When you look at a high cactus in the middle of nowhere, or spot a Desert Rose in the Saharan desert, you may get an impression than the succulent must have been there forever. Funny thing is that you may actually be right, since some succulents can live for centuries, and other die just seemingly. But you should also realize one thing: We know more than 10,000 succulent species in the world, including species that were bread in plant laboratories, such a Korean succulents. With such a variety you can expect different life expectancy, and that’s exactly the case here.
Before we dive into details, and look at how long some succulents do live, and what succulents are almost eternal, let me give you a quick answer to the question: Yes, succulents can die of old age. But in order to understand whether or not this is the case with your dying succulent, you have to know what succulent variety to grow, and how long it does normally live.
Succulents that do not live long
Let me start with succulents that often die of “old age”, though the word “old” is quite relative here. As a rule of a thumb, cross-bred succulents, the expensive colorful varieties you can get in some specialized store, have a short lifespan when compared to “mainstream succulents”. This is the price you pay for amazing colors and shapes. Colorful succulents bread for commercial purposes are more fragile, and more vulnerable to pests than succulents that grow in wild nature. Some of them may live as little as three to five years.
What’s more, with cross-breeding certain succulents lose their ability to reproduce, and are much harder to propagate from leaves or stem cuttings. Hence when you purchase such a succulent you are destined to do it again, opening your wallet again, which is exactly what the corporations want you to do (things are not built to last nowadays).
Succulents that live longer than humans do
On the opposite side of the spectrum we have succulents that live for centuries. It is almost impossible seeing such a succulent die of old age, unless you got it as a part of a family heritage, knowing that a grandfather of your grandfather’s grandmother was the first one to grow the plant :). Desert rose, one of my favorite succulents, is a prime example. It lives for centuries, and it can be dormant for years, when it doesn’t rain in the desert. Once the rain comes, it will flower, bringing new life to the sea of sand.
A very popular Barrel Cactus can also live for up to 500 years. This notorious slow grower (it starts growing quickly but than slows down considerably) can look like a youngster in some gardens. Ask the owners, however, and I can guarantee you that many won’t remember when they planted the cactus, or will say to you it was already there when they bought the house. Interestingly enough, some cacti and succulents from the most harsh regions (the desert areas of Africa and Arabian peninsula) are actually the ones with longest lifespan.
Hens and chicks succulent seemingly dies after flowering, but in fact it never dies
Hens and chick is a special succulent in many ways. Many people know that the mother “hen” dies after flowering (which is typically after three to four years, but in certain conditions it can be up to seven years). What many people do not realize though, is that through new “shoots”, the “chicks”, this succulent actually never dies. Because the new shoots have exactly the same genetics as the mother “hen”, so technically it goes about the same plant!
What’s more, if grown in favorable conditions (rocky soil, sunny spot), this succulent will product many new shoots every year. Hence it doesn’t only technically “live forever”. It also never stops growing and expanding. Who knows, maybe one day someone will discover a secluded rocky spot in some semi-arid area, covered from tops to bottom in hens and chicks. He will think many plants grow there, but in fact it may be just a single plant.
Most commonly grown succulents can die of old age, but you have to wait for decades to witness it
When we forget the extremes (few years, centuries, and “never die succulents”), we can say that most succulents can die of old age. In average, these plants live for decades though, and with the right care indoors (or in the garden) they can actually live even longer than in the wild (where natural selection and survival of the fittest rules the world). Let’s have a look at average lifespan of most popular succulents:
- Snake plant: 5 to 15 years, but it isn’t unheard of seeing even 30 years old exemplars in some houses.
- Burro’s tail: Decades, if you care for it properly. I’ve seen some plants older than 50 years.
- Flaming Katy: 5-10 years, rarely more.
- Jade Plant: Can live easily for 100-120 years, with proper care.
- Zebra plant: 30-50 years.
- Aloe Vera: Up to ten years indoors, but can live for decades outdoors, in its natural habitat.
- Pencil Cactus: Up to 50 years.
- Christmas Cactus: 20-30 years, sometimes longer.
Propagation is always an alternative to long life of your succulent
If you are worried of seeing your favorite cactus or succulent dying of old age, you can always have plan B. Common succulents are quite easy to propagate, especially from stems or leaves. It is a bit harder from seeds. Anyway, if you feel that your favorite plant is quite old already, and want to make sure you won’t lose it completely, you can try propagating it from cuttings. We have a great article online for Jade Plant propagation, which you can apply to most other succulents as well.
And even if everything fails, you can simply accept it as a fact that nothing in this world is permanent, except of a change. Plants grow, bloom, and die, just like we human do. Then they will decompose, and eventually serve as “food” for other plants which will gather the nutrients from the soil, the burying grounds for your succulents. When we look at it from this perspective, it seems that in a certain way we will all live forever… Thank you for reading, and good luck with your plants!