Succulents have gained a lot of attention in recent years for their hardiness and because they are seemingly immortal and can make just about any garden look more interesting. But why settle for having only green succulents when there is a way that you can change their color?
To color succulents, you have to change the environment they are growing in, to put “stress” on them. Things such as less or more water, less or more sunlight, and hotter or colder temperatures can change their color. But if you are looking for more funky colors, you can also use food coloring.
In this article, we will discuss why succulents change color, whether it is possible for them to change color naturally, and how you can change their color at home. Now let us get started!
Why Do Succulents Change Color?
While succulents are known for being very resistant plants that can survive without care for a relatively long time, like all plants, they are still prone to undergo some changes when their environments change.
These changing environmental factors are what cause succulents to change colors. It puts “stress” on the succulents, which changes the chemistry inside their cells, making them change color. The three environmental factors that have the biggest impact on the color of a succulent are sunlight, water, and temperature.
Sunlight is probably the most important factor when it comes to the color of a succulent. There are three main pigments found in plants, namely chlorophyll, carotenoids, and anthocyanins. These pigments have a specific function in plants and will become more or less active, depending on the amount of sunlight the plant is getting.
For instance, when a succulent is getting very little sunlight, the chlorophyll will become more active because it is responsible for absorbing sunlight, which is necessary for photosynthesis. More chlorophyll will result in a succulent that is a vibrant or deep green color.
However, if a succulent is getting a lot of sunlight, the chlorophyll will not need to be as active, and instead, the carotenoids and anthocyanins will become more active. Carotenoids are also responsible for absorbing sunlight and will result in various shades of yellow and orange. Anthocyanins act as an antioxidant and protect the succulent against stressors like bright sunlight and will result in the succulent turning a red, purple, or blue color.
The amount of water a succulent gets will also play a big role in its color, and a change in the amount of water it receives will also result in a change in color.
Succulents that are given water more frequently tend to be green, while succulents that are given water less frequently will often lose their deep green color and “blush” as they change to yellow, orange, red, or purple.
The third biggest factor that influences the color of succulents is temperature. It usually goes paired with the amount of sunlight a succulent is getting. Very high, above 90℉ or 32℃, or very low, below 40℉ or 4.4℃ temperatures will activate certain pigments and will result in a change in the color of a succulent.
In very hot temperatures, the carotenoids and anthocyanins in succulents become active to protect the plant from UV exposure and overheating. Thus, it will change the plant’s leaves to a yellow, orange, red, purple, or blue color.
The opposite is true for extremely cold temperatures. The chlorophyll will become more active to make the succulent turn a darker green color because darker colors attract more heat, and in colder temperatures, that is what the plant is trying to do.
Can All Succulents Change Color?
Now that you know why succulents change color, you might be wondering whether all succulents can change color. Technically, yes, they can. However, some succulents will naturally always be green. So while they may become a lighter or darker shade of green, they will not become red, or purple, or any of the other more ‘exotic’ colors that some other succulents may take on when exposed to different environments.
Some examples of ‘evergreen’ succulents are the Elephant Bush and also the Miniature Pine Tree. If you get an evergreen succulent and it starts to change to something like yellow or brown, it means that there is either something wrong with the succulent itself or the environment that it is currently in is too extreme for it to be healthy.
Colorful Succulents You Can Buy
While it is really fun to know that you can change the color of the succulents in your garden, there are just some colors that you will not be able to get from a succulent that is not already naturally that color.
So if you want to add even more color to your succulent garden, here is a list of a few succulents that are naturally colorful:
- Zwartkop: Deep burgundy that looks almost black
- Purple Heart: Purple and a sort of dark blue-green
- Perle von Nürnberg: Pale purple with pink edges
- Blue Chalksticks: Deep blue-green
- Blue Spruce: Blue, pale purple, green, and yellow
- Leatherpetal: Light blue or pink
- Campfire Plant: Red and orange
- Desert Cabbage: Deep red
Getting your succulents to change color may seem like a near-impossible feat to achieve, but it is not that complicated at all. As mentioned previously, there are environmental factors that can change the colors of your succulent, but you can change the color of your succulent synthetically too.
How to Naturally Change the Color of Your Succulents
A changing environment causes succulents to undergo “stress,” and while this may seem like a bad thing, it occurs all the time in nature. Changing seasons, drought or flood periods, and various other factors all naturally induce stress in plants. So, when succulents are subjected to stress, they change color.
In order for you to change the color of your succulents, you will need to stress them. There are several factors that you can change in your succulent’s environment to change their color, all while ensuring that they stay healthy and do not die.
Increase or Decrease Sunlight Exposure
This is a factor that you will have to monitor more closely than the others, as too much sunlight exposure, can badly damage your succulent. The place where your succulent usually stays will determine how quickly you can change their sunlight exposure.
If your succulent is usually in a shady area or inside, where it does not get that much sunlight, you should not transition it to full sunlight immediately. The same goes for if you are decreasing the succulent’s sunlight exposure. Any very drastic changes in its environment can cause it harm.
A good ballpark transition period is between one and two weeks. During the transition period, you can increase or decrease the succulent’s sunlight exposure by about half an hour every few days, roughly every four days. Allowing a few days of the same amount of sunlight exposure will give your succulent a better chance of adapting without being stressed too much.
As you increase the sunlight exposure, you will start to notice some red, yellow, purple, or blue appearing in the leaves of your succulent. This is because the pigments (carotenoid and anthocyanin) in the succulent that help protect it from overexposure become more active, resulting in a change in color.
