Etiolation in Succulents and How to Prevent It

etiolated succulent

Written ByJen Greene

Posted: May 15, 2024

Last week, I talked about etiolation in cacti, how to spot it, and how to prevent it. This week, let’s talk about the ways we’re torturing our succulents with inadequate light.

Quick refresher on etiolation: When grown in inadequate light, plants will stretch and distort to try and find the light they need. It’s often used to describe how seeds will try and grow from underground, producing new growth to emerge from soil, or to try and get around competing plants. Your succulents should not be needing to do this, and at the size they often are when offered for sale, such stretched growth is extremely detrimental.

It’s not always a death sentence, but it’s not often they can be pulled back once they’ve stretched more than a little.


etiolation in succulents

I think the plant above is a type of Pachyveria, likely “little jewel”. It’s hard to tell by the angle and color, though, as it only barely resembles the plant at right (nursery-grown Pachyveria “Little Jewel”). 

Not Etiolated 

You can spot the etiolation above in a few ways. 

See the space between each leaf on the stem? How you can actually get a clear view of the stem at all? That’s stretched. It’s like someone lightly tugged the plant up. It’s evenly stretched, so it’s been getting inadequate light likely from the beginning of being in that pot.

At right is one of my inventory plants, showing how they should look. Nice, compact, no sign of the stem, and you can see the powdery farina coating that develops to protect the plant from intense sunlight. 

While many succulents are described as needing partial shade, that is referring to growing them outdoors. The person growing the one at left above has theirs in a windowsill, but it’s clearly inadequate light based on the stretching. In that type of setup, the person likely needs supplemental lighting for their plants to have healthier growth. Ironically, despite being touted as “excellent windowsill plants”, most succulents benefit far more from dedicated, intense lighting that encourages consistent upward growth, rather than toward a window. 

Can this be corrected? 

The plant at this stage won’t shrink in height, won’t come back from being stretched. 


It can be used to propagate new plants. This type works well for detaching a leaf from the stem, setting that leaf on some soil, and letting a little baby plant grow up from the leaf. You can also move it to a brighter exposure, let the new growth develop normally, and then cut the top off and root that. 

The etiolated succulent above is blooming! This species is not monocarpic, meaning it blooms once and dies. It, like some cacti, will continue to bloom even when it’s etiolated. 

The presence of flowers on the succulent above just indicates it’s been watered adequately and there’s enough fertilizer in the soil. Many succulents, especially hybrids such as this one, are more willing to bloom even in extreme conditions. 


etiolated succulent

Above is some sort of tortured Echeveria; it’s so etiolated it’s hard to tell what kind it was to start. 

Not Etiolated 


Again, the classic signs of etiolation in a succulent are visible: you can see the stem between the leaves, and it looks like it’s stretched up. 

Unlike the earlier plant, this one has flat leaves that are beginning to curl downward at the tip. Even though the top growth node and tiny new leaves seem to be growing relatively flat, the older and larger leaves are curving and the stem is visible. Those curving older leaves and the downward point is a classic sign of an Echeveria faily hybrid that’s getting woefully inadequate light. 

Nearly all Echeverias should grow in a nice, tight, compact rosette, leaves densely packed and resembling, well, a rose. Note in the one at the right that the leaves are all pointed up. There’s no sign of stem, and while the center new leaves are small and compact like the one at left, they are much denser, tight, and almost hidden behind the larger, older leaves surrounding it. 

Can this be fixed? Or how could it be prevented?

You could try and fix the plant at left by offering it adequate light, but it would need to be done slowly and carefully. When an Echeveria is that etiolated, it’s at extreme risk of sunburn and scorching. Combine sunburn with etiolation, and the plant is likely to be so stressed it’ll just rot or die.

So, slowly move it to a placement with brighter light, increase the duration your grow lights are left on during the day, or increase the brightness of the lights.

When the new growth is nice and compact, you then behead the Echeveria, and root it. 

However, when an Echeveria is that level of etiolated, it’s extremely stressed and very challenging to recover it. It’s far better to avoid this happening in the first place. You can do that by offering the light it needs in the first place: if a windowsill is your only option, you need nearly constant sunny days. Otherwise, artificial lighting is your best bet for attractive growth. 

Watch for the initial flattening of the rosette, where it starts to splay and look a bit…deflated. In an Echeveria or hybrid, that’s the first sign of inadequate light. 

Above is an Echeveria agavoides, recently imported, showing the classic early sign of etiolation (or at least, less than ideal lighting) in this genus and its hybrids. The plant was imported from Thailand and spent two weeks in a dark box, so some suffering from inadequate light is hardly a surprise. 

