Succulents, which include the fleshy-leaved plants we often associate with that name, as well as cacti, respond to many environmental stressors by stopping growing and dropping leaves, reducing their energy needs. Heat, frost, low or high light, improper watering and chemical shock can all cause leaf drop, often quite suddenly.
Because most succulents are adapted to hot, arid areas where prolonged periods of heat are the norm, they respond by dropping leaves when stressed by heat or drought. Although this is relatively normal, keeping succulents in the shade when temperatures soar will help prevent this. Watch them closely: if they look wilted or sunburned, move them or place a shade cloth over them. The opposite problem also occurs: succulents do not do well with freezes, which may blacken and burn their leaves. Sometimes these will fall off, but usually not until the plant grows new leaves to replace them, so resist the urge to peel off these protective dead leaves. The Stonecrop (Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’) for example, grows in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 11, and will tolerate a wide range of temperatures but may still drop leaves when stressed.
Succulents need enough light, especially as they are typically adapted to areas with lots of sun year-round. They do best in brightly lit areas, and when lacking light, will turn light green or yellow and straggly, trying to grow toward the light. If the problem is not corrected, they will eventually drop leaves or die. Low light is not the only problem — succulents that are moved to a new area without acclimation, or suddenly rotated in a bright spot, may get a sunburn on the side that hasn’t seen sun for a while. Make changes slowly, and wait for plants to adapt before moving on.
Shocking the system of a succulent can also cause leaf drop. When succulents contract diseases or fungal infections, it is certainly tempting to respond immediately and forcefully, but you must be careful. When using chemicals, always read package directions thoroughly and do not reapply more often than recommended by the label. Always make sure your succulent isn’t environmentally stressed before applying chemicals.
Succulents are known for needing little water, and while too little will cause them to wilt and fail to thrive, you must be careful about over-watering them. Giving succulents too much water too often will swell their leaves and, if they do not get a chance to dry out, cause them to drop off the plant. Wait until soil is almost completely dry and the leaves look a little limp before watering, then water thoroughly, until you see trickles coming out of the bottom of the pot. Repeat the process. Always use pots with drainage holes for succulents.
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