Succulents are well designed for living in deserts and other regions that have minimal amounts of rainfall.
Too little water can kill succulents or prevent them from thriving just as easily as too much water.
Thus, succulents experiencing severe water shortage need special care in order to survive.
How does an underwatered succulent look like?
Succulents have many ways to compensate for water shortages. That said, it might take you a while to detect underwatered succulents. Signs of underwatering in succulents include thinner leaves, leaves that curl inward, wrinkled leaves near the center of the succulent and brown, curled-up leaf edges.
How to Diagnose and Save Underwatered Succulents
Underwatered succulents will show different symptoms depending on the extent and severity of the water shortage.
Knowing these symptoms makes it easier to save the plant.
Succulent Leaf Thickness Changes
Succulents that are thick or fleshy, like Donkey’s Tail, will start off with leaves that look thinner and feel spongy instead of firm.
The leaves on naturally thin-leafed succulents like Sansevierias may feel softer or bend more easily when the plant isn’t getting enough water.
You may not notice these signs if the plant is chronically slightly underwatered or in the very early stages of severe underwatering.
If you water succulents on a schedule, add just a little bit more at each watering.
In a few weeks, the leaves should return to their normal thickness.
Succulent Leaf Position Changes
Succulents that don’t have fleshy leaves will usually adjust the actual leaf position to compensate for a lack of water.
Aloes and succulents with a rosette shape will curl their leaves inward in order to conserve moisture.
Give the plant just a little bit more water, but don’t change your watering schedule.
Succulent Leaf Texture Changes
A succulent’s leaf structure is designed to hold onto extra water.
During a water shortage, succulents use what they have stored in their leaves closer to the center of the plant.
As a result, the leaves in this area will look smaller and develop wrinkles.
Older leaves or ones further from the center will also develop wrinkles as they age. However, this isn’t a sign of underwatering.
But, if the wrinkled leaves are at or near the heart of the plant, give it some water immediately. Use enough to thoroughly moisten the soil.
Let the water drain before you water again, making sure to remove the excess from the saucer.
Never let succulents potted in soil sit in the excess water. Even an underwatered succulent will develop root rot and die under these circumstances.
It may take a few weeks for the succulent’s leaves to lose all their wrinkles.
Return to your normal watering schedule even if the leaves are still wrinkled.
You can even add a tad bit more water at each scheduled watering.
The idea is to slowly bring up the water amount to optimal for the plant.
Wait at least 3 – 4 weeks before increasing the water amount.
Unless the soil is bone dry more than an inch below the soil line between waterings, do not shorten the interval between waterings.
If you have to shorten the watering interval, do so by one day at a time. Wait at least 3 – 4 weeks before shortening the interval again.
Leaf Color Changes
In a severe case, underwatered succulents will develop brown, curled-up leaf edges. Also, you can see some greening in the plant’s center.
It is still possible to save a plant in this condition.
First, you must hydrate the roots.
Regardless of the soil type, make sure the roots are completely clean. Otherwise, the roots will rot from any germs in the soil.
Next, immerse the roots in clean water. Make sure none of the stems or leaves touch the water.
Leave the plant in the water for no more than 3 days. Many succulents will rehydrate in as little as 1 day.
Change the water once daily. However, practice extreme caution with this step because the roots will become very fragile.
After the plant is rehydrated, let the roots dry out for 2 – 3 days before repotting.
Use dry cactus or succulent soil for repotting. But, avoid watering until 2 to 3 days have passed. This crucial step will help the succulent’s roots adapt and heal from the water immersion.
Since the plant took in plenty of water, the drying time won’t hurt it.
Once you start watering the plant again, wait an additional week before snipping dead leaves.
Keeping Underwatered Succulents Alive
When plants engage in photosynthesis, they do so during daylight hours. For most plants, pores in the leaves must stay open to aid in carbon dioxide intake.
Succulents have a unique leaf structure that lets them take in carbon dioxide at night, and then store the carbon for use during the day hours.
You can take advantage of Crassulacean acid metabolism or CAM Photosynthesis to help with severely underwatered plants.
A few hours after dark, lightly mist the plant leaves with water. Cover loosely to make the air around the plant slightly humid.
Be sure to remove the cover before dawn to avoid excess or prolonged moisture.
Frequently Asked Questions about How to Save Underwatered Succulents
How long does it take to realize a succulent is underwatered?
It can take weeks to months because succulents have many methods to compensate for water shortages.
Why does it take so long for succulents to recover from underwatering?
Succulents actually recover very fast from underwatering. It just takes a while for them to show visible signs of a return to good health, making you think that their recovery rate is slow.
Should I keep succulents chronically underwatered?
Some people say it is a good idea to err on the dry side when it comes to succulents. You can do this for a time. If you want the plant to thrive, you will need to give an optimal amount of water as opposed to too little or too much.
Many people don’t think it is possible to underwater a succulent.
Knowing how to water succulents can be a matter of trial and error.
Knowing the signs of underwatering and how to deal with them can help with this process, and also lead to healthier plants.
Marcel runs the place around here. He has a deep passion for houseplants & gardening and is constantly on the lookout for yet another special plant to add to his arsenal of houseplants, succulents & cacti.
Marcel is also the founder of Iseli International Commerce, a sole proprietorship company that publishes a variety of websites and online magazines.