String of Pearls Ultimate Care Guide (and how not to kill them)
String of Pearls were one of the very first plants I got when starting my plant parenthood journey / addiction. What's not to love about those cute round green peas? They make you happy just looking at them. Like something out of Dr Suess. However String of Pearls was also one of the first and few I've managed to kill. Not so happy after that.
With one dead, and one down to a single, sad strand, balding and bare at the base, I almost gave up. But motivated by everyone else's photos of lush, long strings of plump pearls, I changed almost everything, and tried again.
And wow. Success! Easy peasy (now I know what to do - and not to do). I give String of Pearls a care rating of 1 out of 5. Yes. Really. That easy. Here's what I learned so yours don't end up with the same fate as my first.
Speaking of, below is one of my many String of Pearls today. Don't give up if yours are down to one sad strand like mine was. This girl below is my Variegated String of Pearls who was in the same state not long ago, and look at her now! Talk about major glow up. One of her all-green pea buddies is even flowering right now (which smell delicious).
What soil's best for String of Pearls?
Let's start at the bottom. Soil is super important for these vining peas. Okay, they aren't peas, they're succulents. But a happy String of Pearls should be plump and almost completely round, like a pea. More about what the shape of your Pearls is telling you at the end in the String of Pearls Problem Solving section.
Although we're used to seeing them vining at home, in their natural habitat in the deserts of East Africa, they are actually ground cover. If your SOP is really happy, you'll get delicate, miniature dandelion-like flowers too, which smell like a mix of vanilla and cinnamon. Delicious. The flowers can last a good month or so too. One of mine is flowering right now (in the middle of winter).
Being a desert-dwelling, ground-cover plant, you've probably clicked now why a free-draining, light soil is so important. String of Pearls definitely don't like wet feet. Grab a bag of cactus or succulent mix - I use the Bio Leaf Succulent for mine - or you can DIY your own mix by including pumice, fine orchid bark, coarse sand, potting mix and more (if using potting mix, make it about 1/4 of the mix, the rest should be gritty and free-draining).
Those pretty pearls are prone to root rot, so as well as light, free-draining soil, make sure the pot they're in has good drainage holes. Terracotta is all good for these guys also to keep things dry. Mine are all in standard plastic nursery pots and thriving, but terracotta's a goody for you over-waterers. I started off that way inclined too, but am now an avid under-waterer. Pearls have a shallow root system too, so a shallow wide pot is all good (and looks fantastic), combined with a finer grade of substrate.
Watch for low soil
A common issue to watch out for, that can cause Pearls to struggle and slowly turn bald at the base, is when your soil level is too low, causing your pearls to be down below the edge of the pot.
The crown of your Pearls should be potted high enough so they're the same level as the pot edge. Think falling and spilling over the edge. They shouldn't have to climb up and over. Too low down and light might not reach the crown, plus as your Pearls thicken up at the top, air flow reduces if they are down below the edge of the pot, and both the reduced light and air flow can lead to the stems rotting and balding at the soil level.
Rather than fully repot though, you can carefully tip your pearls upside-down, soil and all, out onto your palm or a towel, add extra potting mix to the bottom of the pot, and carefully tip the pearls back in, now sitting higher. Don't add more soil to the top. The roots are shallow and instead of more airflow you'll smother the stems.
Why do String of Pearls have round leaves?
The appeal of String of Pearls for many are their long strings of unusual pea-shaped leaves. Look closely and you'll see little clear 'window' in each pea. That's because being round is a clever design when you live in a desert. Minimum surface area outside reduces water loss due to sun and wind, and gives you maximum water storage inside.
Only that causes a problem. Minimal surface area also reduces those wee pea's ability to photosynthesize. And that's where the 'window' comes in. See the thin dark stripe running down each pea below? That 'window' lets sunlight in to enter the leaf so it can get enough light, even when partially shaded, growing under a rock, in the desert, without losing precious water. Speaking of water...
Watering String of Pearls the right amount
Just because SOP are a succulent, doesn't mean no water. Not at all! Where my gang-of-peas hang out now, they need watering about weekly in warmer months, and about every 3 weeks in winter. In fact compared to other succulents in my collection, my pearls have a higher than normal requirement for water. BUT that depends on all other conditions being right.
Provide the right sunlight conditions, then aim for lightly-moist in summer, and borderline dry in winter. Overwatering is a big no no for String of Pearls. In in doubt, best to wait, not water. They handle being too dry far better than too wet.
