Why is My Cactus Turning Yellow? Troubleshooting Tips & Solutions

Last Updated on August 31, 2023 by Kimberly Crawford

Cacti, with their unique shapes and minimal care requirements, have become increasingly popular as houseplants. These hardy plants, native to arid regions, have found a place in homes across the world, adding a touch of nature’s beauty to our living spaces.

However, owning a cactus isn’t always smooth sailing. Many cactus owners have encountered an alarming problem – their once vibrant green plants turning yellow. This color change can be disconcerting and leave many wondering what they’re doing wrong.

In this article, we delve into the possible reasons for this issue and explore solutions to restore your cactus to its natural health and color.

Understanding Cactus Physiology

cactus turning yellow

Cacti are fascinating plants with unique characteristics that have allowed them to adapt and thrive in harsh, arid environments. Their natural color is typically a vibrant green, which is a result of the chlorophyll they contain.

Chlorophyll is a crucial component in the process of photosynthesis, where plants convert sunlight into energy. The green pigment absorbs sunlight and utilizes it to transform carbon dioxide and water into glucose, which provides the plant with the energy it needs to grow.

One of the most distinctive features of a cactus is its ability to store water. Unlike other plants, cacti have adapted to survive in environments with minimal rainfall.

They have thick, fleshy stems that can absorb and hold large amounts of water during rare rainfalls. This water reservoir helps them endure long periods of drought.

Moreover, cacti have modified leaves – known as spines – which serve multiple purposes. These spines not only protect the cactus from predators but also provide shade, reducing the plant’s exposure to harsh sunlight and aiding in water retention by reducing evaporation.

Cacti also have an extensive root system that extends far outwards to absorb as much water as possible when it’s available. This system is shallow, allowing it to quickly soak up any moisture that might be present in the top layers of the soil.

Understanding this basic physiology of cacti can help us better comprehend why a cactus might turn yellow and how we can prevent or rectify this issue.

Common Reasons for Cacti Turning Yellow

1. Overwatering

One of the most common reasons for a cactus turning yellow is overwatering. Cacti are desert plants that have evolved to survive in low-water environments, so they don’t respond well to excessive moisture.

Overwatering can lead to waterlogging and root rot, both of which can cause your cactus to turn yellow.

When too much water is applied, the soil becomes waterlogged, leaving no room for air. This lack of oxygen can cause the roots to suffocate and eventually start to rot. Root rot is a serious condition that can damage the plant’s ability to absorb nutrients and water, leading to a sickly yellow color.

Additionally, overwatered cacti can become swollen and soft, as they absorb more water than they can store. This can cause the cells to rupture, leading to discoloration and potential plant death if not addressed promptly.

Signs of Overwatering

Determining whether your yellow cactus is a result of overwatering can be done by observing a few key signs:

  1. Soft, Mushy Stem: An overwatered cactus often has a bloated, mushy stem that feels soft to the touch. This is due to the excess water causing the cells to expand and potentially burst.
  2. Discoloration: Besides turning yellow, an overwatered cactus may show other discolorations. The base might turn black or brown, indicating root rot.
  3. Drooping or Collapsing: If your cactus seems to be drooping or collapsing, it might be due to overwatering. The excess water can make the plant-heavy and cause it to lose its structural integrity.
  4. Root Rot: If you suspect overwatering, check the roots of your cactus. Healthy roots should be white or light tan and firm to the touch. If the roots are black, brown, or mushy, it’s likely a sign of root rot caused by overwatering.

2. Underwatering

Just as overwatering can be detrimental to cacti, so too can underwatering. Cacti are drought-tolerant plants, meaning they can survive with less water than most other plants. However, they still require some moisture to thrive.

Underwatering a cactus can lead to dehydration and cause the plant to become stressed, which may result in the cactus turning yellow.

An underwatered cactus can’t perform photosynthesis efficiently, which might lead to discoloration. In addition, the lack of water can lead to the shriveling of the plant as it uses up its stored water reserves.

The cactus may also become more susceptible to pests and pathogens due to a weakened immune system caused by the stress of not receiving enough water.

