It’s almost spring, and the unseasonably warm weather has my plants all confused. I’ve got a new basal shoot on my nepenthes, my cacti are putting out new growth, my pothos and aloe are threatening to take over my apartment… So, even though it’s a bit early still, I figured now was a good time to take inventory and see who’s going to need some pruning and re-potting. Unfortunately, it looks like the lack of winter sunlight has left some of my younger plants in a bit of a state, and they’re going to need some “fixing.”
Why is fixing in scare quotes? Well, unfortunately, once a plant is etiolated, there’s really no going back. A stretched-out echeveria is not going to become a neat, compact rosette again, no matter what you do for it.
That doesn’t mean all hope is lost, though.
Let me start from the beginning.
What is etiolation?
Etiolation, in simple terms, is when a plant gets weirdly tall because of a lack of sunlight. Plants have evolved to stretch out to get more sun, but this isn’t really a good sign — outdoors, in nature, etiolation is a survival mechanism that allows plants to reach past obstacles and get the light they need to survive. Indoors, where there might not be enough sun no matter how much a plant stretches, it’s a sign that conditions aren’t right and the plant is stressed.
It’s usually most notable in compact, rosette plants like echeveria and some graptopetalum. In others, it can be very easy to mistake etiolation for regular growth, at least in the beginning.
So, how do we fix it?
Even though etiolation is caused by a lack of sunlight, fixing it requires more than just moving plants to a sunnier window. (Don’t get me wrong — you’ll have to do that, too.) Once a plant’s stem is elongated and the leaves are all gapped like the babies above, there’s really no putting that horse back in the barn. Increasing the light will keep them from stretching out more, but they’ll still show signs of their period of etiolation.
If you want to get them back to their typical shape, there’s only one thing to do: cut off their heads.
The nice thing about many succulents is that they are super easy to propagate.
(I’ve got a graptopetalum that’s actually become a nuisance in this regard — it drops leaves if you so much as look at it too hard, and they will take root pretty much instantly for no reason at all. I’ve had grapto leaves that fell behind the shelf, with no soil or water, optimistically put out roots. It’s bonkers.)
So, the best way to get an etiolated plant back into shape is to find a) nice, plump, healthy-looking leaves to start fresh with, or b) an un-etiolated area to behead and re-root. In the picture above, I’ve cut away the still-compact middle of the rosette.
From there, all that’s needed is to put them in some clean, moist soil, and keep it moist so they don’t dry out. Some prefer to wait for the cut end to callous over to prevent infections, but I haven’t had a problem doing it this way. Some also prefer water propagation, but I’m not really a fan, myself. Cuttings, wet dirt, keep it wet, boom.
Lastly, I make a sort of ersatz greenhouse with a re-used plastic bag. It keeps the soil from drying out (and with warm weather and small containers, that doesn’t take very long).
Etiolation can be heartbreaking, especially if you’re blindsided by the fact that what appeared to be new growth was actually a sign of distress. But worry not! As long as you’re able to take cuttings from your plants and provide them with more light, you can still save them.