The big sign? Those flat outer leaves that lay horizontal on the ground. This usually accompanies paler green coloration, and even in the plant above (a cultivar known for the pink/blushing coloration), it’s paler than it should be. Contrast the plant above to a non-cultivar/non-hybrid Echeveria agavoides, below: 

echeveria agavoides

Notice how even the outer-most leaves point UP, and are not flat with the ground. Any that are flat or touching the ground are doing so out of the sheer quantity of the leaves forcing them down. You can also see that the leaves are slightly curved, like a spoon, and the tips of some leaves curve out like a flower. Contrast those leaves to our first etiolated example, where the leaves are horizontal from the stem and curve downward towards the ground. See how different the growth shape is? 

The particular plant pictured above is grown in almost 100% full sun, and shows some signs of sun stress and water issues: the yellowing of the outer leaves is a sign of weakened cell structure, due either to overwatering or mild sun-burn. 

Looking at the growth, though, that’s a sign of good if not borderline too much lighting. All leaves pointing up, very tight, compact rosette, with the center being recessed as the cherry on top. Remember than these plants evolved to survive in harsh conditions, growing partially sheltered under other plants or having adaptations to harsh direct sunlight and little water.

In cultivation, you’re balancing giving them too much of things they don’t normally get (rich soil, water) with not enough of the things they need to utilize those things (sunlight, heat).


aloe marlothii

In a Netherlands botanical garden

Not Etiolated 


At the Huntington Library Garden in Los Angeles, CA

Above are two Aloe marlothii, showing dramatically different growth.

 The Netherlands plant has beautiful, blue-ish green color to it, and the newest growth points up – but the older leaves are doing the splay appearance indicative of inadequate lighting. Being grown in the Netherlands, this particular aloe would have needed dedicated grow lights to truly maintain an appearance even remotely similar to how it grows in habitat. 

At right, the Huntington Library aloe, shows how this aloe should look. Even the outermost leaves try to point up, and are being shoved down by the leaves growing above them. The leaves are compact, with minimal space between each layer, and most of the upper half of the plant points up. 

It’s not as blue, which is likely a function of the particular clone (or collected plant seed) the plants originate from. 

The most significant difference that’s worth pointing out is the splayed appearance at left, and the compact growth at right. The plant at left isn’t quite etiolated yet, but it’s not exactly thriving under ideal conditions, either. 

Can this be corrected? 

Fortunately, the plant at left isn’t super etiolated and stretching, just lanky. If the botanical garden wanted to improve the appearance and have it look more robust, like the plant at right, they’d need to add at least one large grow light to supplement the natural lighting. For a garden like this one, a large fixture hanging from the ceiling with an enormous grow light is probably the route to take – biggest spread of light offered in the most natural way. 

At home, if you’re trying to grow a tree aloe indoors, a large hanging grow light is going to be a requirement. This sort of light isn’t exactly the prettiest, but it can work well as a hanging light. I use it indoors for a placement in my office with absolutely no natural light for some bright-light loving tropical plants. 

My favorite for fancy, attractive lights are SolTech lights – but they are considerably more expensive. For something you have on display as a sculptural-looking plant that’s almost art, it’s worth it. I invested in a few for displays in the house and love them! 


etiolated succulent

One of the most common things I see of plants that are definitely etiolating or stretching, but the grower hasn’t realized it yet. 

Not Etiolated 


The slender stalk emerging from the right of the red hued succulent in front is a bloom stalk! 

How do you know the plants are etiolated?

At left, the ones in the terrarium have long, lanky stems. You can see the lower leaves don’t point up at the tips, they’re either flat/straight, or they point down.

The center part of the rosette is tight, but the plants themselves are very pale. I suspect those are very light-starved sedeveria of some kind, and based on the coppery look of the older leaves, this was a dark red or a purple-hued plant originally.

At right, you can see similar hybrids grown outdoors, in half sun/half shade. See how the edges of the leaves point up, even with the lower leaves? They do have some stem growth, but the leaves are much more compact and tight. At the top, where the new growth has the most exposure to light, you can’t even see the stems at all!

The color is also much more intense. You can see oranges, reds, and purples on the top parts that are exposed to sunlight. You do see some green, especially on older leaves that are lower down, but the center and top have delightful blushing.

Because these succulents (graptoverias and friends) are so fast growing, you do always sort of see an element of stretching when they grow in a planting. See below: 

graptoveria ghosty

Those are cuttings from a large stand of Graptoveria “ghosty” I had growing in front, where it had nearly full sun. 

You’ll notice that there is some stretching in these plants at the bases of the stems! Growing as a large bush-shaped clump of plants, their growth pattern was exactly what etiolation evolved to adapt to. New growth needed to stretch to reach adequate light, and each ‘branch’ competed with its neighbor for light. As a result, you can see the stem at the base, and there’s more space between each leaf. 


