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Saving Succulents | Part 1

Published on June 4th 2020
A close up of a flower
There is something fascinating about a succulent’s ability to stay alive. Nonetheless, you might commiserate with me that even the hardiest of plants can be killed. If you have spotted a problem then you are already one step closer to being a good plant parent.
This article is aimed at guiding you through the process of saving your succulent. First and foremost, one needs to try and make a backup of your prized possession in case the attempt to rescue your mother plant fails.
A plant growing in a piece of cake on a plate
Cuttings should be healthy tissue that has no sign of dicoloration or spots.

How to make a backup: cuttings

Always have a backup in place when you approach a sick plant. If you are a collector then you have, undoubtedly, cut an unaffected stem or leaf to keep as a backup in case your plant does not make it.
The ideal is to have a large enough section that rooting can occur without the cutting dying. If you are unsure about what part of the plant can be used for propagation, go to the Search tab to find your plant and read more about its propagation in its profile. If you don't know your plant's name, then you can always make use of the Plant ID function.
To learn more about leaf propagation, check out the how-to guide below.
A close up of a succulent

Grow succulents from leaf cuttings

Propagating succulents from leaf cuttings is a simple and easy way to increase your favourite plants. This step-by-step tutorial will show you how. Note: some species propagate faster than others and a few succulents won’t propagate from leaves at all. For example, species in the genus Aeonium are extremely difficult to propagate from leaves, instead, these are better propagated from stem cuttings.

Cinnamon contains a natural antifungal compound.

Growth hormone or antifungal?

Succulents will need a period to repair the cut site i.e. creating a callus. The open tissue is prone to bacterial and fungal infections, which is why it is advisable to apply antimicrobial compounds to minimise the risk.
If you want to use readily accessible household products then cinnamon powder is ideal for it contains a natural antifungal. An old horticultural equivalent is sulfur powder, which mimics a plant's natural immune system. Alternatively one can make use of commercial hormone powders that contain antifungal components for this purpose.
Why sulfur? Some plants produce sulfur-based compounds as a form of an immune response against fungal infections.
Is rooting hormone (RH) necessary? No, most succulent species will root without rooting hormone and the addition of a rooting hormone will not necessarily speed up the process. A multitude of hormones exist in the natural world and with some plants, the process of rooting may be concentration-dependent.
When is RH important? An exception is if you have a caudiciform succulent (e.g. Thick foot) with a woody appearance, then it might benefit you to apply rooting hormone to the cut site. In such a situation it is best to approach rerooting cautiously.
Choosing the right mix will help reduce watering mistakes down the line.

Which propagation method should I use?

Water-based propagation is the easiest way to stimulate new growth; however, succulents that suffered from bacterial or fungal infection are more likely to develop the same problem. Detrimental microbes tend to flourish in a wet environment therefore it is best to propagate using a well-aerated mix.
Soil-based propagation is another option for succulents. Soil contains a vast amount of bacterial and fungal colonies that grow well under humid/wet conditions, therefore sterilising soil is an important component.
For a discussion on soil sterilisation see the post below.
Coir/Peat plugs: You might have bought succulents in ‘plugs’ that have predefined amounts of coir/peat mixed with perlite and slow-release fertiliser in them. Large-scale growers optimise the combination for fastest growth under specific watering/light conditions. These conditions can be difficult to match outside of a greenhouse environment leading to over- or underwatering. A similar mix can be used in some instances; however, species such as Stapeliads will benefit from a grittier mix.
Aerated mixes contain supplements such as pumice/perlite/Akadama that have a higher success rate when paired with the right species. The constituents are ideal for root formation and allow better air circulation.
A glass cup on a table
Perlite has a very low density and tends to float to the top of a soil mix.

What is the difference between Akadama, Pumice, Perlite and LECA?

You need an aerated medium, but there are so many options to choose from. Do you really need them and are they that different?
The short answer is, yes they are different in that their physical makeup differs and therefore their capabilities vary (e.g. water/elemental exchange). Some may even advise a mixture of all of the above.
A quick comparison:
Availability: (subject to region)
Perlite > LECA > Pumice > Akadama
Price: (subject to region)
Perlite/LECA > Pumice > Akadama
Density (lowest = floats):
Perlite/LECA <Pumice <Akadama
Water retention: Akadama
The use of Akadama as an amendment is due to its ability to retain water in a coarser soil mix whilst allowing room for root development. It will break down at different rates depending on the original hardness and size. The smaller the particle size, the more water it will hold.
A bag of akadama on a table
Akadama and Pumice can be purchased from online providers such as Bonsai Tree (Pty).

Care and treatment

Your succulent will need a different soil mixture as its roots mature. The reason behind the use of Akadama is due to its ability to evolve with the succulent as the roots develop e.g. it breaks down and holds more water with age. You can get by without the amendments by simulating the plants' natural habitat of sandstone, quartz or slate environments and adjusting your watering schedule to the mix you use.
Tip | Note that the succulents you have may be acclimated to a different climate than what you are keeping them in and that you will need to adjust your watering schedule accordingly.
Tip | Watering with a dropper or syringe will stop you from soaking your plant in too much water.
With your backup in place, you can turn your attention to your sick plant with a lighter heart knowing that you will hopefully have something to fall back on. Remember that you might have to repeat this process with the mother plant in some cases so it is good practice.
If you have any advice for fellow gardeners feel free to leave them in the comment section!
Soil amendments on top of a table
A spread of the commonly available amendments and soil.
Lewis, H. (2020, 30 April). Rooting Haworthia. Bonsai Tree.
Starling, R.J. and Dodds, J.H. (1983). Tissue-culture propagation of cacti and other succulents. Bradleya (1), 84-90.

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