Dried-out roots are a hidden problem that affects succulents. It’s always a shock when your rosy Esherveria or dainty Haworthia die or snap out of their pot!
So, why on earth would a succulent that is otherwise plump and juicy allow its roots to dry out when it clearly has enough water in the rest of the plant?
Dry roots are a sign of dehydration, overexposure to the sun, or a sudden temperature change. They can be rehydrated with water therapy or completely trimmed away for a new and improved plant.
How to Tell if My Succulent Roots Are Drying Out
After all, we don’t have x-ray vision to see beneath the soil, so root problems can be challenging to detect. Here are some warning signs to keep an eye out for:
- Leaves start to dry out
- Leaves falling off
- Stems develop aerial roots
- The succulent feel loose or poorly anchored in its pot
- The succulent snaps off at the base of the plant
Why Are My Succulent Roots Drying Out?
Lack of Water Supply
All succulents store water within their tissues to prepare for a possible drought. Water makes up a large part of their physical structure and is crucial for all succulents.
We all know about the water stored in succulent leaves, but did you know the roots and stems do too? Even the spiky members of the group, such as Haworthia and Sanseveria, use their entire bodies to conserve water for dry times.
When a succulent isn’t getting enough water, it must rely on the moisture it’s already accumulated to function properly. That’s why it saved it in the first place!
There is a downside to this clever strategy: if the plant’s body is depleted of water, its structure will be damaged. For example, when a plant is dehydrated, its leaves will dry out first, but its roots will also begin to dry out.
Too Much Sun Exposure
It may seem strange that these dry weather experts would be harmed by excessive sunlight, but it does.
First and foremost, excessive exposure to the sun causes dehydration, damaging the plant’s roots.
Roots will also dry out in response to a sudden change in light level. A plant that is accustomed to a darker growing environment finds the sudden brightness to be overwhelming.
It burns the leaves, and the root mass dies back. After all, it gets too hot because it’s been in the sun too long.
Even if a succulent is well-shaded, prolonged exposure to the sun can cause heat stress, but a heatwave can also dry out the plant’s roots.
So even though the roots are well-suited to hot climates, they will still wither if they don’t have time to adapt to temperature changes.
We get used to the weather where we live, and it takes succulents a while to adapt when things change. As the seasons change, plants are typically alerted to get ready for the upcoming change in the climate. So they have time to get used to it.
On the other hand, a heatwave can strike without warning, and your succulents will suffer as a result if no preparations are made.
There is a similar effect if you move a specimen kept in a controlled environment outside. But, again, they haven’t had time to prepare, and the shock is felt from head to toe.
Dark-colored pots, stones, or growing mediums can cause heat stress to roots, making them more susceptible to wilting and eventual death.
In addition, dark materials like stones and pots will quickly heat up when they are in direct sunlight. That heat will soon spread through the soil and kill the roots.
This happens when succulents are left to grow in the standard black plastic pots that many nurseries use to grow their plants.
Although the succulent leaves will remain cool, the roots will be cooked and dried out in the pot due to the rapid warming of the plastic.
Poor Soil Mix
Succulents prefer a free-draining, coarse, and sandy growing medium. However, if the medium isn’t mixed correctly, it can damage the roots.
Too much pumice, perlite, or other absorbent minerals like vermiculite suck water out of the mix, making it less effective. The additives can be critical if you tend to over-water your plants.
Alternatively, suppose your succulent is watered less frequently. In that case, the additives can act like a sponge and remove water from the roots.
On the other hand, a blend with too few stones and too much sand has its own problems. The sand compacts as the mix ages and organic material decompose, forming a dense, hard block.
This crushes the roots and makes new ones challenging to develop. They begin to dry out as they can no longer draw moisture from the mixture.
In addition to becoming hydrophobic, the compacted medium also loses its ability to absorb water. Water collects on top of or flows around the mass rather than soaking into it. As a result, succulents won’t get any of it, and they’ll dry out from the root up.
Can A Dried Out Succulent Be Revived?
It’s no surprise that succulents are hardy, as they were designed to withstand periods of drought. They don’t seem to mind getting a little dehydrated. Succulents shipped in the mail are likely to have been deliberately dried out for the journey.
Some growers deliberately dry out their plants, snapping the root mass off and starting a new system. It’s as if you pressed a reset button on the plant, allowing it to recharge itself.
How Do You Fix Dried Out Succulents?
Step 1: Assess the Damage
Remove your plant from its medium with care. A chopstick or similar tool helps poke between the roots to loosen compact soil. Dry roots are often brittle, so be gentle.
Step 2: Soak If Appropriate
If your roots are healthy and intact, you can use water therapy to rejuvenate them. I’ve written more about it here, but in short, it’s simply soaking the roots in a vessel of clean water. This is best used if the entire succulent appears to be dried.
If the damage is mild, you can move on to the next step.
Step 3: Trim Away Dead Matter
The damage can be assessed once your roots have rehydrated. You can remove any roots that remain stringy or flat after water therapy.
Of course, if the entire mass is disintegrating, it may be best to lop it all off at once. But, amazingly, succulents can regenerate complete root systems from scratch.
They can grow from a whole roseate or stem just as quickly as they can from a single leaf.
You’ll need to break large plants down into smaller rosettes or stems from regrowing their roots. There is a lot of work involved in root development, and it will be easier on the plant if it has a smaller system to support it. It’s also an excellent time to remove any dead leaves or stems.
Step 4: Re-pot In Fresh Soil
Repotting is the next step after rehydrating the roots. Succulents require a medium with a lot of sand and small pebbles that are free-flowing and don’t hold much water.
Two parts sand, two parts quality potting mix, and one part perlite or pumice stone pebbles are the ingredients I use for my succulents. Drainage and nutrition are provided without the risk of compacted soil.
Depending on the size of the pot, I may also add a few small smooth river stones to give the mixture some additional texture.
There is no harm in using a high-quality commercial mix if you don’t have the time or space to do it yourself. (Amazon has these items for sale at a reasonable price; click here to see the current prices)
Before repotting a newly propagated plant, let the soil at the base of the plant dry out for a few days. This helps the succulent form a ‘callus,’ which shields it from decay and encourages the growth of healthy roots.
Clippings with aerial roots are still subject to this rule of thumb. Plant succulent cuttings with roots, but wait for a callus to form on any exposed tissue before putting them in.
The callous end of the succulent can be planted directly into your soil mixture. The callus will root if it is placed on top of a mix.
Step 5: Move to A Shady Spot
While your succulent is healing, it is especially susceptible to overheating and dehydration. Place it in a shady area of your growing environment to keep it cool. It is best if the light is bright but indirect.
Once the roots have healed, you can relocate the plant to a brighter location. Depending on the variety, most succulents enjoy basking in the early morning sun. Make sure to acclimate them to their new surroundings.
Step 6: Water Lightly
Because infant roots are susceptible to fungal infection, water your succulent sparingly while it is regrowing. However, these new roots are also less efficient, so water more frequently while they mature.
It’s a difficult balance to strike: aim for more frequent attention while using less water. Make sure the medium dries between waterings.
If your growing environment is arid, more miniature succulents may also benefit from occasionally misting their medium. This is especially true if you have chosen to propagate individual leaves or small rosettes cut from a larger plant.
Step 7: Feed
Finally, fertilize your succulent as needed to ensure it has the necessary nutrients to rebuild. In these cases, a succulent or cactus fertilizer is ideal.
It will provide the proper balance to the new roots, allowing them to regrow stronger than ever. (Check out the prices on Amazon here)