Succulents have a unique appearance compared to other container plants and are often touted as being low-maintenance and difficult to kill. As countless novice gardeners have learned the hard way, though, this latter claim isn’t necessarily true.
In this article, I spill the tea on the most common reasons why succulents can turn brown. I also have a raft of expert advice for treating and preventing these unsightly problems when it comes to your own succulents.
9 Reasons Succulents Turn Brown and How To Fix Them
The most likely explanations for a succulent turning brown include sun damage, watering issues, nutrition deficiencies, poor soil conditions, pests, disease, and over-fertilizing.
With such a long list of possible causes of why your succulent may be turning brown, it’s worth spending some time understanding the root cause before you try to fix it. Here’s a look at those reasons in more detail plus, what you can do to remedy the problem.
1. Sun Scorch
A sun-damaged succulent usually presents as brown discoloration on the tips or most exposed sections of foliage. The discolored parts may look and/or feel dry. You might only see damage on one side of your succulent — the side that is facing the sun.
Since succulents are naturally drought-tolerant, many gardeners assume that they also require plenty of bright, direct sunlight to thrive. In fact, sun scorch – caused by too much direct sunlight – is one of the most common causes of brown leaves on succulents.
While some types of succulents — i.e., cacti — are predominantly adapted to desert climates, this is far from true for most species. Many wild succulents such as Jade plant and Christmas cactus grow in full or partial shade and their leaves aren’t built to handle harsh sunlight for long periods of time.
How To Fix
On average, succulents perform best when they receive at least 4 to 6 hours of bright but indirect light each day.
While most indoor succulents are safe from excess sun exposure, be careful about placing plants in south-facing windows.
Outdoor containers should be placed under partial covers, such as on a shaded porch or beneath a tree canopy. Many species can adapt to direct sunlight over time but must be exposed gradually and should be rotated regularly to prevent burn damage.
Succulents hold lots of moisture in their leaves, which is what gives them that plump, fleshy appearance. However, if a succulent goes too long without sufficient water, those moisture stores start to disappear. This can lead to brown leaf tips, dry or wrinkled flesh, and other unsightly symptoms.
It’s not uncommon for these symptoms to appear even when you are adhering to a trusted watering schedule and that is usually because your plant can suddenly become dehydrated due to extreme heat or excess sun exposure.
These environmental factors naturally increase the amount of water the succulent needs to survive. They also speed up evaporation, so your succulent’s soil and excess water stores can dry out a lot quicker than normal.
How To Fix
Indoor succulents only need to be watered when the soil is almost completely dry. I recommend checking the soil moisture levels weekly by inserting a soil moisture meter or two fingers at least 2-3 inches into the soil. Water only if it feels dry, otherwise check again in a few days.
Monitor the weather forecast and adjust your watering practices as needed to keep your outdoor succulents well-hydrated (but not waterlogged). In the summer, I strongly recommend watering your succulents first thing in the morning to prepare them for the afternoon heat.
Consider relocating potted succulents to a shaded area during periods of intense heat or drought or as a minimum, rotate the pot every few days. This will help to slow down moisture evaporation during the hottest part of the day and prevent scorching.
3. Root Rot
Root rot is an incredibly common disease in houseplants and can arise as a result of overwatering and poor soil drainage. When roots are exposed to excess moisture they become damaged and are unable to absorb the water and nutrients required to remain healthy.
Above the soil surface, leaves will begin to fade and gradually become more discolored as the disease takes a hold. If you un-pot your succulent, you are likely to find a root system that is dark brown or black and which feels mushy when touched. You might even find that the roots break apart in your hands.
How To Fix
When root rot occurs, I recommend removing your succulent from the pot and brushing away as much soil as possible from the root system. Thoroughly inspect the looks and remove any plant tissue that is anything other than firm and milky white. Sanitize your cutting tools after every snip and be sure to thoroughly clean the container.
Allow the roots to air dry for a day or so before re-potting using fresh potting soil.
Prevention is ultimately the best strategy against root rot. Succulents should only be planted in well-draining, loose soil. Be sure to use a shallow container with good-sized drainage holes. It will need to be approximately 10% wider than the spread of your succulent.
4. Fungal Disease
Anthracnose is a fungal disease that causes brown, irregular spots on succulent leaves. Affected leaves will eventually dry out and scab over.
How To Fix
If you notice symptoms of anthracnose on one of your succulents, quarantine it immediately and carefully remove any affected leaves. Wear gloves to do this and be sure to sanitize your scissors or knife with every cut. I also recommend cleaning the container and replacing the soil.
Copper-containing fungicides can also be used to treat this disease.
This fungus can be spread via infected plants, potting soils, and tools. Sanitize all containers and tools that may have come into contact with infected plant matter, and keep the affected plant quarantined until you are sure it is completely recovered.
Edema is a condition caused by excess water being taken in and stored in a plant’s leaves. The cells holding the water swell up and form small blisters on the leaf surface. Most cases are caused by overwatering or poor soil drainage but environmental factors like fluctuating temperatures or humidity levels can worsen symptoms.
Edema blisters can be light or dark in color and succulents affected by this problem will present with brown spots. These blisters will eventually burst and leave behind brown scabs on the leaves.
How To Fix
The good news is that plant edema is typically harmless, but even so, you’ll still want to prevent this condition to maintain your succulent’s appearance.
Water modestly throughout the year, but especially when weather conditions are cooler, and only water when the soil is almost completely dry. Also, ensure that your succulent is planted in well-draining soil, and in a pot with good-sized drainage holes.
6. Chemical Damage
Brown foliage that seemingly comes out of nowhere is often caused by chemical damage to the succulent’s root system or leaf tissues. Fertilizers and the use of unfiltered tap water are frequently to blame.
How To Fix
When applying fertilizers, avoid the product coming into contact with your succulent leaves.
Water your succulents with rainwater, bottled water, or filtered tap water to avoid salt build-up in the soil. Additionally, avoid splashing the leaves with water droplets when watering.
7. Pest Infestation
Succulents can fall victim to common plant pests like scale, mealy bugs, and spider mites. These sap-sucking pests pierce and feed on leaf tissue resulting in brown spots on the leaves.
How To Fix
Monitor your succulents for early signs of pest infestation. The University of Minnesota recommends removing mild infestations with rubbing alcohol. Treatments including Neem oil and insecticidal soaps are effective and generally safe for use on succulents too.
8. Natural Aging
Last but not least, some succulents turn brown as part of the natural aging process.
Succulents don’t drop their foliage like deciduous plants do. However, older leaves will die off as a succulent grows. It’s also normal for leaves to turn brown and fall off after being damaged.
How To Fix
If you notice a little bit of browning on your succulent’s oldest leaves and the plant otherwise appears healthy, it may be a sign that those leaves have run their course. Continue monitoring for any changes but don’t stress.
If you have enjoyed reading this article, why not click the link to read Why Does My Snake Plant Have Brown Spots?
FAQs Why Is My Succulent Turning Brown
Why Is My Succulent Drooping Or Wilting?
Succulents droop or wilt when they receive too much or too little water. In my experience, these symptoms are more often caused by overwatering or poor drainage. The best way to identify the true problem is by checking the soil’s moisture level.
- The University of Minnesota Removing – Cacti and Succulents
Ben's horticultural interest grew when graduating from Hertfordshire University in 1997. Having contributed to numerous publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design Magazine, and The English Garden. He is also the author of Propagating Houseplants Made Easy.