What is Cactus Etiolation
& How to Fix this Awful Issue

Does one of your cacti look stretched out toward the sun? This is etiolation and whether you believe it or not, you could fix it easily before it gets worse!

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Kelly Adams

July 04, 2021

What is Cactus Etiolation & How to Fix this Awful Issue Thumbnail

What is Etiolation?

Cacti are one of the easiest plants to maintain. I have many cactus varieties at my home, and they looked stunning until I started noticing that some of them were displaying problems.

Etiolation is caused by insufficient lighting. The signs of an etiolated cactus included tall and skinny inner growth rather than outward and a pale discoloration. Moving the cactus to a brightly lit spot with sufficient sunlight will fix etiolation.

Etiolated Cactus

An etiolated cactus becomes skinnier because it tries to reach out to the sun due to a lack of sunlight. The quickest fix for etiolation is to move your cactus to a brightly lit spot. But you’ll have to make this transition very gently.

All plants may suffer from etiolation; it is not an issue for cacti and succulents exclusively. 

No matter how much fertilizer you give to your plants or cacti, it will not fix etiolation. This issue can only be resolved with sunlight, as that is what plants need for photosynthesis. 

Without sufficient sunlight, your cacti will be unable to produce its nutrients from oxygen, carbon dioxide, water, and even the minerals it obtains from fertilizer. 

What are some visible signs of etiolation?

Other than discoloring, there are a few other signs of an etiolated cactus you should look out for:

  • The stems become thinner
  • The space between leaves gets wider
  • New cacti baby plants and leaves will grow very slowly and usually stay very tiny
  • However, growth toward the direction of the sunlight will be swift
  • If you have a flowering cactus, it will not produce flowers until it is correctly exposed to sunlight.
  • An etiolated cactus that is close to death will begin to bend and wither.
  • Multiple parts of the cacti would begin to reach upward, and if the plant is close to dying, it would also bend.
  • Most cacti species need approximately 6 to 8 hours of sunlight for proper growth.

What is the science behind etiolated plants discoloring?

Etiolated cacti discolor into a pale yellow because they use all of their energy to stretch upward in the direction of the sun. Hence, an etiolated cactus will lose its lush green color due to being unhealthy.


Check your cactus for brown spots!

Are brown spots showing on your cactus? These spots are a sign that you’re shifting to sufficient sunlight conditions too fast.

The lack of chlorophyll production gradually discolors the green cactus until it begins to turn yellow. In extreme cases, the plant would also lean toward a faded brown.


Examine your cactus regularly!

The easiest way is to check the color of your cactus. If it gets turned to a very dark brown shade, it will be sunburnt to the point from where damage is irreversible.

Are some cacti more likely to get etiolated than others? 

Yes, it is more probable for desert cacti to etiolate as they have very high sunlight requirements. Moving to shaded and dimly lit places would be a sudden shift to the environment, to which they would react sensitively. 

How to Fix Etiolation

It's best to start fixing etiolation from the moment you spot it!

Exposing to sufficient sunlight is the only way to fix an etiolated cactus.

An etiolated cactus plant will start developing correctly once it has enough sunlight to thrive. Do keep in mind that since an etiolated cactus has been craving the sun, it may also have different watering needs. With more sunlight and an open environment, water is more likely to evaporate faster.

Which spot is perfect for your etiolated cactus?

You need to handle your etiolated cactus very carefully!

The perfect spot for an etiolated cactus has moderate sunlight intensity, without the potential danger of your cactus getting sunburnt.

A window that faces South has sufficient sunlight for cacti. But remember that adequate sunlight may also cause sunburns. So you’ll have to make sure that your cactus is only getting the required sunlight instead of getting overexposed. 

Here are a few signs to look out for to protect your cactus from sunburns:

  • An indoor cactus may react sensitively when placed outdoors due to a sudden change in the environment.
  • You should rotate your plant and not leave it in the sunlight too often. Ideally, around 6 hours of sunlight is sufficient for all cacti species.
  • The main sign of sunburns is brown, rusty skin. If you see your cactus changing from green to brown, you should rotate it within the spot to evenly distribute the sunlight across the cactus.
  • It is best to move your indoor etiolated cactus to outdoor sunlight conditions over a few weeks.


