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Succulent Leaves Curling: 11 Causes with Solutions


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Succulents are one of the most popular plants in the world, and for good reason. They are perfect indoor houseplants because they require very little care to thrive. When succulents curl, it is typically a sign that something is wrong with your plant’s environment.

Succulent leaves will curl because of a lack of water. Under Watering and other associated root problems such as root rot and root bound syndrome can also limit the succulent’s oxygen supply to the plant which in turn affects the rate of respiration and the amount of water within the leaves.

In this article we will be outlining the reasons behind why succulent leaves curl and bend as well as some of the fixes you can implement to help fix this problem.

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Succulent and Cactus Potting Soil Mix
What causes succulent leaves to curl

1. Overwatering

Overwatering occurs when there is too much water available to the plant. The quantity of water is so much that it fills all the pores within the soil such that there is not available space for air (oxygen).

As a result the roots of the succulent are deprived of that much needed oxygen.

Oxygen, for plants, is essential because it makes the process of respiration more efficient (known as aerobic respiration). 

Succulents when overwatered will tend to cause their leaves to curl downwards.. As the water requirements are more than they can bear in addition to the lack of oxygen to the roots.

Plants make their own carbohydrates when they photosynthesize, and their cells use up those same carbohydrates through respiration.

When plants can’t access light, they respire more than they photosynthesize, so they take in more oxygen than they produce. 

Roots and other parts of the succulent that don’t photosynthesize also need to consume oxygen. This is part of the reason plant roots can “drown” in waterlogged soil. 

The Solution:

Create a watering schedule so that you can remember when you have to water the succulent. You can also try bottom watering where the water is distributed uniformly through capillary movement in the soil.

See our detailed article on how to bottom water plants.

2. Underwatering

Succulents are known for their ability to grow in the most arid places because they can store water in specialized cells within their fleshy leaves, stems or roots during prolonged drought.

The Water is then used sparing for cellular functions over the course of time until the next opportunity arises to absorb water.

Now, when we neglect or forget to water our succulents for sometime, or for whatever reason, we simulate drought conditions for these succulents.

The water reserves are then used sparingly until there is not more.

The cells of the succulent become flaccid as the water storage is depleted over time.

As the cells within the leaves lose the water they tend to sag and curl downwards as each adjacent cell is constricted by the usage or loss of water.

Usually if you catch it on time watering can help bring back the water storage and you will notice the leaves returning to their once normal structure.

The Solution:

A regular watering schedule would help prevent underwatering even for succulents.

3. Root Rot

Root rot is primarily caused by poor drainage of damp soil, overwatering or a poorly functioning root system. Prolonged exposure to excess water causes waterlogging, which interferes with aeration of the roots, leading to low oxygenation and decay. Wikipedia

Succulents, as previously discussed, store water in specialized cells within their leaves, stems and roots. These cells require oxygen when they use carbohydrates through respiration.

Stemming directly from the topic of overwatering, root rot stifles the plant preventing sufficient oxygen intake.

The product of respiration is water and as a result, root rot can cause the leaves of the plant to produce less water through the reaction. This reduction in water will cause the cells within the leaves to lose turgidity and curl downwards.

The Solution:

The solution to root rot is repotting which we have outlined in detail further in this article.

4. Lack of Light

Succulents love light , very bright light actually, and many will do better with direct sunlight, for some, some indirect sunlight is ok.

This is just their nature and the natural habitat that they are accustomed to. 

Succulents stretch out when they aren’t getting enough sunlight. You’ll first notice the succulent start to turn and bend toward the light source, at least those at the top.

Lower or bottom leaves will start to arch and point downwards, instead of upward as light deprivation continues. 

A lack of sunlight will retard the process of photosynthesis. The plants won’t be able to generate the required food and will become stressed. 

As a result, the leaves will then turn light green or yellow and begin to curl and face downwards. In some cases, if the light is not restored the succulent will start shedding its leaves. 

The Solution:

Placing the plant where it can receive an adequate amount of light such as in a porch would be great. You can also periodically move the plant to areas where it can receive approximately 6 hours of sunlight per day. Morning light is the best!

5. Too Much Light

Succulents love light and one thing to keep in mind when growing succulents is that some people believe that some plants require more sunlight than others while others believe that all require the same amount.

Succulents need sunlight but not too much of it. Succulents love light and need about six hours of sun per day, depending on the type of succulent. 

The Solution:

Newly planted succulents can scorch in direct sunlight, so you may need to gradually introduce them to full sun exposure or provide shade with a sheer curtain.

For this reason if a succulent has been in an area or moderate amount of sunlight and then you decide to place it in full sunlight for an extended period of time it may do more harm than good.

As the leaves become scorched and excess water is lost the leaves will begin to curl downwards as a natural reaction.

6. Acclimatization

Acclimatization is crucial when moving a succulent from one place to another. 

If you succulent have been sitting in an area where the temperature is coolant with adequate sunlight and you decide to change things up a bit you should be wary that you may be doing more harm than good.

Say for instance you place your succulent in direct sunlight after it has been sitting on your porch for sometime. The succulent can get sunburned even though it’s the hot and dry environments that they are accustomed to in the wild.

As a result the leaves will start bending downwards as the heat of the day causes the water to literally be sucked from the plant and soil.

The Solution:

A simple solution to this is to gradually introduce the plates to full sunlight over a period of time starting from partial sunlight. 

