What Is Etiolation: Learn About Etiolation Plant Problems

By: Amy Grant

Sometimes, a plant will become spindly, colorless andgenerally listless not because of disease, lack of water or fertilizer, but dueto an entirely different problem; an etiolation plant problem. What isetiolation and why does it occur? Read on to learn about etiolation in plantsand how to stop etiolation plant problems.

What is Etiolation?

Etiolation in plants is a natural phenomenon and is simply aplant’s way of reaching for a light source. If you have ever started seedswithout sufficient lighting, then you have seen how the seedlings grow ratherspindly with a long abnormally thin, pale stem. This is an example of etiolationin plants. We generally know it as plantlegginess.

Etiolation is the result of hormones called auxins. Auxinsare transported from the actively growing tip of the plant downwards, resultingin the suppression of lateral buds. They stimulate proton pumps in the cellwall which, in turn, increases the acidity of the wall and triggers expansin,an enzyme that weakens the cell wall.

While etiolation increases the chances that a plant willreach light, it results in less than desirable symptoms. Etiolation plantproblems such abnormal lengthening of stems and leaves, weakened cell walls,elongated internodes with fewer leaves, and chlorosismay all occur.

How to Stop Etiolation

Etiolation happens because the plant is desperatelysearching for a light source, so to stop etiolation, give the plant more light.While some plants need more than others, nearly all plants need sunlight.

Sometimes, no action is needed and the plant will reach thelight source undamaged. This is especially true of plants that are under leaflitter or in the shade of other plants. They may naturally grow tall enough togo through the physiological and biochemical changes that occur when the planthas sufficient light after a period of insufficient light.

Of course, if you are concerned about leggyplants in the garden, clear out any leaf detritus that is coveringthe plant and/or prune back competing plants to allow for more sun penetration.

This natural process is called de-etiolation and is thenatural transition of underground seedling growth to above ground growth.De-etiolation is the plant’s response to adequate light, thus photosynthesisis achieved and results in several changes in the plant, most notably greeningup.

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How can I tell the difference between etiolation and a sunburn?

I'm attempting to grow plants from seed during the winter, by using a desk lamp and a timer to simulate 12 hour days. Since I know sprouts require a lot of light, I placed the desk lamp such that the bulb is about 2 inches (5cm) away from the soil. The bulb is a 60W incandescent.

Unfortunately, there's something wrong with the one surviving sprout. The leaves are yellowed, with tinges of brown at the edges. The plant still engages in heliotropic behavior - that is, a few hours after moving the lamp, the leaves have moved to face the bulb. The plant is a Sweet Basil.

I've never tried this before, so it's hard to tell if a) the bulb is too hot too close, and is burning the plant or b) the bulb is too dim, and the plant cannot complete sufficient photosynthesis. A Google image search shows leaves with this coloration for both etiolated and sunburned plants.

How can I tell if the plant is etiolated or sunburned? Alternatively, in this specific case, is it burned or etiolated?


Succulents prefer bright light when kept indoors or out, and should get at least six hours of sunlight a day. You can watch their leaves for an indication that the light exposure level you're giving them is correct—some species will scorch if suddenly exposed to too much direct sunlight, while others will have leaves that turn brown or white as the plant bleaches out and the soft tissues are destroyed.

On the other hand, an under-exposed succulent will begin to stretch, with an elongated stem and widely spaced leaves in a condition known as etiolation. The solution to this issue is to provide the plant with a better light source and prune the plant back to its original shape.

Succulents should be potted in a fast-draining mixture that's specifically designed for cacti and succulents. If you don't have access to a specialized mix, consider modifying a normal potting mix with an inorganic agent such as perlite to increase aeration and drainage.

You can also choose to pot your succulents in a terra cotta or clay planter to help with soil drainage. The porous nature of the materials will help to wick away moisture from the soil and help your succulents avoid root rot.

All About Lithops

A mixture of lithops plants. Source: .eOLe.

Lithops are fascinating little succulents. The living stone plant is very sensitive to the seasons of the year, but can live for decades. Further, many species flower in the fall, which can be a great burst of light color amidst all the oranges and reds of the season.

Let’s explore the life cycle of the lithops succulent plant in more detail now, and then go over some of the most common varieties.

