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What is Etiolation?
Etiolation in plants occurs as a response to insufficient sunlight - it's a process by which the plant stretches out in search of more light, leading to an imbalanced, leggy appearance of the stems and leaves. You may notice this in plants such as cacti, which can develop long, thin stretched-out appendages that stick out from the rest of the cactus. It can also happen in plants that experience a period of dormancy if they have an imbalance of watering, nutrition or temperature conditions during this time.
In the wild, this can sometimes be useful as it can allow plants a chance to survive in less than ideal conditions, such as if they are sheltered from light by debris or taller leaf canopies. For potted plants, though, it can be an unsightly annoyance, and may potentially lead to plant health complications if left untreated.
For the plant nerds! Etiolation is triggered and controlled by plant growth hormones known as auxins. These hormones allow the plant's cells to stretch out and expand in an effort to seek out more light. Yellowing of the plant tissue can also occur as a result of Etiolation because the plant forms etioplasts where there would usually be chlorophyll (the green pigment in plant tissue that gives the plant its color and is used in the process of photosynthesis). The plant can recover its green color through de-etiolation, when the etioplasts evolve into chloroplasts.
Is Etiolation harmful to your plants?
Etiolation in itself isn't directly harmful, however, it can be indicative of a wider problem and may lead to structural issues with your plant.
Continued lack of sunlight will interfere with your plant's ability to photosynthesize, which is a vital process for it to survive and get the energy it needs to grow and stay healthy. If you notice that your plant is starting to get leggy, it's a pretty sure sign that you need to move it to a brighter spot in your home. If you have limited access to sunlight then you may need to consider investing in some grow lights to ensure your plants get their lighting needs met.
A lack of chlorophyll can, in turn, cause your plant to be more reliant on fertilization (as it's unable to uptake sufficient nutrients through photosynthesis), meaning that it may start to show signs of being under-fertilized if it's relying too heavily on soil nutrients. The stretching out of the stem can also cause your plant to become unbalanced, and it may potentially topple over if left unchecked.
What to do about it
Simply put, all you need to do is re-assess your plant's lighting requirements and move it to a brighter place to ensure it receives adequate light. If there's any debris covering your plant then you should also remove this so that it has as much surface area available as possible to be able to receive light.
Your plant will then naturally start to de-etiolate. It's easier for younger plants to do this than older plants, so be patient if you don't notice results right away and make sure to also keep an eye on your plant's overall health. Etiolation can leave adult plants more susceptible to pest infestations and / or plant diseases, so it can take a bit of time and care to nurse them back to normal health. With enough light, the plant will start to be able to photosynthesize correctly again, and so you'll notice it starts to become green in color once more. However, it should be noted that plant parts that have already been affected by etiolation won't recover.