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How Long Can My Succulents Survive Without Water?

houseleek [Sempervivum]
You can find succulents growing in tropical rain forests, in cold mountain regions or even on the shores of salty bodies of water. Jackie Bale/Getty Images

If life is anything, it's tenacious. In the case of plants, there's a special set known as xerophytes, which have evolved to survive in climates where water is extremely scarce. And among the xerophytes, we find an assembly of plants called succulents. The term succulent (and xerophyte for that matter) doesn't denote a traditional taxonomic group, however. Rather, succulents are diverse plants that share common adaptations for making the most of every bit of water they can get. The line between succulent plants and ordinary plants is not cut and dried. On a short-term basis, all plants are generally able to do what succulents are so renowned for — it's just that succulents take things to a whole other level.

The succulent that probably springs to mind most readily is the cactus, although there are succulents in a wide variety of plant families. You might imagine succulents only inhabit wind-swept arid desert regions where little else can grow, but that's not the case. Succulents are abundant in a variety of locales. You can find them growing in the upper reaches of tropical rain forests, rooted to high-rise patches of moss or bark where the competition for water is fierce. You can find them in lofty mountainous regions where cold weather, severe winds and rocky soil make finding moisture a challenge. You can even find them on the shores of salty bodies of water, where brackish conditions hinder normal botanical water routines.

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It's worth noting, too that succulents aren't superheroes — there are some regions where the desert conditions are so extreme that only the most hardcore xerophytes can survive. While succulents are champions at water collection and conservation, most need at least a few inches of rain annually to get by. There are a few other exceptions as well. In some places, deserts spring up too quickly for local plants to evolve and in others, the plants just find other ways to adapt.

Although succulents can vary greatly in appearance, they share a number of basic fundamental characteristics. The most important of these is the succulent's ability to store water, from which its name is derived. Plants all have a certain degree of succulence. But succulents took this talent to new heights — some can store years' worth of water in either their stems, roots or leaves for times of severe drought. Think of the wide stem of a saguaro cactus or the thick fleshy leaves of an aloe plant, and you're basically looking at an expandable botanical rain barrel.

But how are they going to collect any water in all those wild environments they inhabit? Many succulents have fantastic root systems completely specialized for their environments. In mountain regions, roots often dig down deep to harvest any subterranean water sources. But up on the plains, their roots are often broadly spread but incredibly shallow in order to catch any moisture that might lick the surface of the land, such as morning dew.

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Plants wage a constant battle to get all the nutrients they need in order to function. Besides water, they also need sunlight and carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. The CO2 comes in through diffusion so most plants have a huge number of pores, called stomata, to coax it in. But at the same time the sun is providing them with the energy they need to perform photosynthesis, it's also evaporating water (a process that in plants is called transpiration) through the exposed stomata. It's a difficult tightrope to walk, so succulents have managed to get themselves a safety harness.

Most plant species are hardwired to open their stomata wide when they sense certain triggers like sunlight — a bad idea for plants trained to carefully avoid any water loss. It does have the benefit of temporarily maximizing photosynthesis, but succulents just don't have that luxury, one of the reasons they're typically slow-growing plants. Succulents bypass this hang-up by opening their stomata at night, which decreases transpiration and retains precious water. This means they've had to develop a special type of metabolism called crassulacean acid metabolism (or CAM). With the CAM method, plants can take in CO2 during the night and store it to use for photosynthesis the next day.

Another important difference? In regular plants the stomata are sized like dense freeways; in succulents, they're not more than sparse two-lane country roads. So not only do they open at more opportune times, they're smaller when they do. Thirdly, succulent stomata are less numerous and are sunk down deep in leaves and stems, usually protected by a thick outer skin and various other features such as waxes, resins, hairs and needles to further decrease transpiration and retain water.

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a variety of succulents
Succulent shapes vary in order to catch as much sunlight as possible without losing water. Kidsada Manchinda/Getty Images

Another piece of the equation to keep in mind is how succulents receive sunlight, because there's a catch-22 here. They're often reducing their surface area to minimize water loss, especially in the stem succulents, but they're also reducing how much sunlight they can catch to motor their photosynthesis. This is why many succulents have such fun shapes — rippled and ridged surfaces, crazy knobs and lumpy protrusions. These extensions, as well as adaptations to the stems, increase their ability to process sunlight, helping some types of succulents hang on. The shapes of succulents also typically vary depending on how much water the plants currently contain — they expand when water is plentiful and contract when it's not. In some, ties with roots and other growths are severed when times get tough. Succulents can't afford to get sentimental.