Lithops Lifecycle

When one looks at a lithops, all that’s visible above the ground’s surface is usually a pair of fleshy, succulent leaves that look like stones, with a crevice between them. The majority of the plant is beneath the soil surface.

These succulents have window-like cells on the leaf surfaces that allow light deep into the plant to aid in photosynthesis. The main taproot is the most important for the plant’s survival, but a series of finer roots also helps draw in extra nutrition when needed.

Lithops flower in the late autumn or early winter generally, although some species flower in the spring or early summer. A single flower will be pushed up from the crevice between the pair of leaves. However, only plants older than 3 years (and sometimes 5 years) will produce flowers.

The lithops flower is daisy-like in appearance, and depending on the species can be anywhere from a half-inch to an inch and a half in diameter. It can be orange, white, or pale yellow. Some have a scent which is described as spicy-sweet.

These flowers will open in the early afternoon to soak in sunlight and allow for pollination, and then will close in the late afternoon before dusk. As lithops is not self-pollinating, they are reliant on insect pollinators or humans to produce seed.

When the lithops flower fades, the center forms a seed capsule. This capsule does not open unless it’s been moistened, but once it does, rain droplets can cause seeds to bounce out of the capsule and land up to a foot away from the parent plant.

As the lithops seed capsule dries again, it will naturally close to protect any remaining seeds inside. If you are trying to harvest lithops seeds, you can simulate rain by using a dropper to drip water on the seed capsule until it reopens and then remove the fine seeds.

After flowering has concluded, the plant will go dormant. During this time, it starts to form a new body. When it begins to grow again, the new leaf pair will emerge from the crevice between the old leaves.

Over time, the plant will draw its moisture and nutrients from the old leaves, transferring it to the new pair. The older leaves will thin out. Once they’ve become paper-thin and are devoid of their moisture, they can be removed to reveal the new plant body.

Lithops may grow in size by creating two leaf pairs instead of a single pair, and can gradually expand to become a clump of small plants.

Types of Lithops

It’s estimated that there are at least 37 species of lithops, and around 145 varieties. More varieties are regularly discovered or bred by hybridization.

While we’re not going to cover every possible lithops species today, here’s some of the most popular houseplant varieties.

Lithops aucampiae

Lithops aucampiae. Source: Dornenwolf

Named after Juanita Aucamp, the woman who discovered this species, Lithops aucampiae originates in South Africa. It naturally grows in sandstone, chert, quartzite and ironstone-based soils, but can be grown in most sandy, extremely well-draining soils.

Most of this species of living stones tends to be in the red to red-brown range colorwise, and they produce bright to pale yellow flowers. It is one of the species which most tolerates occasional incorrect watering, making it extremely popular amongst gardeners.

Lithops dorotheae

Lithops dorotheae. Source: LeveL6.de

Another South African species, this one was discovered by Dorothea Huyssteen, leading to its naming. Naturally growing on feldspar, sheared quartz and quartzite, it can adapt to other grit-filled soils as well.

This species has a creamy pale green coloring with a brown or darker green leaf surface, mottled with cream-colored speckles. It produces a yellow flower annually.

Lithops fulviceps

Lithops fulviceps. Source: Zruda

Originating in Namibia, lithops fulviceps prefers rocky areas and cold desert regions. It naturally prefers quartzite-heavy environments, although it can live on limestone slopes too.

In coloration, the sides of the leaves are a greyish-green or yellowish hue with orange, brown, green, and sometimes cream-colored mottled upper surfaces. The leaf shapes are very similar to kidney beans as they divide to flower, but form a neat oval when not flowering.

Lithops fulviceps produces a white or yellow flower depending on the cultivar.

Lithops hookeri

Lithops hookeri. Source: dcarvalho

Preferring quartzite and lava rock to grow on with some limestone, lithops hookeri is another South African stone plant. It can grow quite large for a living stone plant with leaf sizes nearing 2″ across at their widest point. Normally growing singly, it can form clumps of up to 10 leaf pairs.

The upper surface of its leaves can range from brownish to red or pink tones, occasionally picking up bits of orange. The sides of the leaves are often a dull grey or greyish-brown, almost terracotta tone. Its flowers are usually bright yellow.

