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Why Succulents Grow Etiolated/ Leggy/ Stretched & How To Fix Them

Updated: Jun 10

Light is incredibly important to succulents and all other plants. Without light they would simply die but succulents don't just need any old light- most need direct sunlight and, lots of it.

The great majority of succulents have developed in places with very little shade where sun shines for most of the time. The sun gives plants energy through photosynthesis some plants can photosynthesize even in indirect sun but succulents, bar a few exceptions, cannot do this well.

But succulents are clever little things. When the conditions are not favorable for growth they start looking for greener pastures and, since they don't have legs to move, succulents will direct their growth to where they think conditions will be better and end up stretching.

Succulents can become stretched, leggy and etiolated for different reasons. Often this kind of growth happens due to poor conditions, however, it can also be natural.

Below we're going to identify what etiolated growth means and why succulents get leggy and stretched.

What Is Etiolated & Leggy Growth In Succulents?

Etiolation can be characterized by elongated growth where plants are grown in partial or complete absence of light. When succulents become etiolated their stems and leaves become more fragile and prone to breaking. The colour becomes pale and washed out.

Etiolated and leggy growth is often used interchangeably, however, leggy growth can also happen when succulents are grown in enough light but are not happy with another aspect of their environment and, therefore, start stretching.

Why Do Succulents Become Etiolated & Leggy?

In my 10 years of experience growing succulents, etiolated and leggy (stretched out) growth can happen for a few different reasons.

Lack Of Light

We've already established etiolated growth happens due to lack of light. Because succulents are mostly sun loving plants, etiolated growth will almost certainly happen when they are placed indoors or in too much shade for their liking

Etiolated Echeveria due to lack of light
Leggy Echeveria Blue Bird

If you go and watch the video at the top of the article, i've done a few experiments to showcase what etiolated growth due to lack of light looks in different stages.

Being Rootbound

Succulents can also grow tall and stretch out when they have lack of root space or are planted in heavy soil. This is not etiolated growth and the tops will likely still stay compact and colourful.

Rootbound succulent stretching and growing leggy
Rootbound Graptopetalum paraguayense

The picture above showcases what severely root bound succulents can look like. They will stretch and stretch in the hope of landing on some fresh soil. They'll also lose most of their leaves and will solely concentrate on finding better growing conditions.

Natural Stretched Out Growth

Many succulents, such as the Senecio crassimus below, naturally grow tall and may seem a bit stretched but this is just what they are like. There is absolutely nothing wrong with them.

Naturally leggy, stretched out Senecio crassimus
Senecio crassimus is naturally a bit leggy

How To Fix Etiolated & Leggy Succulents

There are two ways of fixing etiolated and leggy, stretched out succulents. The first one is to Simply chop the top bits off. This is also known as beheading succulents . While this may seem a little drastic, it is a good fix and in the long term you're doubling up your plants.

The top will be planted again in a new pot, this time placed in an appropriate light so they can grow compact.

The bottom part with the roots will also be placed in a good light and left alone until it starts growing new heads.

New heads will look something like the below photo and will start growing on the leftover stalk and the part where the cut has been made. This to me is a win-win.

New growth after cutting etiolated succulent
Graptoveria opalina new growth after beheading the top rosette

The second approach is to pull the plant out and simply report and place in a pot with good light.

When succulents are severely etiolated they are also very fragile. The leaves will drop off at the slightest touch and the stalks snap easily you'll have to be careful when handling these

When placing succulents that have become leggy back into the sun make sure to do so gradually.

If they are just thrown into full sun straight away, especially, in summer they can burn easily.

If you have a shadecloth, etiolated succulents can go right under otherwise start with morning sun and slowly increase afternoon sun exposure after a couple of weeks.

In the case of stretched out plants that are looking for better growing conditions due to being rootbound or growing in inadequate potting mix- you'll just need to repot and use good quality potting mix to get them growing right again.

If they are very stretched out, you may need to do some pruning, but they will bounce back eventually.

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