Defoliating desert roses is when we cut off the branches with young leaves on our growing plants.

There is a number of practical reasons why we do this, including: to clearly see the plant structure, to toughen up our plants, and to make a dense canopy.

Join us now. Let's see more about the defoliation process and how and when can we do it to make our adenium strong & beautiful.

3 Reasons Why We Defoliate Adenium Desert Roses

1. To See Our Baby’s Structure More Clearly

Some gardeners grow adenium from seeds while others are gifted the plants by their friends or neighbors when the plants are several months or years old. While we can get a good view of our babies’ shapes when they are young, the growing leaves sometimes get in the way.

The leaves on our growing plants make it slightly harder for growers to see the branches below and the overall layout of our plants. This is important for growers who love those clean, neat bonsai shapes and want to shape up their adenium bonsai plants for the best aesthetics.

That is why we defoliate the plants. Cutting off the leaves, we’ll be able to see a nice, clear—kind of like “bald headed”—structure of the tree and we can decide then how to shape or wire it to our liking.

2. To Strengthen Our Plants

You know what they say, “They sleep on victory”. But we don’t want our plants to sleep in victory because of all the nice food and good care we give them. We want to strengthen them.

By giving them a little bit of a stress or a little damage now and then, the plants will need to adapt and “wake up” to fight for their survival. Defoliating is one way to toughen up our little guys and girls.

When you cut off the leaves, the plant instantly oozes out a kind of sap or latex to prevent insects or fungi from infecting it. In other words, the plants “think” they are being attacked and that puts them in “fight” mode. They have few leaves left to do photosynthesis.

Many growers worry that when we cut off the branches and leaves, the foliage won’t grow back. Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about this. Plants are not fragile things like a wine glass. They will fight back and grow the leaves and branches back again.

You can think of it like Hydra, the serpentine monster with 7 or 9 heads in some Greek stories. When you cut off one of its heads, it will grow back two. Kind of like that. But in actuality, it’s really like that as we will see next:

3. To Make a Dense Canopy

When we cut off the branches, adenium will develop even more branches back. Now with more branches, it makes sense for our babies to distribute the overall assets—nutrients like food, sunlight, water—a bit less for everyone in the more crowded family.

That means the leaves are now smaller. They cluster up closer together to receive all the good bits. This is what many bonsai enthusiasts love and want for the adenium desert rose–that is a nice dense canopy.

It looks very pleasing when every branch or foliage is not scattered in this and that direction. Everyone is happily grouped and close together. You can get a dense canopy with this nice, sort of uniform umbrella shape by defoliating.

4. To Stop Water Loss (Caudex Softening)

Another practical reason why people defoliate their desert roses is to stop them from losing more water. Leaves are the main water outlets of the adenium plant.

Although adenium is a type of succulent, deciduous plant that doesn’t require a lot of water, sometimes without adequate hydration, the leaves will turn brown or yellow.

So growers cut the leaves off in this case to stop the plants from using up more water, specifically from the plant's water source or reservoir (aka caudex, the bottom swollen part of the desert rose). It's like turning off the water faucet temporarily. They often do this to rescue a dehydrated desert rose or to force it to go dormant in the winter (that is by cutting down the use use of water & reduce watering).

If your plant is experiencing soft caudex, you may want to check out this post later:

>> Link Blog post: How to Save Soft Caudex Adenium

The next thing many people ask is:

When Do We Defoliate Adenium?

Generally, we’d want to defoliate when our desert roses have quite a lot of branches already. When they have a good amount of branches, we can then begin to set the structure for our trees and start playing with them.

You don’t really need to defoliate when there are only 3 or 4 branches. At the initial stages, let it grow out naturally. After that, you can do the initial cuttings. Chop off the branches and let them heal and grow out again.

When the leaders, or the main pillars of the adenium, start to grow, you can set the angle of your cut to lead the way for them to grow up to and set your bonsai structure.

Usually, the cut is like this "\" or this "/" –this is the secret (see why here in this post: How to trim desert roses). When the branches grow, you can start trimming them back. When they grow out again, you can give them another hair cut.

