Growing Dudleya pachyphytum

dudleya pachyphytum

Written ByJen Greene

Posted: March 27, 2024
These plants are, for me, one of those ‘holy grail’ species I’ve loved for years. I haven’t posted about them, or any of my dudleyas, before now because I was pretty convinced I was terrible at growing them. If I keep killing something, it seems a bit disingenuous to write about how to keep them alive, you know?

Fortunately for me, and my dudleyas, I got things figured out before killing them all. I have several species, all looking their absolute best this time of year (late winter/early spring is prime growing season for these succulents), but this post will focus on the thick, chubby-leaved species: Dudleya pachyphytum.

dudleya pachyphytum

D. pachyphytum in November 2022

Dudleya disclaimer 

Dudleyas are, almost entirely, protected or endangered species. Even the ones that seem locally plentiful (such as our lovely San Diego friends, Dudleya pulverulenta) are threatened or endangered, and recently became protected under California law. 

No matter the species, you should never field collect a plant, even if it seems like “there’s tons of them here anyway.” That attitude is how we end up with critically endangered plants. All of my Dudleya pictured on my site are from nursery stock, California Native Plant Society ethical seed, or otherwise grown from cultivated plants and were not sourced from the wild. 

I have had multiple buyers on Etsy ask about the source of Dudleya I offer for sale, and I will always be happy to answer such questions. Any ethical seller I’ve known is equally as happy to answer questions about the sources for their plants.

Natural Distribution for Dudleya pachyphytum

As with all Dudleya species, it’s helpful to know where these originate and their natural conditions when deciding where to keep your plants. More so than other succulents, these need a bit of awareness of their preferred environment when deciding on ideal placing, potting, and watering schedule. 

The chubby-fingered Dudleya pachyphytum is also known as the Cedros Island Live-Forever, because as you may have guessed, it originates on the Mexican island of Cedros Island. The island is on the Pacific side around the middle of Baja California, with a sheltered side that faces the peninsula and a more exposed side that receives more extreme weather. According to Wikipedia, these are found on the northern end of the island, often facing north to northwest. It does seem to be slowly expanding south, but being an island species makes it inherently rare and at risk of exploitation by poachers. 

Weather on the island

The northern end of Cedros Island is often cooler than the southern end, due in large part to the cooler waters causing significant fog and clouds. The fog and cloud cover is most pronounced in spring and early summer, providing ideal conditions for Dudleyas to thrive.

Dudleya pachyphytum typically occurs 100 to 500m above sea level, and thrives in much the same way as other plant life in the area: with the help of moisture from the sea fog. As with other Dudleya species, where it does grow, it is fairly prolific and can make up a significant portion of the plant life on its small part of the cliff face. 

pachyphytum bloom

Dudleya pachyphytum producing a bloom stalk, April 2023

Potting your pachyphytum

Something I learned from attending talks given by our local cactus and succulent club was that all Dudleya appreciate having cool, protected roots in the summer. This is likely one of the root causes (hah!) of my early struggles with many of my Dudleya plants: I placed them where the sun might bake the pot, or had them in pots that heated up quickly and cooled slowly, severely stressing the roots of my plants at a time when they needed protection. 

As a result…learn from my mistakes! 

There’s no true “wrong” pot to use for your Dudleya pachyphytum, but look for one that’s deeper than you might think it needs. You’ll notice in my images that mine are mostly in the sort of deep or tall pots that other growers might use for their cacti with deep tap roots. Dudleya are a cliff-growing species, which translates to having surprisingly robust, fine root systems that appreciate some room to grow and breathe. 

If you’re using a terra cotta pot, these do great in a typical style (most succulents and cacti are happier in the more shallow Azalea-type pots). Terra cotta is nice in that it breathes and allows for moisture to easily evaporate, while also not heating up enough to cook the plants’ roots. 

dudleya pachyphytum

Shading the pot with other pots. I add another pot to the right side in summer, usually an aloe hybrid I want to stress with some extra sunshine

You can also use a plastic pot with good drainage. For younger plants, this is ideal, as you can easily move them and keep them sheltered if needed. The biggest drawback to plastic is how quickly it heats up the roots, but because it’s such a thin material, it’s easy to mitigate. 

Last, but not least, are the decorative show or display pots. I learned from the club speaker that the fired decorative pots are, ironically, the worst for growing Dudleya. They offer the least protection from heat, breathe the least, and can be the worst for drainage. You’ll see in my photos, however, I’ve been growing mine in show pots for some time – I’ve just made adjustments based on what I’ve learned in recent years about their care. 

dudleya pachyphytum

My OG Dudleya pachyphytum (the one pictured above, prepped for show) in a different show pot circa 2020, where it struggled to thrive for years

Pot Placement, Shade, and Temperature

Hot roots are a no-no for your Dudleya pachyphytum, but this doesn’t require a specialized root cooling system to accomodate. 

