Snake plants are easy to grow and they are great indoor plants. They have a bold, architectural appearance, and they are categorized by NASA as clean air plants along with pothos and the peace lily. Many people recommend the snake plant as a good beginner plant for those who don’t know anything about growing house plants.
Even if you’ve never grown a plant indoors before, you probably know how important water is. What you need to know about snake plant care is that too much water will kill it. They hate soggy soil and so knowing the right way to water your plant is key to its survival. The roots need oxygen and water, but if they get too wet, they will simply rot.
What is a snake plant?
The snake plant is a woody plant with tall, stiff, fleshy leaves that is native to parts of tropical Africa. Known as Sansevieria trifasciata until 2017, it is now classified as Dracaena trifasciata.
It belongs to the Asparagaceae family and is a perennial plant. This means it keeps on growing year after year.
Also known as Mother-in-law’s Tongue, the snake plant is a popular house plant, and, in the right conditions, it is used as a ground filler for indoor gardens. It is too tall to be called a regular ground cover.
In its natural environment, it flowers in winter, but you aren’t going to see flowers if you grow them indoors. Where snake plants do flower, the blooms are minute and a mundane greenish-white to cream color. They have no smell at all.
As mentioned above, the snake plant is on NASA’s list of clean air plants, which they say remove harmful pollutants from indoor environments. These include ammonia, benzene, formaldehyde, and other nasties that manufacturers use in many of the household cleaning products we use.
The Other Snake Plant
There is another snake plant, but it bears zero resemblance to Dracaena trifasciata. It is Nassauvia serpens, a species in the Asteraceae family that is endemic to the Falkland Islands, which is a temperate region.
How do you know when your snake plant needs water?
Dracaena trifasciata snake plants are succulents, and as such, they don’t need a lot of water. And excess watering will kill the plant if it develops root rot from sitting in waterlogged soil.
You aren’t going to know by looking at your snake plant whether it needs water or not.
Generally, when the soil a snake plant is growing in is dry, it needs water. But you’re going to have to stick your finger into the soil to tell.
Often soil may look dry, but an inch under the surface it’s still moist. It needs to be completely dry. So, do the finger test before you grab a jug of water can to give it a drink.
Another sign to look for is the soil shrinking away from the sides of the pot. Presuming you are growing your snake plant in a terracotta pot, knock the side of the pot with your knuckles. A hollow sound will tell you that it needs water.
Before we discuss how and when to water snake plants in more detail, let’s look at their basic needs in a bit more detail.
Other snake plant care and nurturing needs
Growing snake plants really is very easy. But to get it right, you need to know a little more than just how to water your plants.
If you buy your snake plant in a pot, it should have been planted in a cactus and succulent potting mix. But, the chances are it will be in a plastic pot.
Generally, succulents do much better in terracotta pots because they are porous. This ensures that the soil dries out more easily. It is also essential that your pot has drainage holes.
If you’re going to repot your snake plant, only add good quality potting soil intended for succulents to the mix. It needs to be well-draining soil, so add perlite if the soil mix seems to be too dense.
Use a bigger pot, but don’t bury the plants any deeper than they were previously. You need space for the roots to grow.
Water is an essential element for all plants. But when it comes to snake plants, overwatering is a prime reason they don’t do well indoors.
The amount of water you give your snake plants will depend on the size of the pot and the amount of light they get. It stands to reason that when a plant grows in a darker space it will need less water.
The same thing applies to the seasons when your plants are dormant. So, in the fall and in winter be sure you are watering your snake plants less often than in the spring and summer months.
When they are dormant, you can wait up to two months before you water your plants. In the growing season, it’s usually best to water every two weeks. But don’t forget to make sure that the soil is completely dry before you water.
Like most succulents, snake plants do best in bright, indirect light. While they will grow in direct sunlight, they will thrive in low-light areas of your home, including shady corners.
If you move snake plants from low-light areas to spots where they will get more direct light, do this gradually. Moving them too quickly can shock them.
You can grow snake plants successfully outdoors, at least for part of the year, in USDA zones 8 and warmer. But they spread by developing underground runners and can quickly become invasive.
That’s why they are best grown in contained, well-maintained areas, or in pots.
Keep your snake plants in a warm spot where the temperature is no lower than 50℉ (10℃). Frost will kill snake plants as quickly as excess watering will.
A good rule of thumb is to aim for a temperature range of between 70-90℉ (21-32℃).
It isn’t usually necessary to fertilize snake plants, but if you do, only fertilize in the growing season.
Choose a mild fertilizer that is suitable for cactus and succulents. A good choice is a liquid, slow-release 10-10-10 product. If you use a 20-20-20 product, dilute it to half strength.
Don’t overfeed your snake plants.
Snake plants grow quickly, and a good maintenance program will include dividing them annually. Do this in spring, separating sections of the plants that have both leaves and roots. They will also grow from cuttings.
As mentioned above, when you repot your snake plants, only add good quality potting soil intended for succulents to the mix. It needs to drain well. It all hinges on the soil not getting waterlogged.
If you don’t want to repot your snake plants, you can simply prune them by removing the leaves at the soil line. If you want to control the height of your plant, remove the tallest leaves.
How to water your snake plants
The first step before watering your snake plants is to do a finger test.
It’s super simple. All you do is stick your finger into the soil to a depth of about one inch.
If the soil feels dry, it is time to water your plants, but try to water from the bottom of the pot.
The best way to water from the bottom of a pot is to stand the pot in a shallow basin or saucer of some kind. Then, instead of pouring water into the top of the pot, you pour water into the basin.
This way, it can be absorbed through the drainage holes in the base of the pot into the soil. What this does is encourage the roots to grow downwards so that they establish themselves deep in the soil. This is why you need to be sure your pot has sufficient room for them to keep growing.
Watering from the bottom of the pot also helps to develop tall, thick leaves as the plant grows.
Can snake plants be overwatered?
They most certainly can be overwatered, which is why we need to be very careful to ensure that the soil dries out completely every time we water them.
As Clement University’s Cooperative Extension service points out, “the main death of potted plants is over-watering.”
So, when you have a plant like this one that needs hardly any water at all, excess watering is a life threat.
Whether you call it Mother-in-law’s Tongue, snake plant, or Dracaena trifasciata, you need to be clear that it doesn’t need much water. Excess watering will be more likely to kill it than any other lack of snake plant care.
Since water evaporates a lot more rapidly from porous clay or terracotta pots, that’s the way to go with snake plants. Even so, you need to monitor when you water your plant and be sure you don’t kill it with what you might think is kindness!