Gently graduate from morning light to full day light within a period of two weeks, but be sure not to over expose the succulent to over 6 hours of direct sunlight or you will end up in the same situation as before.

7. Transplant Shock

Transplant shock is caused by stress to your plants at the time of installation or movement from its original container.

This is the stress caused to the succulent after transplanting. The plant will take time to adapt to its new environment. 

Remember you just removed the plant from the soil that has been accustomed to a new environment. The succulent now has to make a connection (adapt) with the new soil in order to start using the available nutrients.

If this sometimes doesn’t occur quickly and the succulent can become stressed causing the leaves to start curling and bending downwards. 

Yes it’s heartbreaking to watch but you just have to give it some time to acclimate to its new environment. But be sure to water lightly so the nutrients in the soil can gain some mobility to move into the roots of the plant.

Do not attempt to transplant plants on hot summer days.

The Solution:

Transplant shock can be minimized by carefully considering the weather conditions and the plant’s growth cycle before moving; as well as having the planting hole ready to avoid having the plant’s roots exposed longer than necessary. 

Also ensure the new transplant receives adequate moisture after it is settled in its new home.

8. Pot Size (Under Potting)

The size of the plant pot will determine how well the succulent grows. As time passes the plant will eventually outgrow the pot that it’s in and would require repotting.

If it’s not repotted when needed it can eventually become rootbound which can cause the roots to clump and bind closely together in the plant pot. 

Having the plant in a pot that’s too small can undoubtedly cause stress on the plant until it repotted into a larger sized container.

This kind of stress can also cause the leaves of the plant to curl downwards and eventually change color in some cases.

The Solution:

However when repotting a succulent in the new container, it should be large enough to accommodate the roots such that it doesn’t have to spread out too far in search for nutrients.

9. Root Bound 

Plants become root bound when they outgrow the container they are in. The plant’s root system becomes tangled and you can sometimes see roots coming out of soil.

The symptoms of a succulent being rootbound are frequent wilting, stunted growth, smaller new leaves, poor quality flowers or lack of flowers and yellowing and drooping or curling of leaves.

This is because as the roots grow larger within the small pot, there would be a limited amount of moisture and nutrients to supply the needs of the plant.

The solution: 

You can promote growth by repotting in a larger container. Plants kept in tight, compact containers adapt by growing slower. 

Repotting your plant into a large container will give them more room to grow. When given more room to grow, you can encourage the plants to grow larger more quickly.

10. Pests

Pests can cause a great deal of problems to plants, especially succulents. The most common pests are scale, mealy bugs and root mealy bugs. Less common pests include spider mites and fungus gnats. 

Mealybugs and scale both damage plants by sucking plant juices resulting in plants that are weak with wrinkled, shriveled leaves which can, in some cases, curl and bend.

The solution:

Quarantine the infected plants by moving them away from other plants. 

Use a sticky fly trap for fungus gnats and a gentle spray with alcohol or soap water can effectively get rid of mealybugs that are attacking your succulent.

11. Soil condition

Soil plays a very important role in the growth and development of succulents.The best potting soil for succulents is a well draining potting mix. Using a good potting mix of porous soil for succulents is super important to prevent overwatering.

If for some reason the soil has bad drainage properties, water willten to hold within the soil for longer than it should. 

As a result, the situation of overwatering occurs. The roots become deprived of oxygen which inturn impacts how the plant transpires. 

Water is not produced from the transpiration process causing the leaves to lose their turgidity and begin to bend and curl downwards.

The Solution:

A simple fix for this is to use a well drained soil which would generally comprise a mixture of sand, potting soil and perlite or pumice in a 3:3:0.5 ratio. 

This soil mix would ensure that when the plant is water that the correct amount of water is retained within the soil for optimal growth and absorption of nutrients.

How to Repot Succulents with Guaranteed Success

When repotting or moving succulents make sure to repot in a pot that is not too big. 

It is very important to not overfeed the succulent by giving them more water and nutrients than the plant can use. 

Sometimes this can lead to problems with root rot or overwatering which can kill the succulent. It is best to have a good understanding of what soil and how much the plant needs.

  1. Remove the plant from the old pot. Use a stick to gently pry the soil from the sides of the pot.
  2. With the plant out, gently pour water over the soil for it to soak for easy removal from the plant roots.
    Note: This is recommended to remove old worn down soil so the roots would be exposed to new soil when placed into the new plant pot.
  3. Add half the succulent soil mixture (sand, potting soil and perlite or vermiculite) into the new plant pot.
  4. Place the plant into the new pot.
  5. Fill the pot with the succulent soil mix.
  6. Gently water the new soil and allow the plant to sit and acclimatize for a few days to prevent transplant shock.

The Takeaway

Although most problems associated with cacti and succulents grown as houseplants are bacterial or fungal diseases caused by overwatering, they do get the occasional insect pest.

Pest can be controlled by easy mechanical means such as applying homemade pesticides or setting sticky traps for fungus gnats.

The main cause of the problem is the lack of oxygen which is in most cases addressed by simply repotting the plant in a larger container with better quality soil.

Additionally, be sure that the plant receives an adequate amount of sunlight without drastically changing its environment. This would in turn prevent shock related to why the leaves are curling.

JayLea

JayLea has a passion for plants and has been gardening since 2015. He has valuable knowledge about gardening and houseplant care and can answer everyday practical questions that every plant owner has.

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