Succulents are adorable, low-maintenance plants to keep around your home and garden. No wonder they’re so popular! But one of the keys to healthy succulents is correct watering since these plants are prone to leaf, stem and root damage from too much water.
Signs of an overwatered succulent include leaf discoloration, mushy texture and black or brown spots on the stem. These are all indicators of root rot, which is caused by fungi that thrive in damp soil. If caught early, overwatering damage is often reversible, but in more advanced cases, you probably won’t be able to save your plant. If there are healthy leaves or stems remaining, you can use them to propagate new plants.
If you’re here, you’re probably trying to figure out how to save an overwatered succulent. In this article, you’ll learn how overwatering damage affects leaves, stems and roots. You’ll also learn some steps you can take to try to rescue your succulent and how to propagate a new plant from leaves or stems. Overwatering prevention is far better than treatment, so you’ll also pick up some tips for how to avoid overwatering in the future.
Let’s get started!
Why Overwatering Succulents is Dangerous
A succulent’s root system is its lifeline, and soil that’s too wet interferes with the normal process for moisture and nutrient absorption. In fact, succulents do much better with under-watering than they do overwatering.
And that’s because of succulent root rot, which happens when malicious fungi reproduce rapidly and attack root tissue. The fungal growth damages the roots to the point where they can no longer absorb water or nutrients to sustain the plant.
Most often, these fungi prefer to grow in moist soil, and overwatering your succulent consistently lays out the welcome mat. There are a few organisms that cause root rot, and the University of Wisconsin Extension lists Fusarium and Pythium as two common culprits.
Any plant can develop root rot, but succulents are especially at risk because of their fine, shallow root systems and their natural habitats in dry climates.
Signs of an Overwatered Succulent
Recognizing the signs of overwatering is key to a healthy plant. So what does an overwatered succulent look like? We’re going to look at each part:
We’re going to be taking a look at a Crassula Buddha’s Temple succulent that has some serious problems:
This type of succulent should be perfectly upright, not leaning over like this poor one here. Right off the bat, that indicates stem damage. And the leaves should be a consistent deep green, not golden and pale like the ones here.
The potting soil is totally saturated, and from the looks of this plant, it probably has been for quite a while.
Let’s dive deeper.
What Overwatering Looks Like in Leaves
Succulents come in many different varieties, and their leaves are usually thick, fleshy and firm. Full of moisture!
But when it comes to the leaves of an overwatered succulent, they will usually feel squishy or soft. The leaf colors may also change, going from a dark green to a lighter green, turning yellow or even transparent.
This happens because the water-storage cells within the leaves have been overwhelmed with excess moisture, causing their cell walls to burst. This lets water seep throughout the plant, diluting the color from a healthy shade to a sickly-looking, pale color.
These photos show what yellow leaf discoloration looks like a little closer up:
Yellowing or otherwise discolored leaves are one of the first signs that your succulent has been overwatered, starting from the bottom of the plant. Discoloration often precedes a change in texture, so you’ll usually see the difference before you can feel the difference.
Discolored or soft leaves will often fall off the plant with even the slightest touch, and the damage commonly shows up first at the bottom of the succulent.
What Overwatering Looks Like in Stems
Just like leaves, succulent stems also hold water, and they should be sturdy and firm. But when there’s too much moisture for them to safely accommodate, the stems will become mushy and change colors:
Here’s what the same Buddha’s Temple looks like on the other side:
See the brown on the stem, along with all the dead leaves and damaged texture?
Mushy stems cannot support leaves or plant weight, so you may notice your over watered succulent starting to droop under its own weight. In fact, it looks like that’s about to happen to this plant!
Just like with the leaves, the changes will usually start being seen from the lower part of the succulent first.
What Overwatering Looks Like in Roots
Once you spot any signs of discoloration or softening above ground, you must remove your succulent from its pot and take a close look at the roots.
Here’s how you’ll be able to confirm root rot:
- The roots are brown/black
- The roots feel soft or slimy
- There’s a bad smell
Here’s what they look like on my plant, before I rinsed the roots out and after:
The roots should be white to tan in color, and some of the lower roots (surprisingly!) are. But the ones nearer the surface are struggling. In the second picture, you can also see the extent of the stem damage.
If you want to see more examples, this video from The WOOT Life does a good job of showing what damaged leaves and a rotted succulent stem/roots look like:
How to Save an Overwatered Succulent
The good news is that it’s not always a total loss when you find your succulent has been overwatered.
