Why Does My Succulent Smell Bad? 7 Common Reasons & Fixes

While some succulents (such as aeoniums) are known for being somewhat stinky it’s not a trait that is common amongst these hardy little plants which is why it can be worrying if you notice your beautiful succulent doesn’t smell as sweet as it used to. There can be many reasons why your plant might be emitting a rather nasty odor but it’s essential to identify the cause before you can begin treating it. 

Why do succulents smell bad? Succulents aren’t known for smelling bad but when they do it can be a sign that the plant is suffering from root rot or a fungal infection. It can also be caused by poorly draining or moldy soil. Sadly though it can also be because your pet has decided to use the plant as a litter tray.

Succulents are known (and loved) for many things but bad smells certainly isn’t one of them. That coupled with the fact that pungent smells are often an indicator that something is wrong (or at least that’s what we’re told when we’re young) means any unpleasant smell is cause for concern. The good news though is that it’s easy to fix a smelly succulent.

1) Root rot

After overwatering, root rot is the number one reason for succulents dying, but when you consider that overwatering is the single biggest cause for root rot I think we can safely say it’s a big problem with succulents but, when caught early enough it’s not as serious as it might sound.

The problem with root rot is that the excess moisture in the soil starts to get into the roots of the succulents and being drought-tolerant this isn’t a good idea. The roots aren’t given a chance to dry out so start to decay and decompose which is what causes the smell.

The best way to check if root rot is the cause of your smelly succulent is to remove the plant from the pot and look at the roots. If they’re black or dark brown in color rather than their normal green hue then you have root rot.

Fix: While root rot is easy to treat it’s vital that you do so immediately, otherwise the plant could end up dying. Not sure how to treat it? Check out this article on how to save a dying succulent.

How you treat root rot depends on the severity of the rot, if it’s mild then removing the plant from the pot and leaving it out to dry for a few days (up to 4 days should be fine) will get rid of the rot. After that you can repot it in fresh soil and the smell will be gone, and of course, your plant will be healthy.

If your plant is in the early stages of root rot with only a few roots rotting, then you can use a sharp knife or pair of scissors to remove the affected roots. Make sure you cut just above where the rotten root ends to stop it from spreading. Before repotting the plant in fresh soil give it a day or two for the newly cut root stem to dry out.

Plants that are suffering from serious root rot (where the roots are completely black), on the other hand, require far tougher action. For these plants, the best course of action is to propagate the healthy parts of the succulent, rather than trying to save the whole thing. While this obviously means you’ll lose the parent plant you’ll have lots of baby succulents instead.

2) Fungal infection

While fungal infection is similar to root rot in that it causes the succulent to rot it’s not as serious and isn’t confined to the roots, in some cases, the roots aren’t affected at all.

There are a number of different types of fungus and they all attack different parts of the plants but they do tend to have the same cause. That cause, like root rot, is down to the amount of water they have although this time it’s not the water in the soil. 

When water’s left on the leaves (regardless of whether it’s due to spraying or humidity) it starts to form a powdery mildew that causes the succulent to smell. If left unchecked the plant will start to rot but this will take a very long time, and chances are you’ll have gotten fed up with the smell long before then.

Fix: Many fungicides (such as neem oil, horticulture oil, or copper fungicide) will get rid of the mildew and the infection but you should still replant your succulent in a new pot and fresh soil, just as a precaution.

If you’re not keen on using fungicides, you can use a dish soap solution to gently clean the leaves before rinsing them (and the stem) in warm water. After that, you can transfer it to a new pot.

Once you’ve killed off (or removed) the fungus, you should ensure your succulent gets plenty of natural light. Giving them around 4 to 6 hours of sunlight every day will help to evaporate any excess water and therefore prevent the fungus from returning.

3) Misting

You might think that misting your plant is a good idea but. There are disadvantages to doing so, especially for succulents. To start with the water can get into the space between the leaves and stem but if the water doesn’t evaporate then it’ll just sit on the leaves. Something that will eventually lead to mold which, of course, will cause the plant to smell.

