Succulents That Like Stress

– Posted in: Succulents

If there’s a good thing about our too-hot Southern California summers, it’s that heat makes certain succulents turn color. A case in point is Aloe nobilis, which in my garden grows in nutrient-poor decomposed granite with minimal water.

In winter, the same plant reverts to green.

Such “stressed” succulents—which seal moisture in their leaves as effectively as Glad-Wrap—are fine. They perk up and send out new growth when the weather cools and the rains return.

Not all succulents turn shades of red, pink or orange when stressed, in fact, the majority don’t. But many common aloes and crassulas do, plus certain kalanchoes, euphorbias, sempervivums, sedums, aeoniums and echeverias. Agaves normally don’t; this one is an exception. (The reason is it’s post-bloom and dying, which has revealed the anthocyanin* in its tissues.)

After seeing my YouTube video, “How to Stress Your Succulents…and Why You Should,” a non-gardening friend observed, “I’d probably stress them so much, they’d croak.”

Good point. How do you give a succulent the right amount of stress, but not too much? And how do you know which are worth stressing, and which aren’t?

Basically, observe the plant. If it’s leaves are margined or tipped in red, it’s a likely prospect. But if excess heat, sun or cold makes its tips shrivel and turn beigey-gray, it’s suffering. Move it to a kinder location, keep the soil moist (but not soggy), and/or repot it. Also check its roots. The problem may be that they can’t access moisture and nutrients, as in the case of a cutting that’s sitting atop the soil instead of snugly planted.

This jade is beautifully stressed (how’s that for an oxymoron?). Its leaves have reddened due to less water than the plant would like plus more cold than jade prefers (frost will turn the leaves to mush, but temperatures near but above freezing reddens them).

Most succulents—especially those with fat, fleshy leaves—can last weeks and sometimes months without water, even in hot sun, nipped by frost, and/or rooted solely in gravel. But eventually they need a respite, lest stress become life-threatening.

A few common succulents that redden when stressed:

Kalanchoe luciae.

Aeonium canariense.

Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’.

Aloe dorotheae.

Additional examples are on the video, which includes before-and-after photos.

— Debra

*In the same way deciduous trees turn color in autumn, sunset hues become visible. The pigment also is found in berries and fruits—and is considered a powerful antioxidant. Anthocyanins, according to Wikipedia, “are not synthesized until the plant has begun breaking down chlorophyll, it is presumed for photoprotection…” i.e. protection from excess sunlight, much the same way melanin tans skin.

Wikipedia also wisely states that “plants with abnormally high anthocyanin quantities are popular as ornamental plants.”

My goal is to share the beauty of waterwise, easy-care succulents in gardens, containers and landscapes via blog postsnewsletterspublic speaking and workshopsphotosvideosmerchandise, and social media (Facebook and Pinterest). My books: Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardensand Succulents Simplified. 


Debra Lee Baldwin
Award-winning garden photojournalist Debra Lee Baldwin authored Designing with Succulents, Succulent Container Gardens, and Succulents Simplified, all Timber Press bestsellers. Her goal is to enhance others' enjoyment and awareness of waterwise plants and gardens by showcasing the beauty and design potential of succulents via books, articles, newsletters, photos, videos, social media and more. Debra and husband Jeff live in the foothills north of San Diego. She grew up in Southern California on an avocado ranch, speaks conversational Spanish, and at age 18 graduated magna cum laude from USIU with a degree in English Literature. Her hobbies include thrifting, birding and watercolor painting. Debra's YouTube channel has had over 3,000,000 views.
Debra Lee Baldwin
Debra Lee Baldwin
12 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

the invisible gardener August 10, 2011, 7:08 am

aloe cameronii is another fantastic red stressed plant. just planted 7.

ann August 10, 2011, 10:25 am

Beautifully stressed indeed, plants sometimes do not thrive on lush living conditions and wonder if U S politicians could find that balance and improve appearance..

Sheila Schultz August 10, 2011, 1:07 pm

Thanks, Debra. Since reading your articles about the ‘stress factor’ in succulents, I’ve been far more aware of how to achieve the beautiful reds and oranges I love. It would help if I could have a 12 mo. succulent garden, but 5 months just has to do!

Freda Cameron August 10, 2011, 2:52 pm

Wonderful information! Wish I could grow more succulents here in 7b North Carolina. I keep your Succulent Container Garden book handy at all times for inspiration! In our 100 degree days with little water, I’ve found my new gravel garden is retaining water better than the garden mulched with organic matter. And, I’ve not had to water the gravel garden since the moisture isn’t evaporating as quickly.

Dixie August 11, 2011, 11:36 pm

So beautiful! The other day I saw some lovely red kalanchoes for sale, and I was very tempted, but I knew within a week or so it would be green again.

Patrick McWhinney August 12, 2011, 5:56 pm

Hi Debra you have me singing”You have to be cruel to be kind in the the right measure”

Adnan August 13, 2011, 3:11 pm

Wow, This is the best jade I’ve ever seen.

Thanks for such an informative post.I never knew there was something known as Stressing before.

Cathy August 15, 2011, 9:44 am

What an interesting concept… talk about making the vagaries of nature work for you! Thanks for a truly informative post (and some understanding of what I see here in our garden!)

We have some garden variety sedum edging a large circular rose and perennial bed and last summer the usually light green leaves were a very rich scarlet (we had a more than 2 month drought). It’s a ground cover that blooms yellow and the red tipped leaves and yellow together, although not usually one of my favorite combinations, was definitely eye catching – it was the brightest spot of color in the bed this time last year. While the roses struggled and the lilies and phlox barely made it through the season, that border was definitely a showstopper. I was wondering why it wasn’t as colorful this year!

Mother Nature has blessed us with adequate rainfall and the leaves are a bright, brilliant green. Your article almost makes me want to run out and stand there with an umbrella LOL. (it’s raining today….)

Dixie August 21, 2011, 1:22 am

Sounds like the sedum you have is S. rubrotinctum. That’s a great succulent to stress.

Katie August 21, 2015, 12:49 pm

LOVE this post. Very useful. Also, during tough times, I’m going to start describing myself as “beautifully stressed.” 😉

Cindy Solomon August 22, 2015, 12:23 pm

here in Arizona, it can sometimes get over 120 degrees on my patio. First summer I have tried to grow anything, but no luck. What are your suggestions? Mostly shade, but some sun.

Rhonda Keller September 28, 2017, 11:37 am

I love in southern Illinois, how and what succulents will survive the outside. Our summers are hwho,winters get below frezzing. I have blossom’s on some and others a of color. I keep them indoors. Is that good for them. I do worry over them a lot. Thank you for your article it is helpful.

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