If you suspect you have given your plant too much water but there are no signs of trouble, just let the soil fully dry out before giving any more water. Then make sure to follow the overwatering prevention steps we outline a little later in this article.
But if you’re seeing concerning symptoms in your succulent’s leaves or stem, here are some care steps you can try:
1. Examine the Roots Carefully
If you don’t already have your succulent out of its pot to examine the roots, do that now.
- Gently work the root ball open, making sure to expose the central roots. Let the old potting soil fall away and do not try to save any of it. It’s already been infected with fungus, so you’ll need to throw it out.
- Next, rinse out the soil from the roots with running water. (I used my bathtub faucet for this)This gets all the remaining bits of soil washed away, giving you a clear view of what’s going on.
- Now you can examine your roots. Healthy roots should be firm and white to tan in color. If you see any root sections that are brown/black, feel squishy or have a slimy texture, cut these sections out and discard them. Cut all the way back to healthy roots, removing all traces of discoloration or softness. Important: Always sanitize your scissors or pruners with isopropyl alcohol or diluted bleach before making any cuts. This helps prevent new microbes from getting introduced to your already-struggling succulent. And after cutting the roots, clean your tools again to avoid spreading the microbes to other plants.
- After trimming the roots, let the entire root ball dry out for a couple of days. This gives the cuts a chance to callous over, forming a barrier against a new microbial infection. Also, it gives your succulent a chance to thoroughly dry out after the overwatering.
- After this, you’re ready to repot and try again.
2. Repot Your Succulent in a New Pot and Soil
Never re-use a pot or potting soil when the plant was infected with root rot; this can just cause the fungal problems to continue on endlessly.
When you were unpotting your succulent in the step above, you may have noticed your succulent’s roots poking out through the drainage holes or wrapped around themselves. These are both signs of being root-bound, and they could have contributed to your overwatering problem by blocking the drainage holes.
Plant your succulent in a pot that’s about 1/2 inch larger than your plant in all directions. For example, a 5-inch pot is about right for a 4-inch succulent.
Fill your new pot with succulent-friendly soil. You can buy pre-made succulent or cactus soil at garden centers or online. Or if you prefer, you can also make your own custom blend.
Even though your succulent had a couple of days to dry out in the first rescue step, I recommend erring on the side of caution and waiting to water your plant for a few days after repotting.
Remember, these are tough plants that are naturally acclimated to dry climates, so under-watering (within reason) is safer for them than overwatering.
3. Keep Your Succulent Away from Direct Sunlight and Monitor
Get your succulent out of the sun. Succulents prefer indirect sunlight, and direct sun will only add additional stress. An east-facing window is a good spot, or you can place your plant a few feet back from a south-facing window.
Keep a close eye on your succulent for a couple of weeks, looking out for any new danger signs. And be sure to water much more sparingly going forward.
If the damage is limited to just a few leaves or there are still significant portions of healthy roots left, these steps will usually revive the succulent. However, if there are several affected areas or the roots are completely rotted away, it’s time to look at propagating a new succulent or starting over with a new one.
What to Do If Your Succulent Does Not Recover from Overwatering
If you’ve determined that the damage is too advanced for revival or your best efforts just aren’t enough, harvest what healthy leaves and stems you can for propagation. Then discard your original succulent, along with all its soil.
The good news is that succulents are pretty easy to propagate from leaves and stem cuttings. And you may well end up with many more succulents to love in the long run.
Follow these steps to propagate some new succulents:
- Cut off a healthy leaf or stem, trimming away all parts that have any signs of damage. The healthy growth will usually be from higher up on the succulent, away from the moisture and damage. So go as high on the stem as you need to find healthy green tissue. Do not attempt to use a damaged leaf/stem for propagation- the specialized growth cells have been destroyed from excess moisture.
- Leave the cutting exposed to the room air and allow time for the “wound” to dry. This is called callousing, and it’s an important step to prevent fungal growth from attacking your new propagation. It could take anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks for the wound to completely callous, so be patient!
- Once they’ve calloused over, lay leaves on top of moist sand or succulent soil, and insert cuttings directly into the soil.
- Water the cutting about once a week or less, or until you see new growth. This is usually in about 2-3 weeks.
On my plant, I broke the stem above where the last signs of damage were. I marked it with an arrow in this photo:
I made the cut well above the damaged areas to make sure no diseased tissue came along with the healthy part.
See that little baby plant sticking out the bottom? It’s an offshoot, and that’s how Buddha’s Temple reproduces!
