Prickly Plant

Cactus Etiolation [Explaned]

This amazing plant ranks as one of the most impressive natural specimens in the flora kingdom. A cactus is any short, thorny, and spiny plant lacking leaves. It is generally found in barren lands and deserts. While most people tend to see them as shrubs growing where they are not wanted, being a nuisance, and causing trouble, some others have been able to look beyond its unfriendly nature into their core potential.

The thorny plant belongs to the Cactaceae plant family and grows in a wide range of sizes and shapes. The plant loves to grow in drought situations and very arid regions and environments. 

But just like every other plant, the cactus requires basic agents for growth, such as water and sunlight. The fact that the plant grows in arid regions does not mean it doesn’t need these basic agents to grow. Cacti just have various adaptive features that guarantee their survival in unfavourable weather conditions.

When the least of these conditions are not met, the cactus will suffer from malnutrition like any other plant. The malnutrition of light as an agent of growth for the cactus is what we would be discussing in this article.

What is Etiolation? 

Etiolation is a term used to describe the growth of a flowering plant that lacks a sufficient amount of light. Plants suffering from etiolation are characterized by leggy, thin, pale colour, and elongated growth

What causes Cactus Etiolation? 

Cacti are easy to care for because they do not require much water to thrive. However, this is not the case for sunlight. The leafy plant often suffers from etiolation, which is the absence of light. 

Curly stems, tall growth, loss of natural colour, among others, are some of the signs of cacti etiolation.

The primary cause of cactus etiolation is when the plant does not get enough sunlight or cannot absorb all of the sun’s light due to an obstruction to access to direct sunlight. Cactus needs a lot of bright and direct sunlight to grow healthy. In fact, the rays must hit all parts of the plant.

Other factors can cause cactus etiolation. We look at the common ones below.

Insufficient sunlight

All plants need light to grow; else, they become weaker over time. Lack of sunlight occurs when there is no proper sun exposure, either due to an obstruction of the sun’s rays or rainy or cloudy weather.

Low humidity

This can lead to the drying of the cacti. Some periods when humidity is low may account for this. In such cases, you have to find ways to increase the humidity level.

Plenty of fertilizer

Cactus etiolation can occur when you feed it with too much fertilizer. Overfeeding of the plant with fertilizer can make it gain extra weight and make it unable to support itself.

The overgrowth of the roots that barely get plenty of sunlight can lead the cacti to etiolation.

Effects of Etiolation in Cacti 

what is cactus etiolation

One sign of a healthy cactus is that its colour will be dark green with a fluffy and light appearance. Thicker stems also show how much water they can store from the rains in summer.

The water stored in the thick stems helps the plant survive through the winter without withering away. It blossoms in the winter, growing more than one flower on each stem. This beautiful imagery of a healthy cactus is replaced with gory ones when it is etiolated.

An etiolated cactus is characterized by the following.

  • Poor or stunted growth.
  • Brittle, thin stems as opposed to thick and fleshy stems. This occurs first on one side of the stem before spreading to other areas.
  • You might notice the presence of an uneven set of spines which is opposed to the cactus’ perfect symmetry.
  • Etiolated cactus may have inflated stems as if it is swollen up with fluid. The air chambers inside the plant grow to provide more support for the unusual weight of the plant.
  • Dry, brown, or yellow color.
  • Uneven thickness.

How to prevent Cacti Etiolation

It is important not to forget that the cactus is a desert plant and needs plenty of sunlight. If your cactus is looked after properly, etiolation of cactus can be prevented.

  • Ensure the cactus stays outside to get as much light as possible. If you must keep it indoors, find a way to let enough light get to it.
  • Ensure you make enough water available for the cactus. But do not let one get too much water.
  • Give it the required nutrients. 

A good dose of daily sunlight and a balanced feeding and water intake is all you need to protect your cactus against etiolation.

Can you reverse Etiolation in Cacti? 

cactus etiolation (1)

The answer is partly yes and partly no. Once etiolated, the cactus cannot be restored to its original form, but it can be made healthier with some trials at reversing the process.

Some things you can try to reverse etiolation in cacti are:

  • Reduce the amount of water it gets. Overwatering of cactus makes its root grow outwards and away from the nutrients. Reduce watering to strike a balance between nutrient absorption and root growth.
  • Increase its exposure to sunlight. At the early stage of etiolation, proper sunlight exposure might help make the plant less stretched. Unfortunately, this won’t make them go back to their original shape.
  • If you recently moved the cactus indoors, try moving it outside. Place them under a shade or directly under sunlight.
  • Make more oxygen available. If they are clustered, try separating them to allow a free flow of natural air.


Etiolation is one of the most common problems associated with the cactus plant. There are ways to prevent this and treat it if it happens. Most of the treatments do not guarantee a 100% back-to-normal growth of the plant but rather forestalls further degradation.

With the right amount of light, nutrients, and water, your cactus should grow strong and tall.

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Gareth Davies

Hi! I'm Gareth and I own Prickly Plant is the ultimate resource for everything you need to know about looking after your Prickly Plants. With over 10 years of experience selling and looking after plants, I'm passionate about sharing simple & understandable information for everyday people!