Snake plants are a special class of house plants belonging to the succulent family. It is a species that has adapted to cope with drought. As such, overhydration in the leaves or the soil can make it look like you are seeing the snake plant dying.
Overwatering is common in all succulent plants; however, it can happen even without you adding too much water. Temperature fluctuations, slow-draining soil, or insects depleting the snake plant of nutrients can cause the plant to deteriorate.
As you read the guidance notes below, you’ll discover the causes that lead to illnesses that kill snake plants, and the fixes to revive a dying snake plant before all of its rhizomes are killed, which is when the snake plant will die.
The steps to prevent that from happening are detailed below.
What many people don’t know is that there are different species of snake plants. They look alike, but they have different growing tendencies.
The snake plant is part of the “Sansevieria” species, a plant family native to the tropical region of Western Africa. As its popularity soared around the globe, hybrids emerged. There are dozens of them.
The S. Trifaciata Laurentii (Mother-in-Law’s Tongue) is the most common. There are also dwarf varieties, such as the Sansevieria Golden Hahnii. It is not uncommon for someone to buy a snake plant expecting it to grow taller, then thinking the snake plant is dying or something else is wrong with it when it will not grow.
If you are worried about the growth rate of your snake plant only, read up on how fast snake plants grow. If the plant is looking healthy, but just not growing, it is probable that it has reached its full potential, or lacking something it needs such as more light or better plant food.
The growth rate is something you need to be aware of for the species of snake plant that you are taking care of. The reason is, the faster the growth rate, the sooner it will need to be repotted.
Has It Outgrown Its Pot?
When a snake plant outgrows its pot, the roots become bound to the pot it’s in, limiting the uptake of nutrients like oxygen and water. It can start the process of root decay, which if not corrected, leads to root rot. The worst disease any plant can get as it nearly always kills the plant.
Since these are (or should be) planted in pots with drainage holes, when the plant becomes root bound, the roots cover the drainage hole. That causes excess moisture retention as the soil medium used for potting these needs to be well-draining.
The soil for snake plants should not be overly moist for long. Water needs to drain through the drainage hole in the pot, preferably into pebble tray to raise the humidity slightly.
When roots become restrained by the pot size, it can no longer grow. This is referred to as being “root-bound.” The simplest solution for fixing root-bound plants is to repot them in a larger container. That is if you want the plant to keep growing.
There are a number of ways to control the growth rate of a snake plant and its direction.
Tackle this first because this is really the only thing that can kill a snake plant. It is why they are always described as hardy plants, or indestructible houseplants. It takes a special sort of neglect to kill these. Overly caring by watering too much.
Snake plants grow on rhizomes that are like thin stems that grow under the soil. Healthy rhizomes should always be white or a light-yellow shade. When rot is setting in, the yellow gets much darker, eventually turning brown.
Brown rhizomes are rotting and you will smell it. Stagnant water in moist soil gives off an unpleasant odor. That is the first sign of overwatering.
If you pick up on the smell early enough, you can add some sand into the soil to dry it out, or for convenience, use paper towels to absorb some of the water.
Should the rot worsen, the rhizomes will turn brown and become mushy. The problem then becomes the soil because overly moist soil is a breeding ground for fungal infections.
Pythium and Rhizoctonia are two common fungi that infest the soil of houseplants causing rot to spread throughout the plant.
Once the rot spreads throughout the plant’s rhizome system, it becomes noticeable on the leaves. The leaves on a rotting snake plant lose the greenery, turn yellow, start to wilt and droop.
Eventually, the leaves will turn as mushy as the rhizomes. By that time, it will be difficult to revive it.
For that reason, pay attention to soil moisture and do not ignore any unusual odors that seem to come from plants. Inspect the roots regularly and finger-test the soil. The top one to two inches of soil should be dry to the touch before adding more water.