Signs of Underwatering

Recognizing the signs of an underwatered cactus can help you take corrective action before it’s too late. Here are some signs to look out for:

  1. Shriveling: An underwatered cactus might begin to shrivel as it uses up its water reserves. This is one of the most noticeable signs of an underwatered cactus.
  2. Brittle Roots: If your cactus is underwatered, its roots may become brittle and weak. Healthy cactus roots should be firm and white or light tan.
  3. Discoloration: Like overwatering, underwatering can also lead to discoloration. However, an underwatered cactus might turn a pale green or yellow color instead of the vibrant green of a healthy cactus.
  4. Dry Brown Spots: Dry, brown spots on your cactus could be a sign that it’s not receiving enough water.
  5. Drooping or Wilting: If your cactus appears limp or is drooping, this could be a sign of underwatering.

If your cactus shows any of these signs, it’s important to adjust your watering schedule. While cacti don’t need frequent watering, they do benefit from a good soak when the soil has completely dried out.

3. Importance of Sunlight for Cacti

Sunlight is crucial for cacti as it plays a pivotal role in photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert light energy into chemical energy to fuel their growth. Most species of cacti require at least four to six hours of sunlight daily to thrive.

Different species of cacti have varying sunlight needs. Desert cacti, for instance, thrive in direct sunlight, while tropical cacti prefer indirect sunlight. Regardless of species, a good range of sunlight exposure for cacti would be around 10-12 hours for full sun-loving types.

Lack of Sunlight

When a cactus doesn’t receive enough sunlight, it can experience several problems. The most noticeable sign is etiolation, or stretching, where the cactus grows tall and thin as it reaches out for more light. This can lead to the cactus becoming weak and unstable, potentially causing it to fall over.

Another common symptom of insufficient sunlight is discoloration. A healthy cactus typically has a vibrant green color thanks to chlorophyll, the molecule that absorbs sunlight for photosynthesis. Without enough light, the cactus may produce less chlorophyll, leading to a pale or yellowish color.

Additionally, a lack of sunlight can hamper the cactus’s ability to produce flowers. Many cacti species need plenty of light to trigger blooming, so a cactus that doesn’t get enough light may never flower.

In severe cases, prolonged lack of sunlight can even lead to the death of the cactus. Without enough light for photosynthesis, the cactus won’t be able to produce the energy it needs to grow and survive.

4. Nutrient Deficiency

Role of Nutrients in Cacti Health

Nutrients play a crucial role in the health and development of cacti. They need a variety of nutrients to carry out vital biological functions, including growth, photosynthesis, and disease resistance.

The primary nutrients required by cacti are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Nitrogen is essential for leaf and stem growth and is a key component of chlorophyll, which gives plants their green color and helps with photosynthesis.

Phosphorus is necessary for energy transfer and storage, and it also aids in root development. Potassium plays a vital role in plant metabolism and helps with water uptake[^1^].

In addition to these primary nutrients, cacti also require secondary nutrients like calcium, magnesium, and sulfur, and trace elements such as iron, manganese, zinc, copper, molybdenum, and boron[^2^]. These nutrients are required in smaller amounts but are still crucial for the plant’s overall health and development.

Signs of Nutrient Deficiency

Nutrient deficiencies can manifest in various ways in cacti. Some common signs of nutrient deficiency include:

  1. Yellowing or Pale Green Leaves: A deficiency in nitrogen may cause the cactus to develop yellow or pale green leaves.
  2. Slow Growth or No Growth: If your cactus is growing slowly or not at all, it might be lacking in phosphorus, which is vital for energy transfer and root development.
  3. Weak Stems or Leaves: A lack of potassium can lead to weak stems or leaves as this nutrient is essential for plant metabolism and water uptake.
  4. Leaf Curling or Spots: Deficiencies in secondary nutrients or trace elements can result in symptoms like leaf curling, spots on leaves, or other abnormal growth patterns[^3^].

If your cactus shows signs of nutrient deficiency, consider using a balanced fertilizer designed for cacti and succulents. Always follow the package instructions to avoid over-fertilization, which can be just as harmful as nutrient deficiency.

[^1^]: Gardening Know How. “Feeding Cacti Plants: When And How To Fertilize A Cactus.” [^2^]: University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Plant Nutrient Functions and Deficiency and Toxicity Symptoms.”

[^3^]: University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. “Diagnosing Nutrient Deficiencies in Plants.”

