight. These leaves may also have a fungus in them so when taking them off, do chuck them out in the garden waste bin.
How do you fix yellowing succulents?
First, it needs to be established why the succulent is yellowing and the fixing can begin based on the diagnosis.
Above I have explained every possible reason for yellowing succulent leaves I have come across at our plant nursery. Yellowing succulent leaves can be one or a combination of these. If you’re having trouble finding out why your succulent is yellowing I would recommend re-potting into fresh succulent potting mix.
This will give you a chance to have a look at the roots and see if there are any mealybugs on the roots, fungus etc. If you find mealy bugs on the roots the pot will need to be thoroughly washed and the bugs killed.
Then a new spot needs to be found where the succulent is under cover outdoors but still in enough light. Watering can resume when the potting mix dries up. It may also be a good idea to look up the species of your plant as not all succulents like the same growing conditions. Try and look for information about how to care for the particular succulent.
Succulent leaves turning yellow and wrinkled
In most cases, yellow succulent leaves that are also wrinkled are a sign of thirsty and/or rootbound succulents. The fastest way to fix this is to repot into bigger pot with fresh potting mix and water.
Succulent leaves turning yellow and translucent
Yellow and translucent leaves are usually of sign of too much water, dislike of humid conditions or heat stress where a succulent is exposed to very hot, direct sun. In winter it can also be a sign of frost.
In conclusion succulent leaves can be yellow naturally or yellowing because of something in their environment. In general if only a few leaves have turned yellow, it is unlikely to cause any harm to the plant. But if the leaves are starting to yellow in greater numbers or also going mushy, it can be sign something is not right.