After a year of doing so, you will have set a nice structure for the plant and also have the first and second layers of branches. This is a good point to start defoliating our babies.

You could use these shears for the job:

Sharp Pruning Shears
Sharp shears
Non sticky

If your branches are a bit bigger, defoliating can be done with a super Japanese garden knife like this one.

How Often Should We Defoliate?

For deciduous tropical plants like adenium, defoliating about 2 or 3 times a year is good enough. Although we want to give our trees some stress, we don’t want to stress them too much that we may accidentally kill them.

You can also look into the development stages of your plants. If you have only a few branches and want a denser canopy, then you may want to defoliate a bit more often.

If there are a lot of branches already, you can adjust the frequency to two or three times a year and the plants will do fine.

What to Do After Defoliation?

After defoliation, some gardeners just leave the adenium outside under good heat and sun for the new cuts to dry out. The process may take about a week or two.

Other folks apply some fungicide, garden lime powder, or cinnamon grounds on the cuts to make sure no fungi or bacteria can affect the open wounds. You should keep an eye out for weird stuff on the branches that may potentially cause infection.

After that, we can begin watering our plants. Once a week at this point is good. Then, when you see some green leaves growing out, you can water the plants every three days. When flowers are blooming, you can water them every day.

Check out this table with some ideas for the to-dos:

Development Stage What to do
After defoliation Sun dry & protect newly cut wounds
About 1-2 weeks later Water our plants once a week
Green leaves growing Water every 3 days
Beautiful flowers blooming Water every single day

Ever seen a 100-year-old Adenium defoliated? Here it is:

>> Link YouTube:

Why defoliate? 100+ years old Adenium Bonsai

Wear gloves folks if you don't want to be yelled at by your loved ones. It's the sap–it's sticky like chewing gum.

And that brings us to the end of our:

Defoliating Desert Roses

Now you know a few reasons why people cut the leaves off their plants and when and how often we should do so. Allow the tree to grow the main branches and the secondary branches first. Then, we can begin setting the overall structure and defoliating our babies.

Every year, one or three cuttings will be good enough. You may want to make sure the wounds won’t get any serious infections by letting them dry out under the sun or protecting them with fungicide or garden lime powder. When leaves and flowers begin to grow, give your babies more water.

And that’s about it for this process. Although there is a lot more to play around with, we hope this was helpful to you! Have fun growing adenium & peace all around.

Responses to Readers' Questions

My desert rose is about 2 or 3years old and has had 1 flower. What am I doing wrong? Sweet'n low

--> Hi Sweet'n low, thanks for your question. How is your desert rose doing? There are cases where people call a desert rose being 'unresponsive', meaning the plant does not seem to take in more nutrients or continue growing quite slowly. Sometimes perhaps it takes a bit of time and sufficient conditions.

To begin with, you could check the pot and the soil in it. Is it wide enough for roots to grow out? Is the soil giving good nutrients to the plant? Is it root bound? Are there any unwanted visitors sucking away the good bits from the soil? During the flowering stage, from my limited experience, the plant will suck up quite a bit of nutrients and water to nourish the buds. Some people water the desert rose every day when buds and flowers are forming. Make sure to give it some nice potassium for energy. If it's already there in the soil, then you're good. It helps with the color and brightness, so I heard from other growers.

I have a feeling the plant has a single branch.. If it has only one branch and has had 1 flower, then may be possibly it's what it's meant to give for now. If it has more branches, we may need to ramp up the energy (food) for a more crowded family. Bring it out to enjoy more sunlight and good food. On the flip side of things, when a desert rose is in too good of a soil, it could enjoy it too much and get "Yah, we have time, we can do the reproduction thing later". If this is the case, growers trick the plant by cutting water for about a week and cut back some yummy stuff. After 'scaring' them this way, they gradually water them again. Hopefully, this puts the plants into a more active mode and give them motivation for blooming. All in all, I remember it as water + food + sunlight. Then, you'll see rounds and rounds of flowers year round. I hope this helps!

Some more info here from a reader with a similar question:

Link to the blog post --> Adenium desert rose not blooming: Why & Solutions

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