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How much sun do succulents need?

If you’ve just bought your first succulent or are wondering why your plant isn’t doing well, light is one of the most important things to consider. All plants need it! Beginning houseplant enthusiasts often underestimate how bright their plants, especially succulents, like things to be. So how much sun do succulents need?

Keep reading for everything you need to know about succulent light requirements and how to ensure your beloved plant gets enough sun to thrive.

Do succulents need a lot of sun?

The quick answer: yes, most of them do need a lot of sun. A lot of species are adapted to arid environments with little shade from taller trees, after all.

In fact, many succulent species can be challenging to maintain indoors due to their lighting needs. Because our windows don’t offer nearly the same light intensity as a plant would get outdoors, many succulents end up stretched and struggling to survive. Some genera, like Echeveria, seem doomed to stretch in the home even on the brightest windowsill.

By the way: All cacti are succulents as well (but not all succulents are cacti, of course). As with other succulents, most of them are absolute sun lovers, although there are some exceptions.

Tip: Wondering if your succulent is getting enough light? Have a look at the way it has grown. If your rosette succulent is gaining height, or if new leaves on the plant are appearing further and further apart, that means it’s etiolating. In other words, it’s stretching in order to try to reach adequate light.

Haldeman & Gray, 2000
Planter full of succulents | How much sun do succulents need?

How much sun do succulents need indoors?

If you’d like to grow succulents indoors, you might want to consider scrolling to the bottom of this article for the list of succulents that don’t need as much light. This is because without supplemental artificial lighting, many species are just too difficult to grow indoors year-round. They’ll survive, but they’ll turn spindly and might lose their pretty coloration.

Let’s talk numbers to clarify this a bit. You can buy a foot candle meter or even use a phone app to give you an idea. I use an app called ‘Lux Light Meter Free’ on my Android phone.

As a rule of thumb, you can more or less maintain most succulents at 1,000 foot-candles or up (although more is definitely still better). Cacti and bigger sun lovers will still struggle at this level, though. Keep in mind that they’re grown commercially at 5,000-10,000 foot-candles! Also don’t forget that this high light level should be maintained throughout much of the day, not just for an hour or two as the sun passes by the window.

In terms of direct sun, indoors your succulents can pretty much handle as much as you can give them. If a plant was grown in lower light before, you might have to acclimate it carefully, but it’ll greatly appreciate the sun.

Tip: As hinted at, there are some genera of succulents that need less light. Forest cacti, for example, are not nearly as needy as their desert cousins. We’ll discuss them at the bottom of this article. They make a much better choice for indoor growing.

Echeveria 'Perle von Nürnberg' succulent.
Echeveria ‘Perle von Nürnberg’ is not the best candidate for growing indoors. They are extremely prone to losing their shape and powdery purple coloration.

Increasing lighting for succulents

There’s a good chance you’re scratching your head now after checking your windows with a light meter. You wouldn’t be the first one to find out the lighting is woefully inadequate inside our homes!

Luckily, there are two things you can do to make sure your succulents (and cacti, especially) won’t die a slow, spindly death.

  • Grow your succulents outdoors during summer. That’s when most species are actively growing, so they’ll be able to take maximum advantage of the warm temperatures and plenty of light. If you’re in a cooler climate, once fall rolls around, temperatures drop and it starts to rain too much, you can take them back in. They won’t grow much during the cold months anyway, so they can spend winter indoors.

    If you’re in a warmer climate, you might want to consider succulents outdoor plants only. They’re just happier there! For indoors, there are plenty of shade-loving tropicals.
  • Supplement with artificial lighting. You can use the cheaper goose-neck plant lights to offer an extra boost if you already have your succulent(s) next to a relatively good window. If things are really too dark, a larger LED lighting panel is perfect to sustain a few plants.

    You can, of course, also combine this with growing outdoors during the summer. Real sun during the warm months, some LEDs to keep the greenery going during winter.
Echeveria 'Black Prince', a popular succulent.
Colored succulents like this Echeveria ‘Black Prince’ will revert to green if they don’t get enough light.

How much sun do succulents need outdoors?

If you’re growing your succulents outdoors, things change a bit. Instead of trying to squeeze your plants into the lightest possible spot, you’ll likely actually have to protect them a bit. After all, most of them don’t come from full desert conditions, and excessive sun can still damage them. This especially applies if you forget to acclimate properly.

The most light-sensitive succulents, like the ones mentioned in the next paragraph, should be kept away from full sun outside. Some morning or evening rays are fine, but they often can’t handle more than a couple of hours. In some cases they do well, but develop reddish stress coloring to protect themselves.

For the species in the mid-range (most succulents), it depends. Do you live in an area where the sun really beats down, like California, Arizona or something like my chosen homeland of southeastern Spain? You might want to grow your succulents under some cover, like a taller (palm) tree. I find mine just dry out too quickly if I don’t keep them under the cover on my balcony.

If you’re just growing them outside during summer in a cooler climate, like my home country of The Netherlands, they don’t need much cover.

The real desert succulents, like spiny cacti, really don’t tend to care as much. Something like an Opuntia can thrive in full sun with no cover whatsoever, although it might get thirsty quickly. I also see wild Agaves here in spots that are absolutely baking throughout the summer.

Tip: Keep in mind that it’s not just the light itself that can be harmful to a succulent. It’s also the heat. They’re filled with water after all, so an excessively hot location can pretty much boil them from the inside out!

A succulent from the genus Haworthia.
Haworthia are on the lower end of the spectrum. Although they still love light, they don’t need as much as many of their succulent cousins. In fact, they easily acquire protective brown stress coloration from excessive sunlight.

Low-light succulents

If you’d like to grow succulents indoors and don’t feel like messing around with grow lights or moving them to your garden every summer, there is still hope. The term ‘low-light succulents’ might be a bit misleading, though – I guess no succulent is truly ‘low-light’ like some rainforest plants are.

This being said, you’ve got some options that will survive at around 500-1,000 foot-candles and actually do pretty well once you get above that level. Examples include:

  • Schlumbergera: The popular Christmas cactus, Thanksgiving cactus and Easter cactus. They’re jungle cacti and as such, are more used to shaded conditions.
  • Sansevieria: These popular succulents actually prefer more light, but they do quite well from 500 foot-candles or up in my experience.
  • Beaucarnea: Also known as ponytail palm, these funky succulents like plenty of light but also do well from 500 foot-candles or up.
  • Aloe: Many members of the genus, including the popular Aloe vera, can handle a bit less light than other succulents. You should be able to get away with bright indirect light.
  • Gasteria: They like it bright but not overly so. There’s also the hybrid Gasteraloe!
  • Haworthia: They can handle a bit of sun, but also do well in a bright indoor window.
  • Rhipsalis: Like Schlumbergera, these are rainforest cacti. Bright indirect light is sufficient for them.
  • Epiphyllum: These rainforest cacti like lots of light, but direct afternoon sun can be too harsh. The genus includes the popular fishbone cactus, Epiphyllum anguliger, and blooms beautifully.

So how much sun do succulents need? Well, it depends a lot on the species you’re dealing with. That being said, you should count on these plants needing a bright environment!

Haldeman, J. H., & Gray, M. S. (2000). Experiments with corn to demonstrate plant growth & development. The American Biology Teacher, 297-302.