I’ll be able to harvest healthy stem pieces and leaves from this portion of the plant for propagation. If you’re wondering, that little piece of brown on the right side of the stem is not damaged- it’s actually where a new offshoot would emerge from the main stem! Hopefully that also means that the stem will send out new roots from that area.
How to Avoid Issues with Overwatering Your Succulents
The best method to avoid issues with overwatering succulents is prevention. Keep in mind that succulents are very drought tolerant, so less watering is best. We’ve covered this topic in even greater detail in our post on how often you should water succulents, so make sure to check it out!
Let’s look at some ways to prevent overwatering your succulents:
1. Check Soil Moisture Before Watering
Check the soil moisture level before watering a succulent each and every time, using your finger or a moisture meter.
Succulents like to dry out between waterings, so the whole pot should feel dry when you insert your finger. Moisture meters display the moisture level on a 1-10 scale, with 1 being the driest. Wait until the meter reads 1 or 2 before giving water (I like this meter from Gouevn).
2. Don’t Let Your Succulent Sit in a Dish of Water
Many of us place a saucer or dish underneath our plant’s pot to catch excess water. You can certainly do this, but make sure to not forget about your succulent and leave it in the water-filled dish.
According to Andrew Gaumond, a horticulturist and botanist at Petal Republic, “Leave (your succulent) for 15 minutes for the soil to disperse any excess and then pour away the water that’s been collected.” A timer might be a good idea here.
Bonus tip: Andrew also shares that water that flows from the tap may harm your plants due to high levels of chlorine and other chemicals. “Ideally I’d recommend the use of rainwater or distilled water if possible which should have removed some of the harmful sodium or unhelpful minerals.” Interesting!
3. Use the Right Kind of Soil
Just like we talked about in step #2 of the rescue plan above, succulents need fast-draining soil with a loose texture. This kind of soil allows excess water to flow freely out of the pot instead of getting stuck in the soil.
Never use these soils for your succulent:
- Standard potting soil (unless you heavily amend it with perlite, sand or another drainage enhancer)
- Garden soil
- Soil from outside
Each of these soils is far too heavy for succulents, and they can easily settle into a compacted block, becoming a dangerous water trap.
Instead, use succulent or cactus soil, either pre-made or your own blend. I like this soil from Espoma, personally.
4. Use a Pot with Good Drainage
Although it’s possible to grow healthy succulents in pots with no drainage holes, it takes a lot more work. And if you’ve already run into problems with overwatering succulents, picking a pot with at least one large drainage hole just makes your life easier.
If the pot you love and have to have doesn’t have drainage, plant your succulent in a small nursery pot that fits inside the pot’s opening. Then take the nursery pot out when it’s time to water, and replace it afterward.
Amazon has nursery pots in all sizes, like these 3-inch ones from GOETOR. But if you don’t need 100 of them, stop by a home improvement store’s garden center or a local greenhouse to see if they sell them individually.
5. Keep a Watering Record
One of the best methods to prevent overwatering succulents is to maintain a watering record. A record helps you keep track of when you last checked the soil moisture and when you had to give water. This helps you spot trends and get on a healthy watering routine.
We’ve made a free printable succulent watering record to make this easier for you. You can get yours right here:
Frequently Asked Questions about Overwatered Succulents
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- Overwatering succulents is a serious danger since these plants naturally grow in dry areas and are acclimated to periods of drought.
- Yellowing or translucent leaves, leaves turning soft, leaves falling off the plant and stem discoloration are all signs that the roots are in trouble from fungal attacks.
- To try to save your overwatered succulent, take the plant out of the pot, clear away existing soil, examine the roots and trim away any that have signs of damage. Allow the plant to dry out, repot in a new pot with fresh soil and place in indirect sunlight.
- If the root rot is advanced, harvest healthy leaves and stems to propagate a new plant, discarding the diseased one.
- Prevent overwatering by checking soil moisture before watering, using good soil, making sure your pot has drainage and keeping a record of when you watered.
Succulents are prized for their unique beauty and low maintenance, but it can be hard to get the watering routine right when it’s so different than most other plants.
An overwatered succulent is no fun, and learning how to water correctly takes some practice and effort. But it pays off with beautiful, healthy plants.
We’d love to hear from you! Have you had the unfortunate experience of overwatering a succulent in the past? Were you able to save it, or what other steps did you end up taking? You may have the solution someone else needs, so please share your thoughts in the comments!