Instead, my approach (which has been quite successful) is to just…put them on a shelf where other plants are in front or around them. In particular, I check to be sure that there’s something shading the pot my Dudleya is in for the afternoon sun hours, and that’s been just fine. 

I also keep them in thicker pots, and have shifted to using smaller particle top dressing (if dark in color) or simply using pumice or a light-colored top dressing to help reflect heat. Darker colors heat up quicker, and hold on to the heat longer, so that’s worth bearing in mind when staging your plant. 

Soil for your D. pachyphytum

The pot isn’t the only thing! 

Soil is important, but not the end of the world. As with any succulent, a well-draining mix is critical. When potting mine, I do a mix of 50% succulent soil, 25% pumice, and 25% orchid bark. I’m fond of adding orchid bark to my mixes, and have been doing so for a couple years now, as it has a less steep curve for drying out than a more heavily inorganic (pumice/perlite) mix. It does slowly break down over time, but doesn’t completely disintegrate, keeping soil mixes from compacting too heavily. 

I use a generic organic succulent soil mix that is already pretty gritty and well-draining; if you need to use Miracle Gro or a similar highly organic mix, you may want to increase the amount of pumice and/or organic bark in your soil ratio. 

I do not recommend potting these in a purely gritty mix, such as Bonsai Jack’s or a similar bonsai soil mix. They need a little more organic matter to really thrive, and tend to dry out too quickly during the growing season if kept in such a gritty mix. Most seedlings and young plants I’ve encountered, both of this species and others, have been in soil that trends towards more organic matter than less. 


First D. pachyphytum, freshly potted in May 2020

dudleya pachyphytum

Same plant, exactly 1 year later – May 2021

Dormancy and Seasonal Growth

Before I move into talking about sun exposure or watering, there’s a crucial element to Dudleya pachyphytum (all Dudleya, really) – and that’s summer dormancy. 

These are succulents highly adapted to California’s intensely hot summers, whether it’s the US state of California and its islands, or Mexico’s Baja California and those islands. If you’ve never been out to prime Dudleya locales in summer, it’s worth being aware that we get hot and dry. 90F as an average summer day is typical, with spikes over 100F, and usually no rain. Summer rain here is so uncommon it is an entire *event* for us Californians, and these succulents have evolved to tough it out through the hot & dry period. 

We get our moisture primarily in winter, usually late winter and into spring. We also tend to get a pretty hefty dose of “May Gray” and “June Gloom”, meaning that our coastal-fog loving plants get all the cloudy, foggy moisture they crave for a couple months even after spring rains tend to taper off. 

For my plants in recent years, I’ve seen them looking their best starting around now (March) through to June. The last couple years have had long, cool spring months, with plentiful rain and clouds. Previous years were short, dry springs, with temperatures starting to climb to summer highs as early as May. Those years, my Dudleyas just looked sad – but I also knew less about growing them then, too. 

dudleya pachyphytum

Repotted, December 2021, showing general “ick” appearance from a long hot summer and dry fall/winter. The black spot is old damage from a squirrel chomp.

dudleya pachyphytum spring

Showing new growth and much better farina coating in May of 2022. Notice the damaged leaf from a squirrel – it’s moved from a near-center spot to another layer or two out.

All that to say – if your Dudleya pachyphytum is looking pathetic, keep the season in mind. A summer Dudleya is always going to look a little sad, and it’s meant to! The leaves produced in springtime gather energy to fuel the plant through the dormant period, which turns them yellow and dries them out into husks as the season wears on. The layers of dead leaves are often a good indication of the age of the plant – not that they’re a perfect count of years, like rings on a tree, of course. 

More that a tall stalk, with layers and layers of dry, dead leaves shielding the stalk of the plant, is a major indication of an older plant. The more compact the stem with dense layers of dead leaves, the “better grown” it has been, meaning that it’s been kept in ideal conditions for the compact, dense growth this species is known for. 

dudleya pachyphytum

My original plant, February 2023, showing the beginning of winter/spring growth (and no more visible squirrel damage)

Watering your Dudleya

If you’re blessed to be in Southern California like I am, the best way to water your Dudleya pachyphytum is to leave it outside in the elements. In a well-draining pot with well-draining soil, even the wettest of SoCal springs is everything these succulents have ever wanted. 

For those outside this ideal climate, a bit of a balancing act is needed. These do best when exposed to natural fluctuations in weather: they should be kept outdoors, if at all possible, and allowed to experience cold temperatures down to freezing. Protect them from a hard frost, but once you’re just past the coldest part of winter, that’s when you should start to water them (if the sky isn’t cooperating). 

I recommend for non-Californians (or Arizonians) to wait until the risk of a big freeze is probably past to start watering just to ensure your roots don’t freeze or run the risk of rotting from frost damage + moisture.