When you do water, give your Pearls a really good drench until water runs out the bottom, then let it fully drip dry. No sitting in water. Put down that spray mister. Definitely don't 'water lightly'. More about food coming up, but do feed your Pearls when you water too.
My pearls need watering every week to fortnight on average, but that doesn't mean yours do. Water to match your own conditions. Water when the soil is dry, sure, but don't parch your poor pearls and leave them dry too long or you may end up with shriveled wrinkly peas!
With their shallow roots, if you leave it until the soil's dry right to the bottom of the pot, that actually means the roots up top have been without water much longer than that.
If your pearls are super healthy, they are probably covering the top of the soil, making it difficult to stick a finger in to check the soil. If in doubt, lift the pot and check the weight compared to normal, or just get yourself a colour-changing Sustee, or Crew Soil Sensor, to pop down into the substrate and check for you.
Are you underwatering or overwatering your pearls? (how to 'read' your pearl shape)
If your Pearls are shriveled, wrinkly and dry this is normally due to a watering issue. They're thirsty! However if they are shriveled and soft, squishy or mushy, that's overwatering. Keep in mind younger Pearls tend to be thirstier than established plants.
If you're not sure if you're underwatering or overwatering, a good guide is the time between watering. Shriveled Pearls watered weekly or more often is very likely over-watering. If they've got their wrinkle on and you're watering about once a month or less often, it's very likely from under-watering.
The first sign your pearls are thirsty is when they change from a pea shape to a lemon shape. It's best to water before they start to wrinkle, otherwise staying dry too long may kill off some roots. Then when you remember to water again, you may end up with root rot, not because of over-watering, but because some of the root system has died from being too dry too long.
Temperature & humidity for happy String of Pearls
Warm and dry for the win. Ideally above 20 degrees coupled with low humidity. No need for misting, a pebble tray, or a humidifier for these cuties. Once established, it's best not to mist at all (baby pearls do benefit from misting about weekly as the root system is so shallow). They can handle down to around 10 degrees in winter as long as you don't over-water. Pearls don't much like to feel the wind in their vines, so pick a spot out of the path of draughts and air conditioning. They do well outdoors in warmer areas of NZ, but don't handle too much direct light outdoors, as well as they do indoors where direct light is pretty much a must to avoid bald stems!
Light - The biggest String of Pearls mistake
As well as over-watering, it turns out light was the key thing I got completely wrong with my first String of Pearls (RIP). So many guides just say 'bright light' when they should say 'direct sunlight - and lots of it'. Yep, you've found yourself a sunbather. Especially when grown indoors. When outdoors, too much direct sun can be a killer so it's important to check whether the guide you're reading is talking about indoor or outdoor care.
When kept indoors, find your Pearls a spot where they get a good 4+ hours direct sunlight daily (depending on the intensity of the sun). You want to find a spot where the sun hits the top, not just the ends, to encourage lush growth at the top and avoid premature balding.
If you've got your pearls hanging down from up-high, check sunlight actually reaches the stems at the top, or you may have lush pearls down low and a bald spot up top. A simple clip-on grow light can solve this if there's no other way to get direct light on the base.
Without direct sunlight indoors, Pearls usually go bald, starting at the top, and eventually die off. They also take longer to dry out, making them more prone to root rot, so water and light go together.
Plenty of direct sunlight is extra important in winter when the intensity of the light is weaker. If your Pearls that were thriving in summer, are barely surviving come winter, and struggling to come back to life in spring, try a move to a new spot with more and longer sunlight hours each day.
My down-to-one-balding-strand Pearls came back to life when moved to a North-East facing window where she gets a good 4 hours sun from around mid-morning to early afternoon, all year round (I live in Auckland, New Zealand by the way). Too much afternoon sun can be overkill in summer though and cause them to burn (especially the variegated variety). The sun can get pretty intense in NZ in summer, so in summer look for a spot with direct morning sun.
Pearls respond really fast to good or bad conditions, so by all means try a few spots to see what makes yours happy. Just keep an close eye on them each time you move them as those wee pearls can tell you a lot, and fast, when unhappy (how to 'read' your pearls coming up).
Food (don't starve your succulents!)
