Snake Plant Care: Meet the Ultimate Entry-Level Houseplant
Nourishing a viper in your bosom might not be a good idea, but nurturing a snake plant in your boudoir is easy and almost guaranteed to succeed.
Called “snake plant” for its undulating appearance and serpent-like mottling or chevron patterns, Dracaena trifasciata (formerly Sansevieria trifasciata) isn’t at all creepy-crawly looking. So, to quote a 70s song, it has “what it takes” to be loved even by those who “don’t like spiders and snakes.”
Since snake plant care is minimal, consisting mostly of infrequent watering, this succulent is considered one of the easiest houseplants to grow. It also is dubbed “mother-in-law plant” for the sharp points at the tips of its leaves. But even the most viperously sharp-tongued mother-in-law won’t be able to find fault with this plant!
Snake Plant Care at a Glance
Common name: Snake plant, mother-in-law’s tongue
Scientific name: Dracaena trifasciata (formerly Sansevieria trifasciata)
Soil: Cactus and succulent potting soil
Light: Bright indirect light, morning sun
Food: Cactus and succulent plant food
Temperature and humidity: Average indoor temperatures and humidity
Propagation: Division in spring
Safety: Toxic to pets and humans if ingested
Snake Plant Characteristics
Native to western Africa and varying in height from 6 inches to 8 feet, snake plant rosettes grow from rhizomes. They typically shoot straight up with stiff blade-like foliage in tall cultivars, while shorter “bird’s-nest” varieties relax a bit with more tongue-like and flaring leaves.
Although a mature specimen occasionally produces stalks of spidery and fragrant greenish-white blooms—usually in spring—those are rare on indoor plants. So, snake plants generally are grown for their striking foliage, which usually is green with white, cream, or yellow edgings, bands, and/or mottling.
According to folklore, snake plants allow eight virtues in while keeping “the evil eye” out. Tall types can provide a strong vertical accent in a room’s decor, while short ones might symbolize one’s own empty nest!
Types of Snake Plant
- ‘Golden Hahnii’: Golden bird’s nest snake plant grows to 8 inches with yellow-edged and yellow-variegated green leaves in an upright rosette.
- ‘Laurentii’: Probably the most popular variegated snake plant, goldband snake plant can reach 4 feet high with its slender green spears marked with gray-green variegation and yellow edges.
- ‘Silver Hahnii’: Silver bird’s nest snake plant grows to about 1 foot tall; its pale green leaves are lightly outlined with dark green and smudged with horizontal green markings.
Selecting Snake Plant Soil
One of the few things likely to kill snake plant is constant sogginess. To prevent that, especially if you have a tendency to overwater plants, fill the snake plant container with a fast-draining cactus potting mix. Alternatively, combine one part cactus soil with one part standard potting soil, since the latter—if used on its own—might be too soft and fluffy to hold the taller cultivars of this plant upright and will hold on to more water.
As for a snake plant pot, a heavy terra-cotta or ceramic pot, wider than it is high, also could help keep your plant periscoping (the snaky term for standing up). Or you can add a layer of gravel to the bottom of a plastic pot to provide more weight and prevent the container from tipping. Just make sure that the container you choose has drainage holes to prevent water from building up around your plant’s roots.
The Right Light
To meet snake plant light requirements, place your cultivar in bright but indirect light—where rays from a south- or west-facing window don’t quite reach the plant but still keep it brightly illuminated. White walls or mirrors will help bounce light to it.
If you prefer, you can achieve the same diffused light effect by setting your plant on a south- or west-facing windowsill with a sheer curtain between it and the glass. Morning rays are gentler than the afternoon type, so a plant on an east-facing windowsill shouldn’t require a drape for protection against sunburn. Although it can tolerate low light, too, a snake plant might lose some of its leaves’ variegation under those conditions.
Watering Snake Plants
From spring through autumn, water your snake plant when its soil is dry 2 inches down. During winter, allow the soil to almost dry out completely before you water it again, about once every 2 weeks. When watering snake plant, do so thoroughly enough that water drains into its plant saucer.
