Beheading Succulents

Beheading Succulents

To chop, or not to chop? Beheading succulents is a very handy skill, and in my opinion, the second coolest thing about them. The first being the ability of many varieties to grow an entire new plant from a single leaf. Oh leaf propagation, how I love thee.

Beheading a succulent is exactly what it sounds like; chopping off the main head of a rosette style succulent from its stem. But why?! Below are situations where chopping or beheading is beneficial.

I preface all of my advice with the following: I am not a botanist nor a horticulturalist. My formal education consists of graphic design and photography. What I am is an avid, experienced succulent collector who is enthusiastic about plant care. My goal is to provide advice to the four season succulent gardeners, those of us who can not grow outside year round. 

Reasons to Behead a Succulent

Correction: to start over an etiolated (eh tee ow lay tuhd) succulent. Etiolation is when the lack of sufficient light has caused significant space between each leaf or set of leaves. The stem has grown faster than the new leaves in an effort to be closer to the light source. 

Reproduction: when you want more succulent babies faster. Chopping the crown will signal to the stem to push out babies. This method is not fool proof though- sometimes you will get one or two babies, every now and then you will get 10+ and sometimes... none.

Infestation: when you are fighting a losing battle with pests, sometimes you need to know when to call it, chop a head and move on.

Aesthetics: some collectors prefer their succulents small and compact in lovely little planters. This is personally not my style, I prefer the 'grow baby grow' motto, but to each their own.

Survival: stem rot, root rot, rot of any kind. It's deadly, and once it sets in on a succulent, can move fast. If you notice a dark, pinched or collapsed stem, leaves that fall off easily with black at their node, you likely have rot. If you notice early enough and chop fast enough you can often save the rosette.

An example os stem rot on a succulent

How to Chop (Behead):

Beheading for all situations: preforming a head chop or beheading for any of the five reasons I listed above is similar in technique. 
Wait until your succulent is ready for a good, deep watering, then give it 2-3 days to fill out. Unless of course it is a beheading due to rot then skip this step and take immediate action. (example photo is of a succulent with stem rot. It was caught in time and the chopped crown has rooted and is thriving.)
You will need a good, sharp, sterilized knife. Some growers use scissors, some seasoned pros use floss, I prefer my paring knife. It’s thin, it’s sharp and easy to hold. Choose a spot along the stem that will give you a half inch to an inch to replant. You may need to remove a couple of leaves to make it easier. Once you have made your slice, check the stem to ensure the cross section looks healthy. If the answer is yes, set your newly chopped head aside in bright light to callous. If there are any dark or questionable spots continue to slice thinly until it looks healthy.
The thicker the stem the longer I leave it to callous. Unless your reason for beheading was rot or pests, the stem can now be left planted and cared for as a regular succulent. Within weeks you will start to see tiny buds of new babies popping up. In the meanwhile, replant your calloused crown. I personally wait a few weeks to water to be safe. 

Next, let’s discuss in more detail the most common reason to behead a succulent: correction (etiolation).

Etiolation- It happens to all of us, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere. Similar to when my son has a growth spurt and suddenly pants that I swear fit him yesterday are mid-calf today. Yikes- when did that happen?!
What we need to first acknowledge is some succulents are meant to be trailing. Beyond the string varieties (string of pearls, string of dolphins etc) there are a great number of succulents who grow a wild, gnarly stem and are on-point. So how do we tell the difference? Long stems with a compact rosette on the end= perfect! These generally don't need to be supported or propped up; their stem naturally grows thicker as needed to support the weight and length. 
Etiolated succulents have a bottom set of leaves, then a space, more leaves, then a space- you get the idea. Large gaps between sets of leaves and often in need of support or being propped up.
Although it may feel like it happened suddenly, there are warning signs it will etiolate before it actually happens. First, your succulent will lose its vibrant colours. True, this often happens inside over winter, and we do what we can to keep them compact and wait for longer, sunshine-filled days. But reverting to green or becoming dull is the first sign it is thinking about stretching.
Next it will noticeably start leaning towards the strongest light source. After it has tried these tricks, the lower leaves will turn down, in an attempt to increase the surface area available to take in light. Finally, it will grow up up and away, creating space between each leaf. This is the point you might be temped to get out a stick to support it. Some growers even say 'it’s fine, this is how I like it!' In many varieties, this is the point your succulent might put out aerial roots to support itself in the event it snaps. They are so much more clever than we give them credit for.
If you have caught it stretching out before it gets wildly out of control, you can try correcting its light source first, meeting its needs and making the new growth strong and healthy before you behead. I've done this many times, but in the end, they all get the same chop. Why? Ultimately an etiolated succulent is in declining health. Weak succulents are more susceptible to pests and other issues. To leave them as is will result in an easily avoidable, premature death.
Have no fear, thats why I wrote this blog. Once you've got the hang of beheading, you'll be quick to declare "off with her head!"

Do you want to know more or gain clarification on any points in this blog? Leave a comment or email me at jessica@leafandchick.com

If you are looking to start a succulent collection or add variety, check out my succulent cutting boxes!

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