If you own a Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata), then you own one of the toughest houseplants there is.
With such a rugged and forgiving plant, it is easy to assume that no harm can come to it or that it will withstand any amount of neglect.
While it is true that this plant is robust, we also need to recognize that it is still a plant and that it is, therefore, subject to the forces of nature. In other words, if you don’t take care of this plant, it will die eventually.
Overwatering or underwatering is the most common cause of snake plant death. Although this plant is as tough as they come, the main issue you are likely to encounter is that you are giving it too much water. In addition, keep an eye out for other issues such as pest infestations, diseases, and improper growing conditions.
In this article, we will be looking at the problems you might come up against and demonstrating how easy it is to either avoid them altogether or rectify them if they do occur.
How to Know if Your Snake Plant is Dying
A good place to start dealing with this problem is to be able to recognize that there is a problem in the first place.
You will know that your snake plant is facing terminal conditions if it exhibits any of the following symptoms.
- If the leaves become soft and floppy then it is likely that you are looking at an overwatering issue. This is one of the most common problems that most growers are faced with.
- Others tell tales of signs that this is a problem is damp to wet potting soil, and sometimes, even a boggy smell emanating from the potting mix. Later in this article, we will show you how to easily avoid this problem and how to deal with it if it does occur.
- Overwatering will also affect the roots of your plant. They will start to get mushy and turn from white to a rusty brown color. If this happens then things are becoming critical.
- Leaves become crisp and dry. This usually starts at the leaf tips and along the margin of the leaves. It may well be caused by too little water.
- If the plant simply fails to thrive and you then examine it closely, you may see small brown scabs on the leaves. This is a sap-sucking pest known as a scale insect.
- Another pest that you may encounter is a small, white, fuzzy creature who tends to hide out in the leaf joints and in any other crevices where it will go unnoticed to all but the keen observer.
- This is another sap-sucking insect known as the mealybug. These are the two most common pests that could threaten the well-being of your Snake Plant.
- One final problem that can prove fatal, is temperature control. Although highly tolerant of hot temperatures, your Snake Plant will not appreciate it if it becomes too cold.
- If the leaves start to feel mushy and you are sure that overwatering is not the cause of the symptoms, then this is a likely culprit.
Most of the problems that I have just listed will manifest themselves in the leaves, and careful observation will enable the plant owner to take action before the problem becomes too critical.
Possible Causes That Your Snake Plant Might be Dying From
This is, without doubt, the most common problem that you will face if you are new to working with the Snake Plant. This is a plant that thrives in arid and semi-arid conditions.
So you must allow it to dry out between each and every watering. Early warning signs to look out for are yellowing leaves.
These then go on to become soft and mushy and the leaves will wilt shortly after that.
Although what is happening above ground is going to be the first warning that you see, it is what is going on below ground that poses the greatest risk to the plant.
There, the roots will be starting to rot and this means that they cease to be able to supply nutrients and minerals which are so critical to the leaves.
The first thing you will need to do if you suspect that overwatering is the problem affecting your plant is to confirm your own diagnosis.
Feel the potting soil and if it is very damp or waterlogged, it is safe to assume that your diagnosis is correct.
In cases that are not too advanced, your plant will probably recover if you stop watering and allow the potting soil to dry out.
You must ensure that it can drain any excess water that is in the soil. Ensure that there is a drainage hole in the bottom of the container and that it is not standing is a saucer that is filled with water.
Allow the soil to dry out completely and then leave it for several more days before watering again.
You should apply water to the top of the soil until it starts to drain out through the drainage holes. After that allow water to drain away before placing the plant back into its plant saucer.
Before you water again, ensure that the soil has become completely dry. You do this by forcing your finger into the soil until it is two inches deep. This is around your second knuckle.
If the soil is definitely dry, then repeat the watering method I have just mentioned. Don’t fall into the all-too-common trap of watering to a schedule.
Your plant loses water at different speeds according to surrounding conditions, time of year, and size of the plant. Your best method is to learn to feel the soil and water only when it has become totally dry.
- In extreme cases where root rot has started to become established, you should tip the plant out of its pot and scrape away any of the loose damp soil surrounding the roots.