Before misting your succulent think about its natural habitat and ask yourself if misting would happen there. After all most succulents are native to arid environments that don’t have a lot of water, especially not in the atmosphere. This means that they’ve evolved to be able to cope with these sorts of conditions and therefore misting them isn’t something they’re particularly good at dealing with.

Fix: As they say prevention is better than cure so it’s best not to mist your succulents in the first place. Instead, water the soil and the roots (rather than the leaves) by either using a watering can or bottle or by watering from the bottom up. Also, succulents get the vast majority of their nutrients from their roots so misting doesn’t have any benefit.

That’s not to say you should never mist your succulent, it’s just that there’s no advantage to doing so (and it can cause the plant to smell). That said though, if you really do want to continue misting it just make sure it gets enough natural light to allow the excess water to evaporate.

If your plant is smelling due to having been misted in the past the first thing to do is remove the plant from the pot and carefully rinse the leaves and stem under warm water, being careful to not get the roots wet. Once you’ve done this make sure the leaves are fully dry before repotting it in fresh soil.

Misting succulents can result in water sitting on the leaves

4) Insufficient drainage

We all know that succulents like well-draining soil but what you might not realize is that if the soil isn’t draining very well then it can lead to a whole heap of issues. To start with there’s too much moisture in the soil but this can cause problems such as fungal infection, root rot, bug infestation, and even foul-smelling soil. 

As you can imagine not only will this result in an unpleasant-smelling succulent but, if untreated, it can kill the plant altogether as it will essentially end up drowning.

Fix: To start with you’ll need to deal with any root rot, bug problem, or fungal infection that the poorly draining soil has caused but after that, you’ll need to change the soil to make sure it drains properly. It’s also important to make sure that your planter allows the water to drain away too.

Don’t know what soil your succulent needs? What your plants REALLY need

Want a new pot for your plants? What to look for in a succulent pot.

5) Moldy soil

If you’ve ever left a pint of milk out of the fridge for a period of time you’ll have noticed that it starts to smell pretty bad and that it’s started to turn a rather unattractive shade of blue, well your succulent soil is no different! If it’s moldy then of course it’s going to smell.

The reason the soil is moldy is because there’s excess water in it which, nine times out of ten is caused by overwatering. The soil isn’t draining the excess water away so it sits on top of the soil and creates an environment that encourages bacteria and in some cases bugs. 

The best way to tell if your soil is moldy is to look for a thin white fuzzy layer on top of it. This is the first sign of mold and needs to be treated quickly to avoid it penetrating into the soil and causing root rot.

Fix: The first thing you need to do is repot the plant in fresh soil before changing your watering routine. As a rule of thumb succulents need watering once every two or three weeks. If you’re not sure how to water your succulent, check out my recent article on watering plants for optimal health.

6) Overly fertilized

We tend to think we’re helping our succulents by making sure they’ve got plenty of fertilizer and compost but giving them more than they need will only lead to the soil smelling. After all your plant can only consume a certain amount of nutrients and when you consider what compost is made from it’s no wonder that too much will result in a rather stinky odor.

Fix: Prevention is always better than cure which is why you should always follow the instructions on how much fertilizer or compost to give your succulent. If you have already given it too much and it’s smelling then you’ll need to repot it in fresh soil.

To help stop over-fertilized smells you should only give your succulent plant fertilizer or compost when it’s growing as it won’t need it when it’s in the dormant phase.

7) Pet urine

Let’s be honest, animals and plants don’t always mix, especially when your beloved moggy or canine companion decides to use your succulent as a toilet instead of going outside. Sadly I’m afraid that does happen and unless you deal with it straight away the smell left behind will only encourage them to do it again and again.

Fix: The first thing you need to do is thoroughly clean the pot (using dish soap (or nonbiological detergent) and warm water) to get rid of the urine. Once you’ve done that you should rinse the succulent leaves and stem in warm water (being careful to avoid getting the roots wet) before repotting it in fresh soil. This will get rid of the smell but you’ll also want to stop it from happening again in the future. You can do this by moving the plant to an area your pets can’t get to, but so will making sure they’re able to go outside whenever they need to as well as making sure their litter tray is clean and changed regularly.

Is your cat paying too much attention to you plants? 8 ways to stop your cat attacking your succulent.

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