If you do notice the rhizomes are showing signs of rot, all is not lost…
How to Fix a Rotting Snake Plant
Take the plant out of its container and discard the soil. Shake as much of the soil off of the plant as possible. Depending on how moist the old soil is, you may need to rinse off soggy soil.
Use a pair of sharp scissors or pruners (disinfected to prevent the spreading of possible fungal infections) to trim off any brown rhizomes. Keep the pale ones as those are the healthy parts.
The next part is the crucial step to get right and that is to use the right potting soil. All too often, a general all-purpose potting soil is used.
The key is drainage, and the fastest type of drainage is found in a soilless potting mix. It makes snake plant care indoors so much easier. It looks like soil, but it’s a mix of different ingredients, some organic matter, others not. Like wood chips, coco coir, vermiculite, peat, and perlite.
The advantage of soilless mixes is that they are much faster draining. On the downside, you will need to water the plant more frequently, especially in the summer heat.
The risk of overwatering is lessened with this type of mix so by repotting with a soilless potting mix, you’re better protected against a similar mishap in the future.
With the plant repotted in a suitable mix and in a container with drainage holes, the next thing is to make sure it has the right conditions to thrive.
The snake plant is tolerant to a wide range of conditions, and to an extent, it can handle neglect. What it cannot stand is the cold. Especially if the soil is moist. 50oF (10oC) is the lowest this plant can tolerate.
40oF (5oC) is the absolute lowest temperature but only when the soil is dry. If it is wet, the cold water can damage the cells in the plant’s leaves.
All types of Sansevieria plants originate from Africa. The average winter temperature there is 20oC (68oF). To keep your snake plant healthy and growing, it is wise to mimic its natural growing conditions.
Unlike other plants from tropical regions, the snake plant does not need high humidity. The higher the humidity range, the moister the leaves will be and that can cause problems, like the leaves of your snake plant splitting.
Simple steps to make sure your snake plant is protected from temperature fluctuations is to keep it away from windows in the winter, and away from radiators and HVAC systems.
Temperatures and humidity levels should be stable. The ideal humidity range is 40% to 50%. When humidity drops below 40%, the plant uses more water.
Swings in temperature and humidity levels can cause the snake plant to swell. This is called Edema and it is a sign that the plant is stressed from environmental fluctuations.
Edema happens when the plant takes in water from the soil faster than it can transpire through its leaves. As more water is retained in the leaves, they look swollen. The cause of edema are swings in temperatures from cool to hot, and humidity rising too high.
If you see the leaves on your snake plant swelling up, it is not a watering problem. It is the growing conditions that need to be corrected and maintained.
A confusing thing with snake plants is when to water them. Common advice is to water them when the soil is dry. That holds true most of the time. But, in the summer, the soil will almost always be dry within a day or two. Water it that often, and the soil will become waterlogged fast.
The reason overwatering is such a problem with snake plants is because they hold water in their leaves. They are very drought tolerant because of this. These can last up to 2 weeks in the summer without being watered. In the winter, they can go for as long as two months with no additional watering.
When they really need water, the leaves will droop. Until then, the leaves will be in an upright position. They’ll feel firm to the touch when there is plenty of water in the leaves.
As that water transpires, such as when the temperature rises or humidity changes, it will pull in water from the soil, or from the humidity in the room.
When the soil is dry and the leaves no longer firm to the touch, that’s the best time to add a little water to the soil, and gently mist the leaves.
Pests Can Dehydrate Snake Plants Too!
Two pests in particular that you ought to be aware of are mealybugs and spider mites. They are attracted to numerous houseplants, but more so, those in the succulent family, which is what the snake plant is. These are sap-sucking insects that pierce tiny holes in the leaves of plants so they can feed on the juices within the leaves.
They have a tendency to seek out plants in a weakened condition, often those that have been overwatered, or over-fertilized. Both of these pests multiply fast, so you need to act quickly to get rid of them before they devour your plant.
