The Survival of Succulents Without Water

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Succulents can grow in various environments, ranging from tropical rain forests to salty shores. Jackie Bale/Getty Images

Plants that can survive in extreme water scarcity are known as xerophytes, and among them are succulents. Succulents are a diverse group of plants that have adapted to make the most of every drop of water they can get. The difference between succulent plants and ordinary plants is not always clear, as all plants can survive short-term water scarcity, but succulents take this ability to the next level.

Although cacti are the most well-known succulents, there are many others in different plant families. Succulents can be found in a variety of environments, such as high-rise patches of moss or bark in tropical rainforests, mountainous regions with cold weather and rocky soil, and even on the shores of salty bodies of water. However, there are some regions where only the most resilient xerophytes can survive, and most succulents need at least a few inches of rain annually.

Succulents have the ability to store water in their stems, roots, or leaves, which is why they are named as such. Some succulents can store years’ worth of water for times of severe drought. Additionally, many succulents have specialized root systems that allow them to collect water from their environments. For example, in mountain regions, roots dig deep to access subterranean water sources, while on the plains, roots spread out broadly but remain shallow to catch any available moisture, such as morning dew.

Plants have to constantly battle to acquire all the nutrients they require to function properly. In addition to water, they also need sunlight and carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. The CO2 enters through diffusion, hence plants have a large number of pores called stomata to facilitate its entry. However, the sun is simultaneously providing them with the energy they need for photosynthesis and evaporating water through the exposed stomata, a process known as transpiration. This is a delicate balance to maintain, which is why succulents have developed a safety mechanism.

Most plant species are programmed to open their stomata widely when they sense particular triggers like sunlight. This is not a good idea for plants that are trained to avoid water loss. Although it temporarily maximizes photosynthesis, succulents do not have this luxury, which is why they are generally slow-growing plants. Succulents avoid this problem by opening their stomata at night, which reduces transpiration and retains water. This necessitated the development of a unique type of metabolism known as crassulacean acid metabolism (or CAM). This method allows plants to absorb CO2 at night and store it for photosynthesis the following day.

Another significant difference is that in regular plants, the stomata are like dense freeways, whereas, in succulents, they are no more than sparse two-lane country roads. This means that they open at more appropriate times and are smaller when they do. Additionally, succulent stomata are less numerous and are deep-seated in leaves and stems, often protected by a thick outer layer and other features such as waxes, resins, hairs, and needles that further reduce transpiration and retain water.

The shape of succulents is also crucial in their survival since they need to catch as much sunlight as possible without losing water. They often reduce their surface area, particularly in stem succulents, to minimize water loss. However, this also reduces the amount of sunlight they can absorb for photosynthesis. As a result, many succulents have unique shapes, such as rippled and ridged surfaces, crazy knobs, and lumpy protrusions. These extensions, as well as adaptations to the stems, increase their ability to process sunlight, enabling certain types of succulents to survive. The shape of succulents also varies depending on the amount of water they currently hold. They expand when water is abundant and contract when it is scarce. In some instances, ties with roots and other growths are severed when times get tough. Succulents cannot afford to get sentimental.

When talking about succulents, it’s important to understand how their adaptations to survive in areas with scarce water have affected them. Their unique metabolism, distinctive shapes, and low growth are some examples. Some succulents grow low to the ground to avoid harsh sunlight, while others prefer living in the shade. Succulents’ growth rate is also affected by their need for moisture to absorb nutrients from the soil. Unlike other plants, succulents grow slowly because of this. However, their slow growth works for them.

Protection is another crucial factor for succulents. They thrive where others don’t because they are like botanical water bottles. To defend themselves against the dehydrated masses, succulents have developed spines, spikes, thick armored skin, and sometimes poisonous juices. These measures also double up as rainwater collection devices. Self-propagation is another way that succulents ensure their survival.

Caring For Your Succulents

Succulents are easy to care for, but they have specific needs. Lighting is one of the most important needs. Most succulents require direct sunlight for three to six hours each day, depending on their type. If your succulent starts leaning, it may need to be placed in a sunnier spot. However, remember that succulents always lean toward the sun, so rotate them often. Too much direct sunlight can burn your plant, so filter the sunlight if you live in a hot climate. If you want to move your plant to a sunnier spot, transition it slowly for a couple of weeks to avoid sunburn.

To properly care for your succulent, it is important to water it correctly. Start by ensuring that your succulent is planted in a container with drainage holes to prevent rot. Terra cotta pots are a great option. Use cactus soil or a soil mixture with sand, pumice, or perlite to help with drainage. Water the soil until it runs out of the drainage hole, then wait a few days for the soil to dry out before watering again. Succulents do not like to have wet roots, so it is best to water them weekly, or more frequently if you live in a hot, dry climate. During winter, water less as succulents are dormant.

Temperature is also important for succulent health. While they can tolerate a wide range of temperatures, more delicate succulents should not be exposed to extremes. Keep your plants away from temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 C) or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 C).