- Next, take some secateurs and cut away any of the roots that have become brown and slimy. Now lay the root ball on a sheet of newspaper and allow it to dry out for several days.
- Only once you have dried the root ball well should you think about repotting your plant.
- Using a free-draining potting mix, such as succulent or cactus mix, pot the plant back into a container no larger than the one that it was removed from.
- Don’t reuse the original potting soil even if it has become dry, and if you use the original pot, clean it thoroughly before you repot.
The potting mix is likely to be slightly damp so don’t be in a hurry to rewater your fragile plant.
Allow it to adjust to its new home and only when totally dry will you need to water.
Snake plants are far less likely to suffer from under-watering than it is from overwatering.
During the growing season, you are unlikely to need to water this plant more than once per fortnight.
In the dormant season, that will probably reduce to once a month, and possibly even less often than that.
Accept that feeling the soil is going to be the best way to judge whether or not to water.
If you are unaccustomed to working with snake plants, the signs, and symptoms of underwatering and overwatering may sound quite similar.
The leaves may wilt, go yellow and a generally unhealthy appearance will prevail.
The big difference between underwatering and overwatering is that an under-watered plant does not have that mushy texture to the leaves.
Instead, they become crisper and more brittle. The reason for the similarity of symptoms is simple.
In both instances, the roots lose the ability to transport the requisite nutrients to the above-ground sections of the plant.
Another sure sign that it is underwatering, rather than overwatering, that is the cause of your problems, will be the soil. If it is desiccated and feels like dust, underwatering is the issue.
This plant is accustomed to long periods without moisture so it will bounce back quickly as soon as you introduce a sustainable watering regime again.
Once that happens, you can simply follow the same method as has just been applied.
One thing you will need to check is that the soil has not become so degraded that it doesn’t hold some moisture after watering.
If the water just flows straight through, and the soil is completely dry within hours, you should think about repotting into fresh potting soil.
This is always an issue to consider carefully with all house plants, and not just when dealing with the Snake Plant.
If a growing medium does not drain freely, it becomes a reservoir for the disease and other pathogens and the roots can effectively suffocate.
It is a very common problem, which is surprising when you understand how easy it is to avoid. There are a few signs that your soil is not draining freely.
- The first is the feel. If it feels damp or waterlogged, then it is almost always a drainage issue.
- If there is slime or mold growing on the surface, that is a second sign.
- Finally, if the soil smells like a swamp, then you will know that it is waterlogged.
When acquiring a new plant, the first thing to check for is a drainage hole in the base of the container. The hole should be large enough for you to get your finger into.
With the Snake Plant, feeling the growing medium through the drainage hole is yet another way in which you can check that the soil has dried out or not.
It is not enough for there to just be sufficient drainage through the hole in your plant container. The growing medium itself should also be very free draining.
The easiest way to ensure this is to purchase soil that is mixed explicitly for succulents or cactuses. You can find this at most garden centers.
If your supplier can’t meet your requirements, you can make up a free-draining mix of your own by combining three parts of ordinary potting soil with two parts of perlite or grit.
Normally house plants are stood in a saucer. One common drainage error is to place the pot in its saucer before it has finished draining.
Water fills the saucer and that slows further drainage. Try to drain the soil completely after watering, but if you do notice the saucer is holding water then tip it away before it causes problems.
Not Enough Sunlight
If your plant does not get sufficient light then it will struggle to photosynthesize properly. Without enough food preparation, the leaves will start turning yellow or brown.
This will be most noticeable on Snake Plants with a lot of colored variegation to their leaves.
These will begin to fade and turn green. It is not very critical but it does detract from the overall beauty of the plant.
Fortunately, the Snake Plant is really tolerant in terms of light requirements, which is one of the reasons it makes such a good house guest.
It will happily survive on a north-facing windowsill with indirect light, but will also survive in direct sunlight providing it is not too prolonged.
Ideally, you would try to stand your plant in a position where it receives bright but indirect light.
If there is not enough natural indirect light in your apartment then try artificial light for your snake plant.
This will be the position which your Snake Plant will benefit from the most, and in return, it will deliver the healthiest growth.
If you are someone who likes to put their plant outdoors during the warmer months, then you must make the transfer gradual.
