Etiolation in Cactus: What Is It? What Causes It? Most Importantly, How to Fix It

Etiolation in Cactus

Folks that grow cacti at home tend to obsess over their “spiky babies.”

Just ask Sheraz, ThePlantBible’s resident cactus and succulent expert.

These endearing desert plants are drought tolerant, low-maintenance and easy to care for. With almost 2,000 known species, there are plenty of unique shapes, sizes, colors and other unique features for growers to enjoy. Did you know there are edible varieties of cacti?

So when some of these special characteristics begin to fade or become distorted, it’s a real cause for concern for any cacti enthusiasts.

Sure, cacti can withstand pretty harsh conditions but they still have basic requirements that need to be fulfilled at the end of the day.

Your cactus might be deprived of its bare necessities if it begins to lose vigor, develop skinny appendages, or turn, lean or warp in a strange manner.

If this is the case, your cactus may be suffering from etiolation. Read on to find out what exactly etiolation is, what causes it and how to address the problem.

What Is Etiolation?

I have to admit, I had to look up the etiolation to grasp the precise definition. It’s an interesting word, derived from the French verb etioler, meaning “to make pale,” first recorded in the late 18th century.

Turns out, this fancy term is not just designated for plants but all life forms. When a living thing is deprived of the essential elements of health and prosperity, it becomes sick and feeble, ending up in a state of etiolation.

When cacti are in etiolation, it manifests in a few different ways:

  • Loss of color
  • Warped or turning stems
  • Losing its spines
  • Lack of flowering
  • Weak, sickly appearance

And when it comes to plants, cacti in particular, we can easily assume what the most crucial growing factor is.

You guessed it: Sunlight.

Lack of adequate sunlight will most assuredly cause etiolation in your cactus. But it’s not the only factor that can induce these unfortunate symptoms. Let’s take a look at all the possible causes of etiolation in cacti.

What Causes Etiolation in Cacti?

Insufficient light is the most common cause of etiolation. But it’s possible there are other factors contributing to the problem.

Not Enough Sun

Sunlight is the most critical source of energy and one of the three ingredients needed for all plants to make their own food and produce chlorophyll, which gives plants their green color.

Imagine a cactus in its native desert environment. There’s no chance it could ever be deprived of sunshine. But inside the home set in a shady place, cacti certainly will desire better access to light and consequently suffer if these needs aren’t met.

They quickly lose their vigor when light exposure is sub-optimal. It can be a struggle to grow cacti successfully in cold, cloudy northern regions with short days, especially during winter months.

Cactus in sunlight

Duration of Light Exposure

Cacti need at least 12 hours of light per day during the growing seasons of spring and summer. 14 or more is even better if you want to maximize stem development and flowering.

12-14 hours of light per day can be difficult to provide in some regions, especially in the early spring when the days are still short. Use grow lights to extend the day either in the morning or evening.

While lack of light is the most common cause of etiolation in cacti, these following factors tend to complicate the problem once it has begun.

Low Humidity

Frequent watering of cacti is not necessary, especially in winter months as they go dormant. If they’re already weak from the lack of sufficient light, low humidity in the air can dry out your cactus making it brittle and weak.

Excess Fertilizer

Cacti are pretty durable plants when it comes to fertility levels in the soil. Too much feeding can send them into shock and stunt their growth. Fertilize sparingly during when the days are long, and don’t feed at all during the dormancy of the short winter days.

Lack of Water

While cacti are quite capable of surviving in dry conditions, they still need water to live. So don’t ever let the roots and surrounding soil completely dry out.

And there are some varieties that require more water than others, so it’s good to know the variety you have and cater to its particular needs.

Overwatering, Rootbound Plants

Too much water is a more common problem for cactus growth than underwatering. During the winter months cacti should be watered sparsely. If roots are left standing in cool, damp soil it could spell disaster for thier health.

Plants that get rootbound should be potted up to larger containers. Crowded roots get smothered and don’t have access to proper air exchange. When there is little soil and a mass of roots in a pot it makes proper watering unmanageable. The soil is either too wet, or too dry and your cactus will suffer from these drastic swings in moisture.

Etiolation Symptoms

As noted above, etiolation presents itself a few different ways in cacti. Although there are various symptoms, etiolation is just one of those things that you know it when you see it. Read below the tell-tale signs of etiolation.

