Much of the appeal of succulents comes from the fantastic array of colours these plants can display. Some succulents change to one or multiple colours throughout the year and some can have a complete appearance makeover.
The majority of succulents are a shade of green or green-blue but in certain circumstances either the whole plant or parts of the plant can change colour. So why do succulent leaves and tips turn red and is it a reason to be concerned about your plants health?
Succulent tips and leaves turn red thanks to pigments in the leaves which get activated when a succulent is stressed by the environment or when the seasons change. This is usually entirely natural.
Let’s have a closer look at different factors contributing to the colour change.
Succulent Leaves and Tips Turning Red in the Cold Season
Succulents are a feast for the eyes when the weather goes cold. It is important to remember that most succulents are not frost hardy and will die if exposed to prolonged periods of frost and snow.
In cold climates with harsh winters succulents usually start changing their leaves and tips to red (or other colours) in mid autumn. In moderate climates this change happens in winter and in tropical climates it may not happen at all if the temperatures stay warm.
Here, west of Sydney Australia, our succulents start changing colour in late autumn. Some are quite quick to get their flashy pinks, purples and reds on display, others take until mid-late winter to change.
Most of our plants are grown outdoors in the elements so they are as hardy as possible. When we expect frost, frost cloths are deployed. We do not like growing our succulents in igloos/ plastic greenhouses as the lack of exposure to sun and the weather tends to make them less compact, colourful and hardy. A sheltered succulent is unlikely to develop any red tips or leaves.
The red (or other colour) tips and leaves are due to the succulent being ‘stressed’ by the cold. But because it’s stressed does not mean your plant is going to keel over or suffer for it. Healthy plants can be stressed without anything bad happening to them.
Red tips or leaves are a normal cycle most of the time and will happen every season as long as the plant is outdoors and exposed to some sun.
Succulent Leaves and Tips Turning Red Due to Sun Exposure
The majority of succulents need a certain number of sunlight to grow maintain their shape and colour. Some succulents (Haworthia, Gasteria etc.) do prefer shade and will struggle in the sun, so it’s always a good idea to know what conditions does your succulent like.
Sun, however, stresses succulents and will, in some plants, turn their tips or leaves red. Again, this is not a bad thing unless the succulents you’re trying to grow are cuttings, young plants, plants recovering from pest attack or if the temperature goes beyond 35 C (95F) and your plants are in full afternoon sun.
Plants in the ground should survive this, but those in pots are likely to get sunburn on their leaves and so will need to be kept out of direct afternoon sun in these kind of temperatures.
Sun-loving succulents that are permanently in shade are likely to stretch and grow tall with elongated leaves and not much colour to them. A lot of them will die and so in our opinion it is best to keep them in, at least, morning sun. To read more on just how much sun succulents need, see this article.
Succulent Leaves and Tips Turning Red Due to Poor and Heavy Soil
Soil that is heavy because of too much sand/clay or is just very poor will stress succulents. They will still grow but are more likely to have very compact growth and be extra colourful.
We have ornamental succulent gardens in our nursery planted out in very poor soil. It is rock hard when dry and heavy, almost glue-like when wet. Yet the succulents are growing, though much slower than our nursery succulents.
They also look different to succulents that we grow in garden beds for cuttings. Because we need our cuttings to be of a decent size, we have added some good quality potting mix to the soil and as a result these succulents are still colourful (both gardens are in full sun) and have red tips and leaves, but they are not as vibrant and deep red as the succulents growing in the ornamental gardens.
Succulent Leaves and Tips Turning Red Due to Succulents Being Root-bound
Root-bound succulent means that the plant has reached the limit of the pot with its roots. There is no space to grow any further and the roots are a dense, tight clump. If you take your succulent out of a pot when its root-bound, the root ball will be solid and in the shape of the pot.
Some people (including myself) let suitable succulents deliberately get root-bound to turn unusual colours and shapes. Root-bound succulents will grow like bonsais- they’ll have a thick stem with leaves on top and will grow very slowly.
The leaves will be smaller and chunkier than if the plant was to grow in a bigger pot with plenty of space for the roots. Not all succulents will survive being grown like this. To learn more see another one of my articles about repotting succulents.
Being root-bound will produce deeper red (or other colour) tips and leaves due to the stress.
Are Succulent Leaves or Tips Turning Red Ever a Bad Sign?
Succulent leaves or tips turning red is seldom a bad sign. We have only ever had a handful of succulents turning part of their leaves red, then yellow and then drying out and it was always an Echeveria.
The whole plant never collapsed, but part of it died off, then grew back after a few months. We do no yet know why this has happened as it is very random and it is usually one out of 10,000 plants, so the chances are quite slim.
If you are unlucky enough to have such a plant we recommend to either take the dead leaves off and re-pot the plant to make sure there are no pests on the roots or hidden away in the leaves or ‘behead’ the plant. The top part will then go into a new pot and the roots and stalk with a few leaves will stay in the original pot. As a bonus, new plants should form where the top was cut off.
In conclusion, when your plants tips and leaves turn red or change to another colour (except for yellow, brown or black) you can just sit back and enjoy.