These succulents really appreciate air movement, and thrive best when kept outdoors as close to permanently as you can manage. Even here in San Diego, I tried keeping these in both my plastic Amazon greenhouse and my permanent one – neither one had a great result, and nearly killed all my Dudleyas. Luckily for me, the Dudleya talk for the cactus club occurred within a few months of moving them into the big greenhouse, and I took them back out quickly enough to avoid baking them.

Summer Watering

This takes a bit of a delicate hand and some trial and error. Fortunately, they’re forgiving, as long as you try to keep your mistakes trending towards under-watering and not over-watering.

You’ll notice your Dudleya begin to slow down in producing new growth, or even stop entirely, as the spring months wear on. By the time you start having warm nights and hot days, the Dudleya pachyphytum will likely be completely dormant. Older leaves will start to yellow and look ratty, and the rosette should tighten and remain squat. 

dudleya pachyphytum

Center rosette in July, 2021, showing the tight center leaves and the yellowing outer leaves.

The plant will stay this way for 6+ months. Mine all seem to wake up around December, give or take a few weeks, depending on the daytime highs. Watch your plants! You’ll notice them beginning to green up, that the leaves in the center are spreading apart, and the rattiest of the outer leaves will finally dry up and shrivel back. 

dudleya pachyphytum

A very well-grown Dudleya pachyphytum at the SDCSS winter show and sale, February 2023. You can see growth marks on the outer, older leaves from where the leaf separated from the compact dormant state, and plentiful new powdery inner leaves.

Sun and Light for your


Growing these to maintain a nice, compact rosette with minimal stretching, while also ensuring the roots don’t bake and the plant has adequate ventilation (they do not do particularly well indoors, or in a greenhouse) is probably the biggest challenge.

My best advice is to try and place them in a very bright exposure, preferably getting direct sun in the morning before noon and having shade in the afternoon. The hotter your climate, the more important the afternoon shade is. It may help to remember their habitat preference – north facing cliffs, or north-eastern cliff faces.

If you’re experiencing a particularly hot summer (100F+), providing nearly full shade may not be a bad idea. They should be dormant at that time, and may appreciate the shelter. 

Understanding the dormancy period and when to evaluate your plant for “good” growth or not is super important! I made the mistake with mine of trying to keep them nice all the time, year-round. Dudleyas, no matter the species, just don’t do that. In fact, they thrive best when given a dry, hot summer where they can die back a little bit. Next up in my post schedule is to write about my Dudleya brittonii and how much of a difference it made to give up on them looking nice in summer. 

Folks not on the California coast, I won’t sugarcoat it – you’ll inherently struggle at first to find a good placement and schedule for these. They do thrive best outdoors, not in a greenhouse or indoors, and need exposure to temperature extremes (but not too extreme!). 

They’re not impossible, but because they are more finicky and it’s so much harder to tell when you’re doing well vs. when you’re not, I do think these are on the upper level of difficulty. They thrive on neglect, but it needs to be a very *specific* neglect. 

Seedlings vs older / mature plants

The one caveat is the difference between seedlings (which are the easiest to find and lowest cost, so a great way to start with these plants) and older plants. 

Seedlings do need more water, and will look stretchier/lankier. They’re the goofy awkward teenager plants before they become cool, collected adult stubbies. You’ll want to keep them in the same sun exposure as adults (to encourage compact, healthy growth) but plan on watering them when dry through the summer. You’ll know to start treating them like adult plants when they develop that compact center and show no growth through summer months. Below I’ll show progression of my newer Dudleya pachyphytum, which might help showcase how dramatically leaf shape can change over time. 

Dudleya pachyphytum

December 2021, freshly repotted

I’d estimate this as at least 2 years old, maybe 3, depending on growing conditions.

dudleya pachyphytum

Same plant, same pot – November 2022

Notice the more compact growth, stubbier leaves, and farina coating. 

For this plant, I repotted it within a week of bringing it home from the SDCSS holiday party (10/10, do recommend if you’re a local!). You’ll be able to see the mix of bark and pumice, and some of the soil. It stayed on my wire rack shelf, plastic pot sheltered from direct sun hitting it by other pots, for the entire year. The change from seedling leaves with more green to adult-style leaves is a big signal that it was ready for the cyclical, seasonal treatment of older plants. 

It’s also important to note seedling appearance in leaf shape vs. the more mature leaves: Dudleya pachyphytum is notable for its stubby leaves with the sharp, pointed tip at the end. There are varying forms, and the leaf length/compactness of the rosette is highly dependent on light. You can see some other, older examples in this forum post, but a key characteristic to look for is that pointed tip at the end. If the plant is old enough to have a farina coating, the leaves should have that stubby shape to them. 