The color that your succulent changes to will depend on the type of succulent it is, as some are more likely to turn yellow or orange or red while others will turn purple or blue.
If you decrease the sunlight exposure of your succulent, it will start to turn green or become a darker shade of green if it was already green before. This is due to the pigment chlorophyll becoming more active to help the succulent absorb more sunlight from its surroundings in order for it to continue photosynthesizing.
If you notice your succulent starting to turn brown, it is getting either too much or too little sunlight exposure. Try keeping it at its current exposure for a few days longer to give it some time to adapt. Also, make sure to keep giving your succulent enough water, as changing more than one factor at the same time is harmful to the plant.
Decrease Amount of Water
Succulents are very hardy plants and are naturally adapted to living in conditions where other plants cannot grow in a desert, for example. This means they can survive without water for a long time without suffering any ill effects. However, the same cannot be said for when it receives too much water. Giving your succulent too much water is not good and will almost certainly kill it or cause severe harm.
For this reason, you should only use water stress by decreasing the amount of water you give the succulent, not by increasing it. To do this, when you feel that the soil around your succulent is dry, leave it an extra day or two before watering it. This increases the succulent’s tolerance of ‘drought’ and induces color-changing stress.
Water-induced stress will activate the carotenoid and anthocyanin pigments in the succulent and will gradually start to turn it a blue, purple, red, or yellow color. Water-induced stress takes longer to show its effects than sunlight stress because these are already such drought-resistant plants. For this reason, it is important not to decrease the amount of water you give your succulent too drastically, even if you do not see quick results.
This process is gradual but effective.
Change the Temperature
Using temperature to stress your succulent is the most difficult method you could use to try to change its color. After all, we can not control the weather. So this method is the one you could choose if you want the one with the least effort.
The color of your succulents will naturally change as temperatures change throughout the year. All you have to do is watch it happen. However, you need to make sure that your succulents are never exposed to temperatures below freezing, as this will severely damage or kill them.
If you live in an area where temperatures drop below freezing in the winter months, it is advisable to bring your succulents inside during that time. Otherwise, your succulents should be perfectly happy being outside all year round.
How to Synthetically Change the Color of Your Succulents
You might often see brightly colored succulents in shops or plant nurseries and wonder how you can get yours to look like that too, but here is the thing, sometimes, those colors are not natural, and sometimes they may even be painted onto the succulent’s leaves.
This paint is often toxic to the succulent and can cause them to die very quickly because they block the succulent’s pores and hinder the photosynthesis process, which is essential for a plant’s survival.
However, there is a way that you can synthetically alter a succulent’s color, and that is by using food coloring. It is not harmful to the plant and will ensure that your succulent stays brightly colored for quite some time as long as you do it right.
Before you do this, however, there are a few things you will need to do to ensure that the process is a success.
What you will need:
- Measuring Cup
- Mixing Cup
- Food Coloring
How to Color Your Succulent With Food Coloring
Dehydrate Your Succulent
Succulents are very good at filtering out anything in the water they are taking up that may be toxic to them. Thus, you will need to dehydrate them for long enough that they have used up some of the water in their roots, stems, and leaves. This way, they will be more receptive to taking up the colored water than they normally would.
Prepare Your Dye
Measure out half a cup of water and then pour it into your mixing glass. Add a few drops of your chosen color of food coloring to the water and mix them. The more food coloring you add, the more intense the color of the succulent will become.
Prepare Your Succulent
In order for your succulent to take up the colored water without filtering it, you will need to take it out of the soil and remove its roots. This way, you will be left with the stem and leaves of the succulent. Use a knife to gently cut the roots off of the stem without doing damage to the stem itself.
Dye Your Succulents
Now that the roots of the succulent have been cut off, it will not be able to filter the food coloring out of the water. Put the stem of the succulent into your colored water and stir the mixture around a bit to ensure it is properly mixed if it has been standing for a while. Let it sit in the water for about half a day or until it has soaked up the water in the glass.
Repot Your Succulent
Once your succulent has absorbed all of the colored water, it is time to repot it. You can get some succulent-specific potting soil from your local plant nursery or gardening shop. Put some potting soil into a pot. Then stick the stem of your succulent into the soil.
Fill the pot up the rest of the way or until there is enough soil to support the succulent. Do not compact the soil after you’ve put it into the pot. Succulents need a lot of drainage for water to run off.
Do Not Water Your Succulent for a Few More Days
It is recommended that you do not water it for a few more days after repotting it into the soil to ensure that the succulent absorbs the colored water into its leaves. This will ensure that all of the dye is absorbed into its leaves and will change their color.
Once you start to water it again, you will notice that the color will slowly start to fade away as the dye in the leaves becomes more and more diluted. You will also start to notice some new leaves growing as the succulent starts to root into the soil again and starts to photosynthesize again.
When coloring your succulents with food coloring, it is best to use rich colors like red, blue, and purple, as these will most likely yield the best results. This method of coloring your succulents will work a bit faster than the natural method, but it definitely will not kill your plant like painting it would. If you look after your succulent properly, it can even keep its color for quite some time.
Succulents are truly magnificent plants and can handle almost anything you throw at them. This means that you can play around with their environment to get them to change their colors.
Things like increasing or decreasing their sunlight exposure, decreasing their water intake, changing temperatures throughout the year, and food color dyeing can all change the color of a succulent. Have fun changing your succulents’ colors!