Allow the plant to adapt to its current environment by placing it out for a couple of hours each day so that it does not go into shock.
Bacterial Soft Rot
Soft rot in Snake Plants is identified by wet round spots that look a little like large blisters.
Over time they become sunken and the leaf material below the spots becomes sunken and mushy. This problem is often related to overwatering or poor drainage.
- To avoid this issue, allow the potting mix to drain well and then follow a suitable watering regime as described earlier.
- Water the plant at its base so that the soil becomes wet without wetting the leaves.
Soft rot can enter the plant via root or leaf damage, and through the tiny holes made by sucking insects.
As soon as you become aware of the problem, you should isolate your plant so that it does not spread to other plants in your collection.
If the plant does not show signs of a recovery then you should dispose of it and not try to compost any of the plant material.
There are a number of pathogenic infections that could attack your plant. If you see small reddish-brown spots appearing on the leaves of your Snake Plant this could well be a result of a pathogen.
Root rot is also a result of fungal pathogenic infection which can be fatal for your snake plant.
- Always use a new sterilized potting mix for planting your house plants.
- Don’t reuse old potting soil, and dispose of soil when you pot replant your Snake Plant.
- Finally, some of the pathogens may linger inside the pot. Before replanting into a pot, wash it well and add a cap full of bleach to the water that you use to wash it with.
- Once replanted into healthy soil, these plants usually recover over time, providing the infection was not allowed to become too well established.
Incorrect Soil pH
When the pH level of the soil is wrong it can cause problems for some plants in terms of their ability to take up minerals and nutrients.
Yellowing between veins, for example, may be a result of insufficient iron uptake.
I should stress that the Snake Plant is tolerant of a wide range of pH levels ranging from 4.5 to 8.5.
Ideally, you would want the pH to hover somewhere between 5.5 and 7.5. If you are using proprietary potting soil, it should fall into this range.
It is normally when peat moss is included that the pH becomes too acidic, but as you don’t want too much water retention, and are aiming for a cactus-type mix, this should not become an issue.
If you are concerned that incorrect pH is causing your plant problems, you can purchase a soil testing kit and check the levels.
Snake Plants do not like to get even a touch of frost, and to do so could spell death for your plant. The leaves will quickly turn a blue-black color and collapse.
This is normally only a problem that is experienced by people who move their Snake Plants outside for the summer, and then forget to bring them inside before the winter sets in.
The perfect temperature range for your Snake plants lies between 65 and 80°F (18 – 27°C) which is not difficult to maintain in an average house.
The plant will start to become unhappy if you expose it to temperatures below 55°F (12°C).
Because of the thick waxy cuticle that covers the leaves of the Snake Plant, it is not a favorite with insect pests.
Those that may become an issue will be sapsuckers and the two that you are most likely to encounter are scale insects and mealybugs. Both of these guys rely on camouflage as their primary means of defense.
Mealybugs look like little white bits of fluff and at first glance, the inexperienced gardener might not see it for an insect at all.
They love to hide out in the cracks and crevices at the base of the plant’s leaves. Scale insects are slightly more obvious, but they too don’t look like insects at first.
- Wipe the mealy bugs off the leaves using a soft cloth with some rubbing alcohol. Finding them will be more of an issue than getting rid of them.
- Scale insects are slightly tougher and they may need to be scraped away using your finger nail or a blunt knife.
Both of these pests can be kept at bay by close observation so that they don’t have a chance to become established.
Regular wiping of the leaves with a slightly damp cloth will keep them in pristine condition and help deter these pests.
It really shouldn’t be necessary to use pesticides if you follow these principles. Always remember that a healthy plant is far less prone to attack in the first place.
Most plants like a certain amount of humidity and the Snake Plant is no exception.
Though these plants come from arid conditions, the humidity level in some homes can fall below their ideal requirements, especially if you have some form of heating system in place.
There is no need to be too alarmed by this. You are not going to need to rush out and purchase a humidifier or a misting system.
- One way to elevate the humidity around your plants is to clump them together in plant islands. Due to the fact that all the plants in the cluster are transpiring, the humidity in that area will be raised automatically by way of a mini micro climate.
