Please Help Me Save My Grandma’s Jade
By Marina Welham
Grandma died (rest her soul) and left this huge Jade behind with no instructions how to look after it. It was very healthy but now, after a year in my care, the plant looks very sick. There are brown spots on the leaves, the stems are falling over and the plant has never flowered. Please help me save this plant.
By the time this plaintive cry comes to us, and it often does, the new Jade owners have either over watered the plant to the point of drowning it or they have left it languishing in a forgotten dark corner of the living room. When the Jade begins to rot or leaves drop off and branches become brittle and dry, falling over the pot on to the table, the owners look for a miracle to save Mom’s or Grandmom’s old plant.
While the Jade has become a most commonplace succulent, one we tend to ignore as not needing much attention, it does have specific needs if it is to thrive and eventually to flower.
First let me deal with Jade plant botanical names. One knowledgeable person tells me the well known tree-type Jade is now Crassula ovata. Another says the name is still Crassula argentea, and many dealers still sell the plants under that name. Others call the same Jade Crassula arborescens, also sold under that name by some dealers. Arborescens seems the most logical since it is the Latin word for tree-like. If you have an old book on succulents you will find yet another name, C. portulacea. The variegated version, common name Silver Dollar Jade, is often called C. obliqua. Another variation, the tri-color Jade is often sold as C. tricolor or C. argentea variegata ‘Tricolor’. Between old and new books, different dealer lists and varying opinions on the internet, we are creating a whole new generation of befuddled hobbyists including yours truly.
The Jades have been difficult to pin down botanically because so many variations occur among these plants. And a plethora of common names tacked on to each variation does not help make the colossal mess any easier to understand.
Crassula ovata, argentea, arborescens, the tree type Jade which most people have, originated in South Africa. It has been cultivated as a house plant in Europe and America for over a hundred years. Generally, it is a very easy and productive plant to grow, provided its needs are understood and met. And these needs are as follows:
Light and temperature
Any Jade needs very bright light to grow well. If you want the plant to flower it needs a sunny position with at least several hours of sun every day. As with all succulent plants that love sunshine, provide a little shading from direct sun on scorching hot days in summer otherwise the leaves may burn. If the temperature goes above 90F the plants will probably stop growing so you should reduce watering during periods of high heat.
A Jade not getting enough light will retaliate by growing too leggy as it stretches taller and taller looking for more light.
If your Jade is in a low light area right now, do not rush to move it suddenly to a much brighter location. Move it gradually over a period of several weeks. The shock of a sudden move from low light to high light or sun will surely damage the plant.
Jades getting too little light will reward you with poor root development, skinny stems and leaves smaller than they should be. If Jades are getting too much sun some of the leaves can break out with blotchy brown spots.
If a plant is getting enough light its leaf margins will signal their happiness by turning red. Bright light also results in more marked coloration in the variegated varieties. Only the smaller Jades we call Baby Jades will fail to respond to high light by showing bright colors. This much smaller growing plant always stays completely green.
In winter Jades still need maximum light preferably with several hours of sunshine. They will tolerate temperatures as low as 40F provided they are kept quite dry.
If the plant spends the winter in a heated home, a little water should be given now and again to keep the roots from totally drying out. This is the dangerous time for over watering. If in doubt, don’t water the plant.
As already mentioned, Jades need sunshine to encourage flowering. Some growers feel that giving Jades a cool period through winter, when the soil should be left virtually dry, will encourage flowering the following growing season.
Most healthy tree type Jades will bloom around Christmas time. Many whose plants have flowered believe that blooming is encouraged by short days a few weeks prior to blooming. In September or early October the plants are placed in a cool area where no supplemental light reaches the plants after light outdoors has gone. They can enjoy the company of schlumbergeras (Christmas Cactus) at this time which require the same treatment to encourage flowering.
Not all Jades bloom at this time of year. Some flower at the beginning of the warm growing season and some at the end of it.
It is unlikely that your Jade will flower at all if you do not have a mature plant of at least five years of age.
Jades need very careful watering. They and all other crassulas are succulent plants that have the ability to store water in their leaves, stems and roots. In the warm growing season, water thoroughly and let the plant almost dry out between waterings.
When a plant is left too dry for too long because you forgot to water it, sometimes the lower leaves will become soft and wrinkly. When water is again given these will fill out again. Don’t let this happen too often. Each added stress to the plant could either retard growth or put off flowering.
Another sign of insufficient water is when the leaves fall off, especially in hot weather. If your watering is correct and the leaves still fall off, suspect something wrong at the roots as they may not be taking up the moisture. If this is the case no amount of additional watering will help as the roots will not be taking it up. Dreaded rot is often the result.
