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When Watering Your Succulents is Overkill

Plant Parenthood

Erica Masini —  March 27, 2018 — 5 Comments

When I was a kid, one of my chores was to water all of the houseplants. Each day, I filled up the plastic watering can and padded around the house, filling each pot until it was almost overflowing. I loved listening for the faint trickle of water as it soaked through the soil. I sensed the plants were thirsty, and I liked knowing I was giving them a much-needed drink.

Cut to my adult apartment, one week after I brought home my first plant family, and two of my babies look frazzled. When I first set them on the kitchen windowsill they were healthy and strong, but now they’re, well…you be the judge.

aloe-hybrid

Aloe hybrid (before)

aloe-hybrid

Aloe hybrid (after)

echeveria-setosa

Echeveria setosa (before)

echeveria-setosa

Echeveria setosa (after)

I think water is the culprit.

Aloes and succulents are deceivingly tricky houseplants to care for. The others in my home—the prayer plant, spider plant, zz plant, and flamingo flower—look fine, by the way. But these two prefer drier soil; daily watering would be their worst nightmare. I was a new plant-mom, though, and wanted to give them a nice warm welcome.

So when I first got home, I drenched them both with water.

Maybe not the best idea.

Within a week, the aloe’s beautiful coral flowers had shriveled up and fallen off. In a panic, I wrote to Chicago Botanic Garden horticulturist Wade Wheatley and asked if I’d overdone it with my watering. He suggested it may just be the end of the aloe’s bloom cycle (their flowers bloom from winter to spring), and that it is completely natural for the blooms to fall. Phew!

The succulent, on the other hand, doesn’t seem normal. The bottom half of the leaves have dropped (some even fell off with the slightest touch), and what’s left of the leaves seem to be wilting and smushy. I remembered Wheatley saying that if a succulent’s leaves are soggy, it could mean they’re overwatered.

For a thorough diagnosis, I turned to Kathie Hayden, manager of the Garden’s Plant Information Service, the help center for all things plant-related.

Hayden fields all kinds of questions from visitors about diagnosing and treating their plants. After looking at my plant photos, here’s what she said:

“The only thing that I notice about the aloe is that the flowering has finished and the stem has turned brown. You can safely prune back the stem.”

“Echeveria plants (a large genus of succulents) appreciate average warmth from spring to autumn but cooler temperatures in winter. Try to place the plant in a cooler location for the winter, if possible. Echeveria require regular watering from spring to fall so you should water when the soil begins to dry out. You don’t want to use the same amount of water in the winter. Watering the plant every one to two months should suffice. If you’ve been watering more frequently, this may be the reason for fewer leaves that are lighter in color. Let the soil dry out a little and hopefully the plant will begin to develop new growth. A south-facing window is good location to keep the plant, but you may want to provide some shade during the summer months. There is no need for additional humidity. It will also benefit from a little fresh air in the summer.”

The verdict? The succulent is probably overwatered. I’ll prune back my aloe, leave the succulent alone for a month, and move it to a shadier window.  

Remember, there are no hard and fast watering rules. But with a few simple guidelines, you can keep your plants alive and healthy. To sort out the facts, contact Plant Information Service at (847) 835-0972 or plantinfo@chicagobotanic.org.

Watering Lessons 101

  • Not all plants are created equal. Some houseplants need constant moisture, and some survive on drought. Research the specific care instructions for your plant and give it the amount and frequency of water it needs.
  • Make sure your container has drainage holes. If it doesn’t, moisture can get trapped in the soil and prevent oxygen from reaching the roots, leading to root rot.
  • Soak the entire root ball. When watering, make sure you do so until it leaks out of the drainage holes. This ensures the entire root system has been watered. (Note: “Usually, plants that are root-bound have problems because water rolls off and down the sides of the pot and doesn’t penetrate the root ball. If roots have dried up, you are probably looking at dead roots,” said Hayden.)

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

We recently toured the Greenhouses with Boyce Tankersley, director of living plant documentation, to see what’s in bloom and take in the different climates visitors can enjoy.

In the Arid Greenhouse, we saw a number of species of aloe from South Africa just coming into bloom as well as cacti and succulents.

In the Tropical Greenhouse, we were surrounded by palms and cycads while we admired the many orchids in bloom. Tankersley pointed out the acanthus cultivar (Aphelandra sinclairiana ‘Panama Queen’) native to Panama and Costa Rica, as one of his favorites. 

PHOTO: Panama Queen acanthus (Aphelandra sinclairiana 'Panama Queen')

The Semitropical Greenhouse was filled with blooms like pinkball dombeya (Dombeya wallichii). Native to East Africa and Madagascar, the genus is a highly sought-after ornamental in USDA Zones 9 and warmer.

PHOTO: Pinkball dombeya (Dombeya wallichii)

One of the rarest plants in our collections is Deppea splendens. Native to the mountains of western Mexico, this plant is extinct in the wild.

PHOTO: Deppea splendens

Visit our What’s in Bloom highlight page each week — twice a week during the summer bloom season — to learn more about the different plants in bloom. Then, come out to see them in person for their fragrance and the humidity of the warmer greenhouse climates.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

In this video, Boyce Tankersley takes us on a tour of what’s in bloom in the three Greenhouses in the Regenstein Center. We’ll learn about carnivorous plants, a Sago Palm and some giant aloe plants. He also shows us a plant that blooms outdoors even in winter. Visit http://www.chicagobotanic.org/inbloom for more information.

Here at the Chicago Botanic Garden, we’re trying to make winter a little brighter and a little warmer. In The Greenhouses of the Regenstein Center, visitors can escape to a desert oasis and see aloes in bloom. They can feel the humidity of the tropics in the tropical greenhouse. They can even smell the fragrances of the temperate regions and see some interesting carnivorous plants! Sharon Nejman, Senior Horticulturist, takes us on a tour to show us what’s in bloom in each of the different climates we have recreated. Visit chicagobotanic.org/inbloom for more information on what’s in bloom at the Chicago Botanic Garden.