- If your plant is standing on its own, layer the plant saucer with pebbles and fill it with water. When the plant pot is standing on the pebbles it will be clear of the water but the plant itself will benefit from the water slowly evaporating.
Dealing with Dormancy
All plants go through a dormant period when their metabolism slows down and they grow far less rapidly. This period it seems like your snake plant is dying.
Normally this takes place during the cooler winter months as is the case with the Snake Plant.
In the northern hemisphere, expect your plant to slow down between late October and mid-March.
It is important to be aware of dormancy because your plant will require much less water and no fertilizer during this period.
Follow the same system of feeling the potting mix before giving more water. It should drop to about half as often as during the growing season.
Lack of Nutrients in Soil
If your snake plant is in a pot, it is inevitable that sooner or later it will exhaust the nutrients that were originally in the soil.
This will eventually result in slower growth and a less healthy plant. At some point, it may seem that your snake plant is dying.
- To overcome this problem, we simply add fertilizer. The main thing to take away from this is that Snake Plants require very little in the way of supplementary feeding.
- Use a balanced houseplant fertilizer and feed according to the recommendations on the package, and no more.
- Feed during the growing season only and stop feeding altogether outside of that period.
A snake plant becomes root bound when its root ball completely fills the pot that it is planted in.
This can impact the soil’s ability to hold moisture and nutrients. Slowly the signs of dying snake plants will appear.
These plants don’t need to be repotted often. They are happy even when the roots are quite tight.
Signs that you should repot include, roots protruding through the drainage holes or over the brim of the pot, and bulging of the pot when in a plastic container. The only solution to this problem is to repot into a bigger pot.
Repotting Your Snake Plant
If your plant has been showing signs of stress or has outgrown its pot, then you should repot into the next size container.
- Tip the plant out of its pot and examine the root for rot. If there are any brown or rusty colored roots they can be cut back until you reach clean, white, root material.
- Plant your pot into its new container, which needs to be clean, and use one of the potting mixes that we have already looked at.
Don’t feel that you need to water the plant immediately. The soil is probably holding enough moisture to last for a few days, so allow the plant to settle in.
After that, feel for moisture and water as previously described when the soil is dry.
It is important that at this stage you provide your plant with optimum conditions, especially if it is recovering from a near-death experience.
Keep it in bright but indirect light. Too much light could aggravate stress at this fragile stage. Ensure the temperature is not too low and that humidity levels are optimum.
Now, what if your snake is severely infected with a fatal disease like root rot. then propagation is the only way to save your dying snake plant.
Snake Plant Propagation
It is a sad fact that if root rot has become established, you may not be able to save the whole of your plant.
When cutting away the rotted roots, if you cannot find healthy material, you may discover the alarming fact that the rot has extended up into the leaves.
This is not necessarily the end of your plant. Continue cutting away from the base of each leaf one inch at a time.
Eventually, you should reach material that is healthy. You are now going to propagate using material above that cut.
Remember that your secateurs are now carrying disease so you will need to clean them with alcohol before making one more cut into healthy plant material.
That plant material is now the source material for your new plant or plants.
You can either use that leaf as a cutting or, if it is long enough, you can cut it into four-inch segments and grow several cuttings.
It is important that you always know where the top section of each segment is so you don’t start your cutting off upside down.
The new plant will eventually grow but it will delay the process considerably.
Place your cutting, or cuttings, into a clear container of water so that the water covers about one-quarter of the cutting. Stand it in a bright position and replace the water with clean water once a week.
After four to six weeks, you will start to see the first roots begin to appear. Keep the plant in the container for another three to four weeks so that the roots become stronger and larger.
After that, your cuttings are ready to be planted into pots using a cactus mix potting medium.
Keep the mix slightly moist but not wet and stand the plant in a position that is bright, but not sunny.
The new plants will have exactly the same markings as the plant from which the cuttings were taken.
If you need a step-by-step guide to propagating a snake plant, read my other article here.
Snake plants are very tough and what you have just read is often a worst-case scenario. In general, these plants will be hassle-free, but you must follow these principles.
- Water sparingly and only when dry.
- Keep the plant within its temperature range.
- Bright but indirect light is best.
- Use a free-draining potting