I knew the grower providing these seedlings, and so I was perfectly happy to take home a seedling that looked only vaguely ‘pure’ pachyphytum as I knew with time, it should grow out to look proper. And it did! 

dudleya pachyphytum

January 2023

I prefer to repot when the plants are actively growing, and so in January the following year, it was big enough to go into a new show-style pot.

dudleya pachyphytum

March 2024

This year, it’s clearly dividing into two heads! It’s interesting to note that with two heads, the leaves are thinner and longer.

Above, you can see the very big difference just one year can make. The placement on the back of my wire shelving means they get plenty of morning light, but by noon, they’re in at least partial shade, and are in full shade by 1 – 2pm. They also have smaller pots in front, keeping the roots cool.

For this Dudleya, the rapid growth to multiple heads in just 3 years is a strong signal of a happy plant, good soil mix, and good placement.This plant is larger than my older one, which can come down to individual differences in the plants themselves. Based on the growth of my older plant in the years after I got the second seedling, I suspect it’s more to do with my care. 

dudleya pachyphytum

Photo from March, 2024

On the left is my first plant, showing large, thick leaves, plentiful new growth, and even a bit of damage at outer leaf bases due to debris. 

On the right is the younger plant, but you can see it has more leaves, and of course, there’s the second head it’s developing. The younger plant also has a larger pot, but not by much. 

Both plants are still actively growing, but I expect them to divert some growth into blooms soon. My Duleya brittonii are all well on their way to blooming, but these seem to go off later in the year. We’ve also had more rainfall and cloud cover this year, which has led to very happy Dudleyas

I don’t have a source besides my own experience watching this genus with multiple species, but I strongly suspect that once they bloom, growing is done for the year, and they slowly wind down until they reach full dormancy. If your plants don’t bloom in a given year, that’s not much help (mine don’t always bloom), but years that they do produce a bloom stalk seem pretty predictable. 

dudleya pachyphytum

Same plants, same day, different angle. It’s been really interesting to see the change in leaf shape this year with the one producing a new head, because prior to this, it was just as thick with the leaf size and shape. 

It’s also worth noting the placement – dark-blue pot is on the outside, so it gets more sun in the afternoon and has fewer pots in front to shade the pot base. 

Regardless of this season’s overall leaf shape, you can also see the side of the plant and spot how “well” it’s being grown: there’s no gaps between leaves where you can see some stem. Each leaf is tightly packed next to the other, with no green or even a hint of extra space between top and bottom. That’s what I mean by “compact growth”. 

In most dudleya species, but especially Dudleya pachyphytum, as soon as you’re seeing etoliation to the degree pictured at right, the plant is going to be extremely hard to bring back.

The plant at right is notD. pachyphytum (may not even be an actual dudleya, tbh), but presents a good example of severe etoliation that may not be recoverable: 

  • you can see the stem between each leaf, especially near the top
  • most leaves aren’t pointing up 
  • in fact, leaves are curving gently downward 
  • leaves are shiny (either this isn’t a dudleya, or it’s very sad) 

Even green-form Dudleya have a slight matte look to them, although hybrids may be different in appearance. 

etoliated dudleya

Either way, if your Dudleya begins to resemble the plant above and you’re confident you purchased a dudleya pachyphytum, the plant is in big trouble and needs help quickly.

Do not put an etioliated plant outside in full sun immediately. This will sunburn it and seal its death warrant.

If it’s growing season (winter/spring):

Repot into a well-draining mix as I recommended above, if it’s not already in that.

If indoors, move outdoors to full shade. Slowly, one week at a time, move it to increasing levels of sunshine. Aim for increasing levels of morning sunlight first, if you can, but if it’s still cool outside you can get away with afternoon sun instead. Watch it closely! When a plant is etoliated, they sunburn extremely easy. Your goal here is to get the newest growth to behave well; then, in summer, you’ll want to leave it dry and sunny to rest and recuperate.

If outdoors and etoliating this badly, you have it in a very bad placement and need to move it slowly to more sun. The same rules of slowly acclimating it to more light apply, but note that to be outside and still this etoliated indicates that the spot it was in won’t be suitable for just about any succulents, much less cacti. It would probably work well for a sansiviera or a pothos, though.

If it’s not growing season (summer/fall):

Outdoors or indoors, try and move it somewhere with at least 1 – 2 hours of direct morning sunlight. Don’t repot it, and just hope it’s able to survive until a more ideal time to repot the plant.

I’ve never personally propagated this species from a cutting, but if you have one that is severely etoliated, in theory you should be able to behead it and grow it again from the top. I can’t speak to this with much authority, unfortunately, as I’ve never done it.

Thank you 

for reading this far!

If you’d like to see my random plant updates, puppy photos, and occasional shares of what I’m cooking, I invite you to follow me on Instagram: @TrexPlants. 

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