Succulents can go for an extended period without watering. They store water in their fleshy leaves, stems, and roots, which makes them endure drought conditions. Regardless, succulents still need some water to sustain their growth and other physiological processes.
When underwatered, succulents may experience severe dehydration and end up wilting or shriveling. On the other hand, overwatering can lead to root rot and other fungal problems. So, there is a need to strike a balance in watering your succulent plants.
On many occasions, I have underwatered my echeveria succulents, jade plants, and my all-time favorite string of pearls but I have always managed to revive them. So, I’ll explain how to tell if your succulent is underwatered and what you can do to save the plant.
Signs of an underwatered succulent
Succulents can take a really long time to show symptoms of underwatering. This is until all the stored water in their specialized tissues is used up. Sometimes symptoms of underwatered succulents may appear similar to those of an overwatered succulent and therefore you need to be keen on what you are dealing with.
Here is how to tell if your succulent is underwatered.
- Stunted or slow growth. Water enables the plant to obtain nutrients and mineral salts through the roots. So when underwatered a succulent may exhibit a stunted or slower growth rate due to lack of these important supplies.
- Wrinkled or shriveled leaves. Leaves drooping or wilting is the most obvious sign of underwatering. As the plant loses water, its leaves will start to wrinkle and shrivel. As you know, it’s water that makes the succulent leaves appear fleshy and turgid.
- Brown or crispy leaves. In severe cases of underwatering, the leaves of a succulent may start to turn brown or crispy.
- Soft or mushy leaves. While this is a common sign of an overwatered succulent, if you haven’t watered the plant in a while it’s possible that the roots have died and the damage is spreading to the rest of the plant.
- Blooming issues. Succulents that don’t receive enough water may struggle to produce flower buds. Blooms may wither and fall off prematurely.
- Severe leaf drop. Succulent leaves falling off may signify underwatering. Shedding leaves is a survival mechanism in plants, it helps in reducing the surface area for water loss through evaporation.
How to revive an underwatered succulent
Saving an underwatered succulent is easier compared to an overwatered succulent. Start by dipping the finger in the potting soil to check the moisture level. If the soil is dry it’s a conformation that your succulent is overwatered.
The next step is to water the plant lightly. The roots of the dehydrated succulent may not be strong enough to absorb water as needed. Start gently and increase the rate of watering every two days until the plant recovers. Overwatering can be just as damaging as underwatering.
Tip: While the succulent is recovering, do not fertilize it or disturb it unnecessarily.
Severe dehydration can damage the roots of a succulent and it may not be possible to save the plant by just watering. In such a case, try to inspect the roots, if they are dark and brittle cut them off and repot the succulent.
Repotting is also necessary when the current potting soil won’t absorb water. Succulents will show symptoms of underwatering when the soil becomes compacted or hydrophobic. When repotting, use a well-draining (succulent mix) and a pot with drainage holes.
Additional care requirements
If there are any severely damaged parts of the succulent, carefully prune them away. This will help the plant to focus on recovery. Ensure the succulent is placed in a location with bright, indirect sunlight. Intense direct sunlight will cause sunburn and more stress to the plant.
Succulents also become susceptible to pests when underwatered. Pests suck juices from the fleshy leaves of succulents and this can be a double tragedy to your plant. It’s important to inspect the plant for mealybugs, aphids, or spider mites and treat it with neem oil or insecticidal soap.
After providing the necessary care to the plant, be patient. It may take some time for the plant to bounce back and show signs of recovery.
How to water a succulent the right way
Succulents prefer soil that drains sharply. Planting them in soils that retain excess moisture can result in root rot and other fungal problems. It’s recommended to allow the soil to dry out completely between watering.
Before watering, insert your finger into the soil to check for moisture level. If the soil feels dry, water at the base of the plant deeply until water drains out through the holes at the bottom of the pot. This ensures that roots get enough water as needed. Do not allow the succulent to sit in any standing water.
The frequency of watering plants depends on various factors, including the succulent species, climate, time of year, and the nature of the pot. You need to water less if you are planting succulents in containers without drainage or terrariums.
Succulents need more watering during hot and dry weather and less during the dormant seasons. Generally, water every 1-2 weeks during spring and summer and once every 4 weeks during the fall and winter. Make sure to test the moisture level in the soil before watering.
Succulents can survive extended periods of drought and this makes them easy to care for as houseplants. While less watering is needed, it’s important to recognize when the succulent is underwatered and take action to save the plant. You can tell from the shriveled or wrinkled leaves.
Pennisi, B. 2020. Growing indoor plants with success. UGA Extension publication B1318_5. https://extension.uga.edu/publications/detail.html?number=B1318.
Shaughnessy, D., and A. Pertuit. 1999. Indoor plants- soil mixes. Clemson Extension publication 1456. https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/indoor-plants-soil-mixes/.
Trinklien, D.H. 2016. Lighting indoor houseplants. The University of Missouri Extension Publication g6515
Caring for indoor plants – Natalie Bumgarner, UT Residential and Consumer Horticulture Extension Specialist, Department of Plant Sciences. https://extension.tennessee.edu/publications/Documents/W1128B.pdf
My name is Diane M Lewik, and I am the founder of this website. I am a degree holder in plant biology from the University of California – Berkeley. Over years, I have cultivated a vast collection of succulents and I have learned a great deal about how to grow and care for these unique plants.