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Frequently Asked Questions

about succulent plants including cacti.

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In correspondence received, similar questions about cultivation of succulent plants keep recurring. Often insufficient information is provided to diagnose the problem, but the largest single cause of sick plants is probably over-watering, followed by insufficient light. Follow links for more information.

Q. What is this plant ?
(Probably the most frequent query of all.)
 
A. As aids to identification, see: 
 Name Your Succulent  for some succulent plants that keep turning up in queries. 
 Succulent plants Illustrated on this Site  for a list of all the illustrations. 
 Thumbnail Gallery of Succulent Plants   currently >> 10Mb so please allow time to load.

 Try a googleimages search .....
 

You can try entering a description e.g. hairy leaf succulent Aloe yellow flower fleshy reddish leaf on trailing stems

if you can guess the family, species or common name of your succulent plant. It is surprising how many images of obscure succulents can be found on the internet. 
However, beware of inappropriately named images. Look for a concensus name. Then do an image search on that species name and see if most of the pictures are similar to your succulent plant.

 
 

Q. Where can I buy this plant ?
A.Sorry, but it's impossible for me to source succulent plants on a world-wide basis or to know what stock is held in succulent plant nurseries at any given time. 
However, there is a large list of cactus and succulent plant nurseries and seed sellers on this site. Please ensure that you will be able to import plants and seed into your own region as there are significant administrative and phytosanitary barriers to movement of plants between most continents.
See: Botanical Bookmarks: succulent plant nurseries and seed suppliers
 
Q. Where should I keep my succulent plants ?
A. Most succulent plants enjoy either full or diffuse sunlight. A sunny window ledge suits many plants from the South African or American deserts but beware of scorch. It is advisable to acclimatise a plant to a new location over a few days, especially if it has come from a poorly-lit environment such as a shop display. If your climate enjoys particularly strong sunshine, you may find that diffuse sunlight is better for your succulent plants.
 
Succulent plants from rain forests or dry forests may prefer diffuse light similar to what they would receive in their habitat. These include Epiphytic cacti such as Christmas cacti and Epiphyllums and understory plants like Ceropegias, Hoyas and Peperomias.
 
Q. How often should I water my succulent plants ?
A. A good rule is to always let the soil dry out between watering. Never leave succulent plants standing in a dish of water for more than a couple of hours as this will damage the roots. Leafy succulents can be given a little more water than cacti, but watering once a week in Summer is probably sufficient. In cold weather and for plants in cool conditions during the Winter, stop watering altogether. Plants kept in warm conditions during the winter will require a little water every couple of weeks.
 
Q. Can I use tap water ?
A. Tap water often contains dissolved salts which will accumulate in the soil and damage roots. Some tap water is also quite alkaline which doesn't suit many succulent plants. Many domestic water softeners are based on ion exchange resins that simply substitute sodium ions for calcium, so little better. In some jurisdictions, fluoride is added to tap water and this slowly poisons sensitive species such as those from the Dragon Tree Family (Dracaena). 
If you are able to collect and store rain water, this is the best source of water for your plants. Melted ice accumulated around fridges and feeezers is also a suitable source of pure water as is water from reverse osmosis purifiers. In a sunny climate, you could also construct a simple solar still to purify tap or well water.
 
Q. What about the Winter ?
A. Most but not all succulent plants rest during the short days of Winter (North Hemisphere) and watering should be reduced accordingly. If you have succulent plants outside, these should be brought under cover if you expect frost unless known to be hardy. A cool but frost-free, dry Winter is fine for many plants, although some from the tropics including Madagascar may suffer and need to be kept warm at all times. Some tropical cacti e.g. Echinocactus grusonii may develop brown marks unless kept warm, but most North American and other cacti are quite hardy provided that they are kept dry. A cool, dry Winter may encourage cacti to flower. 
A few succulents want to grow and flower during the Winter and should be watered. These include South African Mesmbs from Winter rain fall areas, Disocorea elephantipes and some Crassulaceae including Tylecodons. If your succulent is trying to grow and producing leaves, that is a sign that it needs water which is best administered during warmer Winter days.
 
Q. My succulent plant / cactus has gone soft and grey, or yellow or is dying. What do I do ?
A. This may well be a symptom of over-watering. See: Cultural Problems.
If the plant has gone soft, yellow, grey or mouldy it is probably too late to save it. However, if part of the plant is still firm and healthy, it may be possible to save it as a cutting or graft. Some species, especially crassulaceae, can be propagated from a single leaf.
See Propagation methods.
 
Q. My cactus / succulent has little balls of white fluffy stuff on it, particularly around the spine clusters or growing points. What do I do ?
A. The white material is produced by female Mealy Bugs nesting up to produce young.
See Mealy Bugs for information and control measures.
 
Q. Why is my plant is going brown on top, especially around the growing point ?
A. This may indicate damage from pests such as Red Spider Mite or a Cultivation Problem such as scorching.
See Red Spider Mite for information and control measures.
Also review Cultural Problems.
 
Q. How do I re-pot my very spiny cactus ?
A. See cultivation hints: Repotting a Prickly Customer
 
Q. I have a very tall cactus that may fall over. What do I do ?
A. A top-heavy succulent plant can be stabilised by providing a larger or heavier pot or by putting its pot into a larger one as a support and packing the gap with grit or pebbles. It is also possible to cast concrete blocks with a pot-sized hole in them as supports, by using a larger container as a mould with an empty pot in the middle.
 
Q. My very tall cactus fell over and the stem broke in two. What do I do ?
A. The bottom half may well offset to produce side-shoots in a few months, or at the start of the next growing season. You can grow this part on as normal, but if you want to trim the broken surface, use a very sharp knife that has been sterilised by dipping in methylated spirits/industrial alcohol. The top half can be trimmed and allowed to dry so that the raw end calluses over for a couple of weeks before potting up in a gritty potting mixture. You may wish to treat the broken end with some hormone rooting powder, particularly as this usually also contains a fungicide. Water very sparingly until new growth indicates root formation has started.