Lithops karasmontana, ‘Karas Mountains Living Stone’

Lithops karasmontana. Source: graftedno1

Depending on species, lithops karasmontana will either mimic the grey and brown hues of local quartzite stones, or will develop a brilliant red-orange upper leaf in some varieties like var. laricheana. The sides are uniformly grey with a tinge of brown.

Its name refers to the Karas Mountains in its native Namibia, but it can also be found in South Africa proper. It produces a brilliant white flower with a yellow center.

Lithops lesliei, “Lesliei Living Stone’

Lithops lesliei var. marine. Source: mcgrayjr

Found naturally in Botswana and parts of South Africa, the lesliei living stone is the only lithops-type plant found in its natural environment. The species is incredibly variable in terms of color, ranging from pale green all the way to a rust or coffee coloration on the leaves.

It often camouflages itself to match the color of the soil around it, making it difficult to see, and it rarely rises more than a couple milimeters above the soil’s surface to further disguise itself. The yellow-flowered plants are often harvested for medicinal use in South Africa.

Lithops localis, ‘Lithops terricolor’

Lithops localis. Source: Harald52

A species which can tolerate poor watering habits, lithops localis tends to be a uniform grey or green-grey color across most of its surface. Speckles of a darker grey hue dapple the flat top of the leaves.

Indigenous to the southern Karoo region of South Africa, it often grows amongst rocks and shading shrubs as a way to disguise itself from animals that might eat it. Its natural environment gets most of its rainfall during the summer months, and thus it tends to flower in the fall.

Lithops optica

Lithops optica var. rubra. Source: Dornenwolf

Another Namibian species, lithops optica lives in an area which gets winter rainfall, making it one of the few varieties adapted to winter watering. The most popular variety of this plant is Lithops optica var. rubra, which is purplish-pink across its entire surface.

The thin-petaled flowers tend to be yellow or white and have very slender petals. While the Rubra variety is brilliantly colored, most other optica species plants tend to be grey to grey-brown in coloration, with a very rounded shape.

Lithops pseudotruncatella, ‘Truncate Living Stone’

Lithops psuedotruncatella. Source: munnibee

From southwestern Africa, the truncate living stone is very distinctive. Its exterior leaf walls tend towards an even grey tone, but the upper leaf surfaces are dappled with cream, olive green and rust hues.

One of the few species which is regularly subject to mealybug attack, the truncate living stone is otherwise a sturdy and long-lasting species of lithops. In its natural environment, it often lasts for months without any water at all, simply absorbing moisture from the air around it.

Lithops ruschiorum

Lithops ruschiorum var. ruschiorum.Source: Dornenwolf

Off-white, grey, or tan in coloration, this particular living stone plant looks very much like a living rock. Some varieties are a pure cream color, where others range between tan or grey with darker stone-like streaking.

Namibia is home to this particular living stone as well, and it lives most often in cold desert or rocky regions in the wild.

Lithops salicola, ‘Salt-Dwelling Living Stone’

Lithops salicola. Source: Dornenwolf

The salt-dwelling living stone takes its name from the mineral-rich environment in which it naturally occurs. It can be found in both Namibia and South Africa, and is somewhat tolerant to incorrect watering practices.

While it can’t tolerate freezes, the grey to grey-green leaves are more tolerant of dry cool temperatures than some. It produces a bright white or yellow flower in the late summer to early fall. This species has been given the Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society.

Lithops verruculosa

Lithops verruculosa. Source: Wikimedia Commons

One of the more recognizable species, this living stone often develops distinctive red warts on its surface. Different cultivars can take on different colorations ranging from reddish in hue to a gray-green tone with the red warting.

The “Rose of Texas” variety produces pink-tinged flowers, where other verruculosa species produce white or yellow flowers. It originates in South Africa.

Lithops viridis, ‘Green-Rock Plant’

Lithops viridis. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The green-rock plant originates in a very small portion of the Northern Cape area of South Africa, and is extremely uniform in coloration. The sides are greyish-pink, grey-green, or pure grey with an upper surface that is a dark grey-green tone.

Producing yellow flowers with yellow or white centers, lithops viridis is often only seen in cultivation in botanical gardens. The more greenish specimens are some of the most prized, as they look like pale green-grey nubs rising from the gritty soil.

Watch the video: How to fix Etiolated stretched out SucculentsWhy they start to stretch and become lenky

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