Getting Rid of Mealybugs and Spider Mites
Mealybugs are tiny white fuzzy critters. One female can lay 600 eggs. That’s an infestation that cannot be ignored. You’ll have an army of mealybugs draining the snake plant dry of its juices. It will die if the mealybugs aren’t removed.
The most effective method is the slow methodical approach of dabbing each mealybug with a Q-tip coated in 70% isopropyl alcohol. This is effective for a light infestation.
For a heavy infestation, start with the spray solution to reduce the number of pests to a manageable level, then dab the survivors with a Q-tip coated in isopropyl alcohol. It may also help to pour some of the alcohol into the soil to kill off any eggs before they get a chance to hatch and reinfest the plant.
Spider mites are almost always going to be a colony. They are so small that you will not see them. What you will see is the webbing they leave behind as they move around the plant’s leaves.
The webbing is the giveaway that there is a colony of spider mites present. And given the tiny size of these pests, dabbing them with isopropyl alcohol is no use. You won’t see them all.
What you need is a systematic insecticide. Neem oil is a go-to pesticide for eradicating spider mites.
Snake plants do not need much feeding. They certainly do not require more nitrogen. That is usually what invites hungry insects to start feeding on its juices. An abundance of nitrogen.
Always use a balanced fertilizer for snake plants. A 10-10-10 or 8-8-8 fertilizer is ideal and it should be diluted to half strength. Snake plants only need a little feeding in spring. They will go dormant in the winter, so fertilizing should be stopped at the end of the growing season, around September or early October.
Snake plants are slow growers, even with fertilizer. Despite being referred to as low-light plants, the lower the light levels, the slower the growth rate. Increasing the light intensity will have more of an impact on the growth rate than any amount of fertilizer will.
It should be noted that if you do use a soilless mix, there may already be additional nutrients added. Check the label of your potting medium to see if there are any additional nutrients included, such as a slow-release fertilizer.
If there is, do not add more until the plant needs it. Adding fertilizer to an already enriched potting mix will lead to over-fertilization.
Fungus Infections to Know About
Sooty mold happens when there’s an insect infestation. This is a black mold that coats the leaves. Pests that suck the sap from the plant excrete honeydew onto the plant’s leaves.
This is a sticky sugary substance that coats the leaves, eventually turning to black sooty mold. This blocks the light the plant needs for photosynthesis so it will stunt the plant’s growth.
You can wipe it off, but the solution is to get rid of the bugs that are coating the leaves in honeydew. When that stops, the sooty mold problem goes away. Treat sooty mold as a symptom of an insect infestation.
Southern blight tends to affect garden plants, but it can infect houseplants just the same. The tell-tale symptom of this fungi is a white thread-like growth on the leaf. It turns brown after around a week to ten days. The fungi will infect the stem of the plant travelling up into the leaves killing the tissue.
Infected leaves discolor, scar, and wilt. It is fast spreading so by the time you see the tissue scarring on the plant’s leaves, the damage will be done. The simplest course correction is to cut the infected leaf off and discard it before it spreads to other leaves on the snake plant, which will eventually kill it.
Leaf spot can be caused by numerous fungi. Some of the ones more prone to latching onto the snake plant leaves include Alternaria leaf spot, Helminthosporium disease, Botrytis blight, Cercospora leaf spot, Cladosporium spp. and Colletotrichum leaf blight.
Snake plants are more prone to develop a fungus infection when the conditions are cool and moist. In particular, on mature plants that are filled out with a lot of leaves as that will restrict air circulation. Without sufficient airflow, fungi will thrive. Not just on the snake plant but on any indoor plant.
No matter the type of fungus, the symptom is always the same. It starts with one small leaf spot about 2 to 4 mm in size that looks like a lesion. It crusts over sinking into the leaf.
As the fungi spreads to other parts of the plant (and any other nearby plants), more spots emerge. They start off a dark green hue, turning brown, and getting bigger. If the spots are not treated, the pathogens will spread.
Treating any leaf spot infection on a snake plant requires treating the leaves with a fungicide, such as Neem oil.