Don't starve your String of Pearls! Yes, they are a succulent, so they are light feeders, but that does not mean no food at all. Meanie. They can be fast growers when conditions are right, and still need the same essential nutrients any plant does to fuel that growth for lush, big Pearls. In fact undersized, small or deformed Pearls is a sign of a nutrient deficiency.
Although pearls can thrive outdoors in the right conditions, look for a fertiliser made for indoor plants to reduce the risk of fertiliser burn for plants stuck in pots, and feed little and often for String of Pearls. The weakly weekly method is perfect for these guys. Food can't make a plant flower, but mine only started flowering once I started feeding (it takes a lot out of a plant to flower). For my String of Pearls and all my lighter feeders I halve the usual dose the bottle says.
Since I sell plant fertiliser I have more than few foods in my cupboard, and have tried them all (yes, my plants are my guinea pigs), but my 3 favourites are Plant Runner (I change the dose to 1ml per 2 litres for my light feeders), or Dyna Gro Foliage Pro (I use the 1ml per 3 litre dose for that one), or GT Foliage Focus. There are many, many more fertilisers available but I'd happily recommend any of those 3 in particular.
Pearls pruning & propagation
Be mean. A good prune on the regular will encourage new growth and help your pearls to thicken up those vines. Typically where you've trimmed a vine, two or more vines will grow back. Great if you have really thin, spindly vines. What's even better is those trimmed vines root super easy provided there's plenty of stem on your cutting.
Soil propagation for String of Pearls
I start with a cutting about 10cms long for best results. The layering technique works best for me. I just rest the vine back on top of the soil (great if things are looking a bit bare and balding up there as this works well on established plants too). I use those handy u-shaped plant pins to keep the trimmed stem touching the soil and off you go again. Roots will grow from multiple locations along the stem where it's touching the soil.
For faster vining, instead of laying the cutting completely on the soil, you can instead take a few pearls off the end of a stem cutting. Hang the pearls end over the edge of the pot, and stick the bare stem end in the soil, down 2 to 3 cms or so, so that a few nodes (where the pearls were attached) are in contact with the soil. Keep the hole small. Try making a hole with a kebab stick or similar, so those nodes end up in contact with the soil in the hole, not hanging in a void. You'll likely still need to pin down the top of the vining stem to keep it in place until those roots get growing.
It doesn't matter if you lay them down pearls up, or pearls down, or which end you put in soil and which end hangs, as long as there's contact with soil, roots will grow right along the stem or from whichever end's in the soil.
In the right conditions, pearls root quite quickly. Give String of Pearls a good 3 to 5 weeks for those roots to grow after propagating. I prefer coiling the stem down completely on the top because it will root in multiple places, eventually giving you more vines, and fuller cover on top. Try both and see what works best for you, or take a few cuttings and do a mix of both coiled and vining, like this below...
You can propagate String of Pearls in water. A little fiddly, but doable. They root faster if it's a warm time of year, or if you put the prop vase on a heat pad. Start with a few, decent length cuttings - about 10 cms long each - and carefully take off the last few pearls, so you end up with the last 1/3 or so of your cutting with no pearls, just bare stem. Put the bare stem end in the water, and hang the pearls end out of the water (narrow neck propagation vases like these are ideal for pearls). Roots should start appearing in about 3 weeks.
Watering propagated cuttings
The opposite to the watering advice for an established plant: for a new cutting being propagated in soil, I definitely recommend watering as per normal, but also misting about weekly until those roots are established (I wouldn't mist an established String of Pearls however).
Repotting your String of Pearls (take it carefully!)
String of Pearls are on the delicate side and with their shallow roots you're best to avoid repotting unless you really need to. If you notice your Pearls are rootbound though, it's time to repot (carefully).
If needed, aim to repot in spring to early summer as the warmer, sunnier days will help your Pearls recover faster. Repotting pearls tends to get messy, and you may lose a few pearls or vines along the way, so best done with the aid of a repotting mat (I use a 75cm size but they come in 3 sizes, from 50cm square up to 1 metre square), for easy clean-up and capturing roly-poly pearls.
Best to only pot up a couple of pot sizes maximum (so if they're in a 14cm now, go up to a 16cm pot max). If you jump up too much, too soon, all that extra room will (at best) cause your Pearls to stop growing while they divert their energy to root growth to fill up the extra space, or (much worse) cause root rot as the big increase in substrate holds much more water than the roots are used to.