Disease and Pests

Common Diseases and Pests

Several common diseases and pests can cause yellowing in cacti. Here are a few examples:

  1. Root Rot: This is a common disease in cacti caused by overwatering or poor drainage. It can cause the roots to rot, leading to yellowing of the cactus.
  2. Fungal Diseases: Certain fungal diseases can cause yellow spots on cacti. These include Anthracnose, which causes sunken yellow spots, and Powdery Mildew, which covers the plant surface with white or gray powdery spots that can turn yellow over time.
  3. Scale Insects: These are small, flat insects that attach themselves to the cactus and feed on its sap, causing yellow spots.
  4. Spider Mites: These tiny pests can cause yellowing and stippling on cacti. They’re hard to see with the naked eye, but you might notice webbing on the cactus.
  5. Mealybugs: These pests are small, white, and fuzzy, and they feed on plant juices, causing yellowing and stunted growth.

Identifying and Treating Issues

Root Rot: If your cactus is turning yellow and feels soft or mushy, it might have root rot. To treat this, remove the cactus from its pot, cut away the rotted roots, and repot the cactus in fresh, well-draining soil.

Fungal Diseases: Fungal diseases can be identified by yellow or white spots on the cactus. Treatment typically involves removing the infected parts of the plant and applying a fungicide.

Scale Insects: Scale insects can be identified by small, flat, brown or white bumps on the cactus. They can be removed manually or treated with insecticidal soap or neem oil.

Spider Mites: Spider mites can be identified by yellowing and stippling on the cactus and thin webbing. They can be treated with insecticidal soap or a miticide.

Mealybugs: Mealybugs look like small, white, fuzzy spots on the cactus. They can be removed manually or treated with insecticidal soap or alcohol.

Prevention and Treatment

Prevention Tips for Cacti Yellowing

  1. Proper Watering: Overwatering is a common cause of yellowing in cacti. Ensure you’re following a proper watering schedule, generally watering only when the top 1-2 inches of soil are dry.
  2. Good Drainage: Use a potting mix designed for cacti and succulents; these mixes drain well and prevent water from sitting around the roots, which can lead to root rot.
  3. Adequate Sunlight: Ensure your cactus gets enough sunlight, as lack of light can cause yellowing. However, too much direct sunlight can also harm the cactus, causing sunburn.
  4. Nutrient Balance: Provide your cactus with a balanced diet of nutrients. Use a fertilizer specifically designed for cacti and succulents, and follow the package instructions.
  5. Pest Control: Regularly inspect your cactus for signs of pests. If you see any, treat them promptly to prevent damage.

Treatment Steps for Yellow Cacti

If your cactus has already turned yellow, here’s what you can do:

  1. Identify the Cause: Try to figure out why your cactus is turning yellow. Is it getting too much water or not enough? Is it receiving too much sunlight or not enough? Are there signs of pests or diseases?
  2. Adjust Care: Once you’ve identified the problem, adjust your care accordingly. If your cactus is overwatered, let it dry out before watering again. If it’s not getting enough light, move it to a sunnier location.
  3. Treat Diseases and Pests: If your cactus is suffering from a disease or pest infestation, treat it accordingly. This might involve using a fungicide for fungal diseases, or an insecticidal soap or alcohol for pests[^1^].
  4. Repot if Necessary: If the problem is severe, you might need to repot your cactus. Remove it from its current pot, cut away any rotted or diseased parts, and replant it in fresh, well-draining soil[^2^].


how to fix cactus turning yellow

Cacti, though hardy and resilient, can sometimes turn yellow due to a variety of reasons. These include overwatering, poor drainage, inadequate sunlight, nutrient deficiency, and pest or disease infestation.

To prevent these issues, it’s important to provide your cactus with proper care. This includes watering only when the top 1-2 inches of soil are dry, using a well-draining potting mix, ensuring adequate sunlight exposure, providing balanced nutrition, and maintaining regular pest control.

If your cactus has already turned yellow, start by identifying the potential cause and adjust your care accordingly. Treat diseases and pests promptly and consider repotting your cactus if the problem is severe.

Taking care of a cactus, like any other plant, requires patience and understanding. Each cactus is unique and might require different care routines. With proper attention and care, your cactus can thrive and bring beauty to your home or garden for many years.

Remember, it’s okay if you don’t get everything perfect right away. Plant care is a learning process and each challenge provides an opportunity to learn more about your cactus and its needs. Keep observing, keep learning, and most importantly, enjoy the rewarding journey of cactus care.