Discolored Vegetative Growth

Cacti will often begin to show this symptom before others. If you catch it early it’s easier to correct. Without access to enough light a cactus can’t photosynthesize properly to produce the necessary levels of chlorophyll, which give it the nice, dark green color. Etiolated stems

Discolored Vegetative Growth

Warped, Deformed Stems

If your cactus is suffering from etiolation it will start to grow in all sorts of funky ways. None of which are natural or healthy.

  • Oftentimes, cacti will simply lean or turn towards the light. This is a sure sign it needs more light.
  • If your cactus is supposed to be wide and round, etiolation can cause it to grow into a pointy or triangular shape.
  • Sometimes cacti will grow rapidly, sending out skinnier stalks when stressed out. This natural survival technique stretches out the cactus, attempting to catch up to the sun. It leads to weak, misshaped stems.
Cactus Deformed Stems

Dropping Spines

A sick cactus will shed spines as a means of survival. As an essential defense mechanism and important part of cactus development, spines only drop because they can’t be supported without the full energy of the sun.

Spines may start to grow in a more spaced out arrangement, become smaller or thinner, or cease to grow completely under etiolation.

No Flowers

Lack of flowering doesn’t necessarily indicate that your cactus is in etiolation. But, it definitely won’t flower if it is stressed from etiolation. Healthy, mature flowering varieties should set blooms during the appropriate season. If your cactus hasn’t flowered in a couple years, there is a problem.

It takes an incredible amount of energy for a plant to produce flowers. And cacti get most of that fuel from their light source. With less than ideal light exposure, don’t expect to see blossoms on your cactus.

Sickly and Weak in Appearance

If you got your cactus when it was happy and healthy, an etiolated version of it won’t be difficult to identify. Brittle stalks, stems and spines, funky growth and pale color are apparent indicators of poor health.

Sickly and Weak Cacti

How to Correct Cactus Etiolation

So enough of the bad news and ugly imagery. Let’s discuss easy and practical ways you can get your cactus’ growing back on track.

Identify Your Cactus

Find out the exact species of your cactus and focus in on its specific needs and growing requirements. Only by knowing its native environment and seasonal preferences can you start to correct the problems caused by etiolation.

Identify Cactus

Monitor Growth

There’s nothing wrong with taking the time to admire your cactus every day. In fact, it’s good practice to investigate its growing patterns so you can pinpoint the moment things start going wrong. If you catch the issue early, it’s much easier to fix. As they say “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

More Light!

It is a desert plant after all! Cacti will gladly take all the light you can give them. Make sure they’re in the sunniest spot in your home, especially during winter.

If there isn’t enough acces to light, consider supplementing with a grow light. An automated timer can be set up with the lights to make sure your cactus receives at least 12 hours of light per day.

If weather permits, move your cactus outside. The warmth and intensity of direct sunlight will surely perk up even the most depressed cactus.

I know I feel better when I get out in the sun, so the same must be true for a desert dwelling plant.

Cacti typically grow great in unobstructed south or west facing window.


Prepare for Hibernation

Winter can be a depressing time of year not only for people, but your cactus too! Be sure to make the right preparations as the days get shorter.

  • Move your cactus to the sunniest spot
  • Less water
  • No fertilizer
  • Keep your cactus at a steady, cool temperature
Cactus Hibernation

Cut Back on Water

If your cactus is constantly in moist soil, it should be given a break from moist conditions. Let the soil dry out in between waterings during the growing season and cut way back on the amount of water leading up to its dormant period. Some cacti can survive an entire winter without being watered during dormancy.

Watering Cactus

Increase Air Circulation

Growing cacti in a crowded stuffy spot can lead to problems. Like all plants they need fresh air and their own space to grow uninhibited. Make sure your cactus has plenty of space to stretch out and is in a well ventilated place.

All plants benefit from some air circulation. A small oscillating fan could help improve air quality. Just make sure it’s not blowing directly at any one plant, this could cause them to dry out unevenly.


Pruning Cactus

Weak, spindly, brittle, dry, discolored or otherwise sick growth usually doesn’t recover from etiolation. Using a proper pair of sanitized pruning shears, cut off the negatively affected parts of the cactus. New, healthy growth will hopefully spring fresh from the cut site.

A Pointed Conclusion

If you take anything from this article, let it be these few facts.

  • Know your variety and develop a customized care routine.
  • Cacti should never be deprived of sufficient light.
  • Appropriate steps should be taken leading up to and during their dormant period.

And that’s it!


Cacti can be low-maintenance and easy to care for when given the right conditions. But they can also easily fall into etiolation when proper requirements aren’t met.

Follow the tips in this article to prevent etiolation from starting and to fix the problem if and when it does.

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