Insects may also pose a threat to your succulent’s health. Gnats and mealy worms are the most common pests. Gnats thrive in soil that is too wet, so proper drainage is essential. Mealy worms may be present when you purchase a plant or due to overwatering and fertilizing. If you notice insects on your plant, spray the soil with 70 percent isopropyl alcohol to kill eggs and larvae. Keep infected plants away from others to prevent the spread of pests.

If you’re still having trouble with your succulents, consider choosing varieties that are better suited for indoor growing, such as jade or aloe vera. These varieties prefer low light or shade, while succulents with bright colors like red, purple, or orange require direct sunlight and may not do well indoors.

Additional Information

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Useful Links

  • British Cactus and Succulent Society
  • Cactus and Succulent Society of America


  • American Society for Microbiology. “Meet the Microbes: Archaea and Other Extremists.” (Oct. 30, 2008)
  • Architectural Digest. “How to Care for Succulents (And Not Kill Them): 9 Plant-Care Tips.” Sept. 12, 2018. (July 22, 2020)
  • Binns, Corey. “How Cacti Survive: Surprising Strategies Quench Thirst.” July 24, 2006 (Oct. 30, 2008)
  • British Cactus and Succulent Society. (Oct. 30, 2008)
  • Cactus and Succulent Society of America. (Oct. 30, 2008)
  • Cactus and Succulent Society of New Zealand. (Oct. 30, 2008)
  • Chidamian, Claude. “The Book of Cacti and Other Succulents.” Timber Press. 1984. (Oct. 30, 2008)
  • Encyclopedia Britannica. “Succulent.” (Oct. 30, 2008)
  • HGTV “Succulent Savvy.” (Oct. 30, 2008)
  • Raven, Peter et al. “Biology of Plants.” Worth Publishers. 1992. (Oct. 20, 2008)
  • Sunshine and Succulents. “Succulent Care: Tips For Healthy Plants.” (July 22, 2020)
  • Welch, Antoinette W. “Care of Non-Hardy Cacti & Succulents.” Cornell Cooperative Extension. July 1993. (July 22, 2020)


1. How often should I water my succulents?

It depends on the type of succulent and the climate you live in. Generally, succulents should be watered when the soil is completely dry. In hot, dry climates, this may mean watering every week or two, while in cooler, more humid climates, succulents may only need water every few weeks or even months.

2. Can succulents survive without water?

Yes, succulents are designed to store water in their leaves and stems, which allows them to survive long periods of drought. However, if a succulent goes too long without water, it may begin to wilt, turn yellow, or drop leaves, which can eventually lead to its death.

3. How long can succulents go without water?

This depends on the type of succulent and the conditions it is growing in. Some succulents, like cacti, can survive for months without water, while others may only be able to go a few weeks. As a general rule, it’s best to water your succulents when the soil is completely dry.

4. What happens if I overwater my succulents?

Overwatering can be just as harmful to succulents as underwatering. When succulents are overwatered, their roots can become waterlogged, which can lead to root rot and eventually kill the plant. Signs of overwatering include yellowing leaves, mushy stems, and a rotting smell.

5. Can I revive a succulent that has been underwatered?

If a succulent has been underwatered, it may be possible to revive it by giving it a thorough watering and allowing the soil to drain completely. However, if the plant has been severely dehydrated, it may not be able to recover.

6. How do I know if my succulent needs water?

You can tell if a succulent needs water by checking the soil moisture level with your finger. If the soil is completely dry, it’s time to water. You can also look for signs of dehydration, such as wilting leaves, yellowing, or dropping leaves.

7. How much water do succulents need?

Succulents don’t need a lot of water, but when you do water them, it’s important to water deeply enough to reach the roots. As a general rule, water until the soil is completely moist, but not waterlogged.

8. Can I water my succulents with tap water?

Yes, you can water your succulents with tap water, but be aware that some tap water contains high levels of minerals and chemicals that can build up in the soil over time. If you’re concerned about the quality of your tap water, you can use filtered or distilled water instead.

9. Should I mist my succulents?

No, misting is not recommended for succulents. Succulents are designed to absorb water through their roots, and misting can lead to shallow root growth and fungal disease.

10. Can I use a spray bottle to water my succulents?

No, it’s best to water succulents from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. This allows the water to reach the roots, which helps the plant grow strong and healthy. Watering from the top can lead to shallow root growth and fungal disease.

11. What should I do if my succulent is overwatered?

If your succulent has been overwatered, it’s important to remove it from the soil and allow the roots to dry out completely before replanting in fresh, well-draining soil. You may also need to trim away any dead or rotting parts of the plant.

12. What should I do if my succulent is underwatered?

If your succulent has been underwatered, it’s important to give it a thorough watering and allow the soil to drain completely. You may also want to mist the leaves to help the plant recover its moisture.

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