You can also see that even those lower leaves curve with the tips pointing up towards the growth point (which faced the sky before I cut the plants up). The tops of each branch are more compact, and have the distinct, tight rosettes that indicate good lighting. The color also points to light being as it should; the plants are green near the base, but blush to a darker shade the closer they get to the tips. 

One of the most crucial signs of these stems being fine, and not stretching in a negative way, compared to the etiolated plant above is the leaves. All of them, even the lower leaves, gently curve with the tips pointing up. If your plants aren’t doing that, it’s likely a sign there’s inadequate light. 



The person who posted these blue chalksticks asked why they ‘suddenly’ seemed so lanky, and that she’d had this plant for years. 

Not Etiolated 


This is what a blue chalkstick should look like as a clump. 

To be clear, the etiolated plant above has very clearly been etiolating for some time. There’s almost no leaves at the base of the stems, they’re all floppy and bending over the sides. The bending over the sides wouldn’t be as big a sign of poor lighting if there was plentiful center growth that pointed up. 

Then there’s the newest growth, which for a blue chalkstick, comes in quick and will etiolate extremely fast if not given enough light. The new growth is very skinny, with huge gaps between each leaf. Chalksticks do grow with some space between, but it’s more like clusters and clumps, and less like a bad, greasy hairstyle. 

In the spirit of fairness, the species at right showing the non-etiolated plants is of a slightly different species, with shorter and fatter leaves. Even so… the exact same species is still very blue, with thick and dense leaves. 

blue chalksticks

Above is an example of a young Blue Chalkstick plant showing the leaves, both with the powdery farina and without, due to rubbing or touching. 

This is a consistent theme, but see how the leaf tips all point UP? Even in the sprawling clump above, where there’s stems that have fallen over (visible at the top of the clump, near the red jellybean succulents), you can see that the growth tips are pointed up. 

New growth is compact, close, and tightly together. Leaves are plump, and on both the clump further up and this smaller starter pot, even the lowest leaves point up. As a species of ice plant, these do tend to sprawl, but their growth points should always be trying to point up. They’ll even drape over a pot in their effort to sprawl, which makes them great for container arrangements – but always keep an eye out that they’re growing compactly, and that the growth tips try to point to the sky. This isn’t a species that likes to point down, like a burro’s tail or string of pearls. 

How can this etiolation be corrected?

Blue chalksticks require a LOT of light. More than most people might expect! They’ll hang on, even in atrocious conditions, but they need nearly full sun all the time.

I’ve known family that has kept them indoors through a Nebraska winter, and saw etiolation similar to above. To correct it, she needed to cut the tips off and re-start the plants from fresh.

As with other etiolated plants, my recommendation is to slowly move the pot to increasingly brighter light placements until you see healthy, normal growth. Then, behead the succulent: cut off the healthy growth and let it callous over (leave it sitting out for at least an hour, up to 2 or 3 days) and then stick it into some well draining soil. When it comes to a blue chalk succulent, you can propagate further. Now that you know the light exposure needed for good growth, you can also trim back the bare stems.

Cut the stems back to the last growth node – the last spot where a leaf used to be. Leave the rest of the plant potted as it is, and water normally (just a thorough rinse when the soil is dry).

Then, cut the stems up into chunks, and let them callous over as you did with the tip. Stick them into soil to root, and water about half as often as you do the cuttings that have leaves. The leaves need moisture to produce roots, and will enjoy a bit more of it as they try to establish themselves. These bare stems, however, have no leaves to produce energy or try to maintain. Sparse watering and good lighting will mean that the stems probably root faster than your leafy cuttings, and within a month or two, you’ll see roots and potentially even new growth.

In winter, to prevent the etiolation again, these need supplemental lighting. They do not go dormant, and cannot make do with a windowsill in cloudy, dreary winter months. Something like these puck lights might work, or you can screw grow lights into a regular light fixture and keep the chalksticks there. 

I’ll wrap this up with a sad, sad succulent from a bar, and the note that pretty much any succulent you see at a bar or restaurant is likely to be etiolated or otherwise suffering. The one above was in a window, which basic internet directions would tell you is fine. 

It is not fine. This plant is screaming to be put out of its misery, and is blooming in a last ditch effort to pass on its genes for a new generation that won’t be suffering. Bless it. 

Windowsill cultivation can work for some succulent species, but not all. The more north you live, the more you’re likely to need supplemental lighting, especially in winter. If you have lots of cloud cover and rainy or dreary days – your succulents will need extra light! 

I’d love to do a blog post rounding up all the truly sad succulents and cacti you’ve encountered out and about, and reviewing what could be done differently to maintain them properly. Send me your sad bar succulents at [email protected]! Any details you can include about their placement, where in the world you’re located, and common weather conditions where you’re at would be helpful. 

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