Gradually move your indoor cactus outdoors!

A cactus is very sensitive to its environment. To avoid getting your indoor cactus burnt when shifting outdoors, be very gentle with the transition. Start by moving your cactus to a slightly lit area, and then slowly take it towards a greater lit spot.

Do the water requirements of an etiolated cactus change?

You may need to water an etiolated cactus differently!

To fix an etiolated cactus, you’ll need to move it to a brighter spot, which will also result in dehydration. Dehydration means that your cactus would need more watering since most of the water would dry out due to excessive sunlight.

  • Even if your plant is dehydrating, the soil mix and pot should be well-drained
  • Keep the watering thorough but infrequent

Keep in mind the sunlight and water requirements of different cacti before proceeding with regular light and watering care. 

Should you move around the plant too often?

If you move your cacti many times and put them in different spots, they’re more likely to get etiolated. This mainly happens because of the various lighting conditions at many places.

Once a plant becomes habitual of the environment, it may take a while for it to get accustomed to its new surroundings.

How should you propagate an etiolated cactus?

All you need is a sterilized, sharp knife to propagate your cactus!

The best way to propagate an etiolated cactus is to cut out the parts that are stretching upward, toward the direction of the sun.

It is best to propagate a cactus during the Spring season. 

  • Choose a symmetrical cactus section
  • Leave the cutting to form a scar
  • Place the cutting into the soil
  • Don’t do anything to your newly planted cutting.
  • A cactus usually needs 2 to 3 weeks to develop roots
  • You can start watering your etiolated cactus after a week (you can restrict it to misting the soil just in case your cactus hasn’t developed roots!)
  • After its first week, continue giving minimal water regularly each week.


You can use rooting hormones!

Have you ever used a rooting hormone? It is a substance that’s good for covering the roots of the new cuttings.

Could grow lights be used to fix etiolation?

What if you don’t have enough sunlight to fix your etiolated cactus?

Etiolated cacti plants can be fixed using growing lights.

If you don’t have spots at home to shift your etiolated cactus, you can use grow lights instead. These are artificial lights used as substitutes for indoor plants that don’t get sunlight due to infrastructure circumstances.

You should grow lights if you live in a place:

  • Where the weather is cloudy primarily
  • Where there is more winter than summer, hence resulting in less sunlight and warmth
  • Where the days are shorter than nights, so it’s dark most of the time.


Place the grow lights properly!

You should fix the grow lights on top of the cactus. If you place them on either side, your plant will start growing sideways.

The Final Verdict on Etiolation

Hence, etiolation is a condition that happens to any plant when it’s not getting the sunlight it requires. So, for example, a cactus that suffers from etiolation would start growing upward to reach more sunlight, rather than growing outward and developing fully and adequately.

An etiolated cactus would become bent and need more sunlight. For most cacti, around 6 to 8 hours of daylight is sufficient. When shifting your indoor cactus outside, do it gradually to avoid your cactus plant from reacting sensitively. It’s best to keep rotating the cactus (slowly) to avoid sunburns.

So it’s possible to fix an etiolated cactus but don’t worry if it doesn’t return to its normal condition and appearance immediately. Instead, give it some time to recover from the lack of sunlight.

If you’re eager to learn more about cactus care, you’ll love to read this post on how to take care of cacti plants!

How to take care of Cacti Plants? Every Essential Question Answered

Cacti are a popular succulent choice. And even though they prfer dry atmosphere, you have to take good care of them!

Kelly Adams Picture

By Kelly Adams

Easy Succulents Founder

My name is Kelly and I'm the the founder of Easy Succulents! I'm fascinated by this wonderful plants and I want to share with the world everything I know about them!

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Kelly Adams Picture

Kelly Adams

Easy Succulents Founder

My name is Kelly and I'm the the founder of Easy Succulents! I'm fascinated by this wonderful plants and I want to share with the world everything I know about them!



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