In winter Jades will want to go dormant. This is the dangerous period for over watering. If you have the plant in a heated room, water only occasionally and just enough to keep the soil from totally drying out. A little water in the pot saucer is the safe thing to do rather than to try to water through the soil from the top. If you over water at this time leaves will become extra soft and probably turn yellow and eventually fall off.
A Jade kept in a cool greenhouse over winter should be kept almost dry until the following Spring.
Rot sets in
The minute rot sets in you should unpot the plant and check the roots. If you find a soggy mess of dead roots (caused by over watering or pests in the soil which killed off the roots which then could not take up water), remove these dead roots. If there are mealy bugs causing damage they will readily be seen in the soil and around the inside of the pot as white, fluffy masses of all sizes. Assuming this is a moderate size plant, thoroughly rinse off the soil from the remaining roots (along with the pests) and wash the pot thoroughly with warm water and bleach. Leave the plant out of the pot until the remaining root ball has almost dried out. Then pot up in a fresh soil mix with lots of coarse sand or grit added.
“Grandma’s plant is too big to unpot.” To that I have to answer, if you want to save the plant badly enough, you will have to be up to the challenge of unpotting and repotting it no matter how difficult that may be. If it is a very large plant, chances are it has been in the same soil so long it should be re-potted into fresh mix anyway.
The easiest way to remove a large plant from its pot is to slice down the sides of the pot and remove it while the plant is still upright. If the pot is a valuable one and you don’t want to break it, tip the plant and pot on its side and hit the pot gently a few times. The weight of the plant should throw it forward out of the pot. This is easier if the soil is first moistened. If you want to keep the plant in the same size pot, now is the time to slice off 1/3 of the root ball with a sharp knife. If mealy bugs are present, on large root balls of very large plants, the bugs are usually around the outside of the soil against the pot sides and maybe an inch or so into the soil. You will see how far they go as you remove that much soil from the root ball.
Also look at the base of the stem for signs of soft rot. If the stem is soft, leave the plant out of its pot for a few days and see if the stem firms up. If it doesn’t, it will just get softer as rot progresses and you will have to slice off the stem to the healthiest part, well above the soft area, allow it to dry thoroughly and pot up to root again. While waiting for roots to form, do not water. There will be no roots to take up the moisture. And control yourself. Don’t wiggle the plant every two days wondering if roots have appeared. Your first wiggle should be withheld for two or three weeks. Once roots have formed, watering can begin keeping in mind there will not be a large mass of roots to take in a whole lot of water. There is plenty of moisture in the leaves to sustain the plant until it once again has a large root system.
It is not necessary to mist or spray water over the leaves. Too much humidity may invite fungus and mildew problems. It is not wise to spray any crassulas because their leaves can be damaged as a result, especially those with a powdery bloom.
Soil, pots and potting on
The usual well draining mix for succulents is fine for any Jade plant but the bigger the plant, the better the drainage should be. It is best to re-pot into new soil annually and move into a slightly larger pot each time. This will help the plant to grow well. Try to avoid soil that is heavy in peat which attracts insect pests and root mealy bugs.
If you wish to keep the plant to a size smaller than Mother Nature intended it to grow, prune the roots each time you repot the plant so that you can put it back into the same size pot (with the addition of some fresh soil in the bottom). You can slice off 1/3 of the roots each time without hurting the plant. At the same time you can prune some of the branches to give the Jade an overall pleasing shape. Pruning is not necessary, however. If you prune back to just above the rings on the stems where the old leaves were located, new leaves will grow from these areas.
If your plant tends to tip over dangerously, it needs a bigger pot in which to anchor itself. Keep in mind, however, that these plants like to be comfortable but not excessively over-potted.
Too much nitrogen will make your Jade plant leggy as is the case with most succulent plants. If you over-feed your Jade in a few months you will be asking what is the problem because the branches may be sprawling and hangy all over the sides of the pot. Feed Jades during the warm growing season with a diluted feed (1/4 strength of that recommended on the container) of a balanced fertilizer with trace elements.
Jades are not too often bothered by pests but they can be attacked by some pests such as mealy bug and scale which come from other plants growing nearby. Jades are therefore best kept separate from other plants which attract those pests.
You can propagate a Jade from a single healthy leaf by placing the base of the leaf just on top of the soil. You will have to prop it up either against the side of the pot or with a small piece of wood or large pebble. Do not water until you see roots being produced by the leaf.
Propagating from stem cuttings is a lot faster Cuttings will root quite quickly in warm weather. Take care to let the wound on the cutting dry for several days before potting up. If you plant a cutting without drying the wound properly it will probably rot off. I have had stem cuttings root within a week when planted in spring when weather is warm.
To sum up , whether you have an ordinary Jade or an extraordinary one depends entirely on how you look after it. When Jades bloom they go all the way with a grand display of flowers. You will know when that happens that all your efforts were much appreciated.