I haven't tried this myself yet, but am going to repot into a clear pot next time. Much easier to keep an eye on those delicate roots and the soil moisture level.
Photo credit: succulentplantcare
Common problems & solutions for String of Pearls
Why are my pearls falling off?
If it's not from moving them around or handling them too often, then pearls falling off is usually from water or wind. Being too dry can cause the connection with the stem to wither and dry up. If it's from too much water, stems can become limp, soft and mushy and drop pearls. The fix is usually simple if caught in time. Get your watering right. Check the watering guide above. And don't mist!
Wind can also be a cause of falling pearls. These delicate chaps aren't fans of wind in their vines. Move them to somewhere out of the line of draughts and air conditioning. Although this guide is focused on indoor care for your String of Pearls, if you have yours outdoors and notice pearls dropping off, a cold snap is another common culprit of this if outdoors, so if it's coming up cooler months, consider bringing your pearls indoors for winter.
Lemon shaped, pointy, dry String of Pearls
Happy, healthy pearls should be round and firm, with only a slight points. The 'window' (that clear line running stem to tip) should be easily visible. If your pearls are more lemon-shaped, longer and pointer, this is a sign they're thirsty. If the 'windows' are hard to see, or there are indented creases running from stem to tip, that's more extreme thirst. That's all provided the pearls are still dry, not soft and mushy.
Usually an easy fix. Give your plant a good drench asap until water drains out the bottom, then water more frequently in the future. If you're seeing lemon shaped, thirsty pearls, and the strand/s have little aerial roots visible, a handy tip is to coil the strand (still connected), around and pin it down on top of the soil, so those aerial roots can access water more easily.
Soft, squishy, wrinkled String of Pearls (uh oh)
If your pearls look like deflated balloons, are soft and mushy, the 'windows' have pretty much disappeared, or they have a wrinkled texture (with the wrinkles and creases going in all directions), all those signs point to overwatering.
Stop watering. Let the soil dry out. Don't mist. Check the soil is light, airy and free draining. Repot if needed into better soil. String of Pearls handle being too dry much better than too wet, so best to act fast and do what you can so you don't lose the plant. Check the soil, repotting, and watering guides above. Give them some sun to help that soil dry out. If they are too far gone, rescue the best strands and start again (propagation guide above).
Dry, wrinkly, shriveled up pearls is almost always water related but if you've ruled that out, light is the second common culprit.
An easy fix once you know if you're under-watering (water more) or over-watering (water less). If you normally water weekly or more often, it's likely from over-watering. If they've got their wrinkle on and you're watering about once a month or less often, it's likely from under-watering. Baby pearls or newly propagated pearls need more water than established pearls, and can be misted about weekly. Best not to mist established pearls. They like things warm but dry.
If you're sure it's not from over or under watering, look to the light. Too much, too intense sunlight (like afternoon sun in summer), can scorch your pearls. Move to a spot with bright indirect light for a week or so to help them recover, then back to a spot with gentler, less intense sunlight in the future. Mine thrive indoors with a good 4 hours or so of direct light from mid morning to early afternoon, all year round.
How to get String of Pearls to flower
It's completely ok if your pearls are happy and healthy, but don't flower. Some do, some don't. But there are a few reasons why they don't, that you can help fix to increase your chances of flowering.
String of Pearls are more likely to flower outdoors because they like a difference between night time and day time temperatures in order to trigger flowering. A cooler temperature overnight (around 10 degrees), followed by warmer days (15 degrees+) mimic their natural desert environment better. My indoor pearls tend to flower over winter for this reason as their spot by the window gets cool at night but lots of sun so warm by day.
A dry, cold winter can also set your pearls up well for flowering come spring and summer. Keeping them somewhere cold (below 10 degrees) in a non-heated room (like the garage or laundry depending on your home) to give them a winter rest that will encourage blooming when the temperature increases.
Flowering also takes a lot from a plant's nutrient reserves, so definitely do feed to get them in tip top health to support flowering. Check the food guide above for what I feed mine.
Hello lush, healthy String of Pearls!
See? String of Pearls aren't that bad at all really. They can be easy care once you know what to do (and not to do). No more balding pearls. No more shriveled leaves that look more like lemons than peas. Just lush, plump, happy pearls. And hey. If you do stuff up like I did at first? All good. String of Pearls are the zombies of the plant world. Don't give up. They can be brought back to life even from one sad, spindly stem.