After waiting about 10 minutes for the container to finish draining, discard the excess water from the saucer. This “flushing” helps keep fertilizer and calcium salts from building up, which can cause a white scum on the soil’s surface and brown burns on the tips of the plant’s leaves.
Fertilizing Snake Plants
Feed your plant during spring and summer with a fertilizer intended for cacti and succulents, following the instructions on the container. For an organic 1-2-2 cactus fertilizer, for example, you might combine 2 teaspoons of the plant food with 1 quart of water and apply it every 2 weeks or so.
Alternatively, you can use a high-phosphorus fertilizer intended for flowering houseplants, mixing it up at only half the recommended strength and applying it once a month from April through September. Don’t fertilize your snake plant during winter when its growth will have slowed to a slither or stopped completely.
Setting the Temperature and Humidity
Snake plants tolerate typical household temperatures—actually any temperatures between 65 and 90 degrees. They also don’t mind the low humidity found in most centrally heated or air-conditioned homes. So whatever pleases you should please your snake plants, provided you are not one of those people who prefer frigid or sauna-like conditions.
During winter, keep the plants away from poorly sealed windows and exterior doors—or any place that might expose them to frosty drafts. Since snake plants are hardy only in USDA Zones 10 through 12, freezing temperatures can cause them to coil up and die.
Propagating Snake Plants
Although it is possible to propagate these plants from cuttings, some types are chimeras, meaning they have a mixture of two or more genetically different types of cells, and won’t retain the coloring of the cultivar from which they were taken. However, snake plants produce offspring beside them in the pot (which are called pups, not snakelets). So you can make new plants via division by detaching those little ones from their parent.
To do so, remove the plant from its container, rinse off any soil clinging to its roots, and use a sharp knife to cut a pup’s L-shaped rhizome from the mother plant. Before cutting, make sure that rhizome already has roots growing from it and its own beginning leaves. Then plant it in another pot at the same depth at which it grew in the first. Water it well and keep it in moderate light until it recovers.
Keep in mind that snake plant contains saponins, which are naturally occurring bitter-tasting compounds that are toxic enough to cause nausea and vomiting if consumed—either by you, your children, or your pets. Since those foamy chemicals aren’t easily absorbed in humans, they aren’t likely to kill people, but they might be more dangerous to animals. So, if your pets are prone to nibbling on greenery, you’ll want to avoid snake plant or place it out of their reach.
A full-grown specimen in a large pot also can be heavy enough to cause injuries if it topples from a table or windowsill. Therefore, you may also want to avoid this plant if you have a toddler who pulls things down while pulling himself or herself up.
Potential Pests and Diseases
If your snake plant looks sick, consider its “skin” color and texture. A jaundiced yellow usually indicates that you have been overwatering the plant and its rhizomes might be rotting, while a wrinkly appearance reveals that it hasn’t been watered enough and is beginning to shrivel. If its variegation has begun to fade, move it to a brighter location.
Should you see insects that resemble bits of cotton, dab those mealybugs with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol. Webbing accompanied by tiny specks could indicate spider mites. Spray those with insecticidal soap, following the directions on the container and repeating the spray 5 days later. And keep in mind that spider mites usually mean your plant or the air around it is too dry.
FAQs About Snake Plant Care
Do you just want a quick answer to a quick question? Here are some of the most frequently asked ones about snake plant. However, it’s still a good idea to consult the relevant section of this article since almost all answers have qualifications and/or exceptions to take into account.
Q. Do snake plants need direct sunlight?
No. Too much snake plant sunlight actually can burn their foliage. They prefer either bright, indirect light or only morning light (on an east-facing windowsill).
Q. How many times a week should I water a snake plant?
During winter, it should require watering once every 2 weeks. In the growing season, water whenever the soil has almost dried out completely. In other seasons, water whenever its soil is dry 2 inches down.
Q. Where should I keep my snake plant at home?
Keep it in a position where it receives bright light but no direct sun except morning sun.