When discussing succulents, it's important to understand how all the extensive adaptations they underwent to survive where water is scarce impacted them across the board. Their special metabolism and distinctive shapes are two aspects. Another example is how they grow. Many grow low to the ground — practically burying themselves in order to avoid the harsh sunlight. Others are all about the shade; they enjoy living in someone else's shadow, especially if it's a well-placed rock or other form of shelter. Their rate of growth is also affected in several ways. For instance, plants get nutrients from the soil. (Ever buy a bag of fertilizer? Then you know what we're talking about.) But beyond that, plants need moisture to soak up all those yummy nutrients. This means that in terms of growth, succulents are the turtle in the race, not the hare. But hey, whatever works, right?

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Another important factor with succulents is protection. Succulents are basically botanical water bottles, they thrive where others thirst. So how do they defend themselves against the dehydrated masses? If you've ever had the misfortune of bumping into a cactus, you've had a preview of how they pull this off. Spines and spikes, thick armored skin, yucky and sometimes poisonous juices are all among the defenses succulents have developed to keep meddlers away. Some of these protective measures even double up as rainwater collection devices — like hollow spines that can slide water right inside.

In a rough-and-tumble environment, with the necessities for life few and far between, getting together for a date can be a bit of a challenge. Another way succulents are set up to survive is that many are self-propagating, whether through seeds or actual little plants all ready to go. Also, if you knock a chunk off a succulent that piece can typically take root and start growing on its own fairly easily — handy if the plant is in a place that suffers strong weather.

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succulents on window sill
Succulents need three to six hours of sunlight. Don't make the rookie mistake of never watering your succulent. But don't overwater it either. Adrienne Bresnahan/Getty Images

Although succulents are considered easy to care for, you can't simply stick them in a sunny spot and forget about them. As with any living organism, succulents have specific needs. One of the most important is light.

Most succulents need anywhere from three to six hours of direct sunlight each day, depending on the type of plant you have. If your succulent begins to lean that may be a sign it needs to be placed in a sunnier spot. But succulents always lean toward the sun, so even after you find a good spot for your plant, make sure to rotate it often so it grows straight. Keep in mind that too much direct sunlight can burn your plant. So if you live in a hot climate, filter the sunlight. Finally, if you decide to move your plant to an area with significantly more sunlight, take a couple of weeks to transition it to the new spot to avoid sunburn.

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Properly watering your succulent is another critical care component. First, make sure the plant is in a container with drainage holes to prevent rot. Terra cotta pots are a good choice. Next, pot your plant in cactus soil or a soil mixture with sand, pumice or perlite, which also helps with drainage. Soak the soil until water runs out of the drainage hole, then leave it alone for a few days until the soil dries out — succulents don't like to have wet feet. In general, you only need to water your succulent weekly. But if you live in a hot, dry climate, you may need to water your plant more frequently. During winter, when the light is dimmer and succulents are dormant, back off on the watering.

Another consideration regarding succulent health is temperature. Surprisingly, succulents do well in a wide range of temperatures. That being said, more delicate succulents don't like extremes. So avoid leaving your plants in temps above 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 C) or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 C).

While indoor succulents don't generally attract destructive insects, your plant may end up with some — most likely gnats or mealy worms. Gnats show up if your succulent's soil stays too wet, namely due to improper drainage. Mealy worms may be on your plant when you purchase it, or they may appear due to too much watering and fertilizing. If either insect takes up residence on your succulent, spray the soil with 70 percent isopropyl alcohol to kill insect eggs and larvae. Make sure to move any infected plants away from their neighbors, too, so the bugs don't spread.

Still having problems with your succulents? Keep in mind that some succulents are much better suited for indoor growing than others. Generally, these are green varieties such as jade and aloe vera that prefer low light or shade over full sun. Succulents dressed in brighter shades such as red, purple or orange typically don't do as well inside, as they need some direct sunlight.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • American Society for Microbiology. "Meet the Microbes: Archaea and Other Extremists." (Oct. 30, 2008) http://www.microbeworld.org/microbes/archaea/
  • Architectural Digest. "How to Care for Succulents (And Not Kill Them): 9 Plant-Care Tips." Sept. 12, 2018. (July 22, 2020) https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/how-to-care-for-succulents
  • Binns, Corey. "How Cacti Survive: Surprising Strategies Quench Thirst." LiveScience.com. July 24, 2006 (Oct. 30, 2008) http://www.livescience.com/strangenews/060724_mm_cacti_survive.html
  • British Cactus and Succulent Society. (Oct. 30, 2008) http://www.bcss.org.uk/
  • Cactus and Succulent Society of America. (Oct. 30, 2008) http://www.cssainc.org
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  • HGTV "Succulent Savvy." (Oct. 30, 2008) http://www.hgtv.com/gl-plants-other/succulent-savvy/index.html
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  • Sunshine and Succulents. "Succulent Care: Tips For Healthy Plants." (July 22, 2020) http://www.sunshineandsucculents.com/succulent-care
  • Welch, Antoinette W. "Care of Non-Hardy Cacti & Succulents." Cornell Cooperative Extension. July 1993. (July 22, 2020) http://chemung.cce.cornell.edu/resources/care-of-non-hardy-cacti-and-succulents

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