An echeveria should really be growing upright, not sideways.
Question: I would like to know what’s wrong with this plant I bought this summer. It used to grow upright, but now it flops. Yet, I thought I was doing everything right, watering it when the soil is dry, growing it in a terra cotta pot, keeping it out of bright light, etc.
Answer: You may be doing most things right, but whoever told you your plant didn’t like bright light sure had it wrong! Your echeveria (Echeveria spp.), a succulent from sun-drenched arid climates in South and Central America, is desperately trying to tell you it’s not getting enough light. It is etiolating. This is the proper term for a plant that stretches for light. Yours should form a dense rosette with leaves so closely packed together you can’t see a stem. Instead, the leaves are widely spaced and the stem is highly visible. And its abnormally long stem has now bent over, turning it into a creeping plant.
To keep an echeveria short and dense, you would need to give it full sun or at the very least, several hours of sunlight per day. In autumn and winter, in particular, when days are short and gray and the number of hours of sunlight very limited, you really should place it right next to the sunniest window in the house, preferably one facing south.
You can also grow an echeveria under an LED or fluorescent grow light, keeping the top of the plant close to the lamp to ensure maximum illumination.
Your plant’s sideways habit comes from it trying to grow towards the light source, as if it wanted to correct the lack of light on its own. In nature, an echeveria that becomes shaded by another plant and thus deprived of light will do the same thing: bend to the ground and then crawl towards a sunnier location. And you thought plants couldn’t move!
There are also a lot of aerial roots on your echeveria’s stem. This is part of its “recovery plan.” In nature, when the plant begins to crawl, aerial roots are formed, therefore when the stem does touch the ground, and if they encounter reasonable soil, they can quickly root into the ground and hold the stem solidly. The plant can then take root in the soil of the sunnier location it reaches. Aerial roots are like a preparation for growth yet to come.
Older Plants Flop Too
A mature echeveria will also start to grow laterally, even when there is plenty of sunlight, no etiolation and a nice dense rosette at the tip of its stem.
Usually, it will grow upwards for a few years on a stem which becomes more and more visible as the old lower leaves at the bottom drop off, forming a sort of mini-tree capped with a dense rosette. Young plants then form at the base of the mother plant or lower on its stem and soon a colony forms. The younger rosettes will be short and compact, but the tall stems of the older ones aren’t woody enough to support upward growth forever and eventually sag. If they land on reasonable soil and conditions are right, they will take root, enlarging the colony.
What to Do?
When you want to grow an echeveria indoors and maintain its original form, that is, single ground-hugging rosette, you’ll have to chop off its head every now and then and reroot it. Your plant is certainly at this point.
The ideal time to take such a cutting would normally be in spring or summer. Fall and winter are not the best seasons, as root growth is slow and there is a greater danger of rot.
So, when the time is right, cut off the tip of the plant so the cut stem is about 1 to 2 in (3 to 5 cm) long and remove the lower leaves. Allow the cut end to heal, which may take 3 to 10 days. You can do this by laying the cutting on its side, but I like to place it upright in a glass, suspended in the air by its leaves leaning on the rim, as the effect can be quite ornamental.
Now, fill a pot with well-drained potting soil and form a hole in the center with a pencil or pen. Insert the bare stem of the cutting into the hole (a rooting hormone is not needed) and tamp the potting soil down around the stem so that it’s firm and doesn’t move.
Water gently until the soil is barely moist. That will probably be enough for at least two weeks. Afterwards, water normally, that is to say, when the soil is dry to the touch, lightly moisten it again. Usually, the cutting will root and begin growing within a month or two.
Ill.: needlesandleaves.net & hiclipart.com
Back From the Base … and From Leaves
Don’t throw away the “old plant” after you cut off its head. Instead, cut its stem short, maybe have an inch (1 or 2 cm) from the ground, and soon it will grow one or more new rosettes. In fact, if you take the piece of stem that is left over and simply push it sideways into a pot of soil, it will probably grow new rosettes too.
Plus, you can root any leaves removed or knocked off (echeveria leaves are very fragile) during this operation. Not many plants will grow from leaf cuttings, but echeverias will. Just place the leaves on the surface of barely damp potting soil and they will form new plants—very, very tiny at first!—in 2 or 3 months.
A Secondary Problem: Edema
I noticed another problem on your plant. The corky marks that you see under some leaves are due to edema, caused by the plant absorbing too much water at one time. This causes enormous pressure inside the plant and eventually some cells burst open. These cells do not recover and become corky and beige over time, leaving a permanent mark.
Edema is most common when the plant is not getting enough light. Properly watering a plant that lacks light is difficult, because it doesn’t handle water efficiently. Plants growing in full sun are less likely to develop edema.
To prevent edema, it may be wise to water less abundantly on gray days. And it’s best to water in the morning, as edema is most often linked with plants being overwatered in the late afternoon or evening.
Note that the edema, though it may be unsightly, is not particularly harmful to the plant. It has hundreds of thousands of cells and can afford to lose a few. And edema is not always that unsightly, either, as it usually occurs on the underside of the leaf and may well be invisible when the plant is growing upright.
So, now you know what’s wrong with your plant. More than anything else, you really have to give your echeveria more light: it just isn’t a good choice for anything but a sunny spot!
Native Dudleya species that grow wild on coastal cliffs can do well in home gardens and pots, but demand even more exposure than species of Echeveria, which is likely why Echeveria is so much more popular.