Snakes belong in our ecosystem, but most people prefer not to have them living in their backyards. Sadly for conservationists, the reality is that snakes are one of the least welcome forms of wildlife. They are certainly not a form of wildlife that you are likely to want to attract to your garden.
There are quite a few plants that are believed to repel snakes. Apart from snake plants and a couple of others that supposedly scare snakes, these plants all have a strong, often unpleasant, smell. Many people believe the strong odor wards off the scaly, slithering reptiles we are so afraid of.
Are snakes safe for your garden?
While some snakes are venomous, most aren’t. In fact, only about 10% of snake species and subspecies are really dangerous.
But most people don’t know the difference and don’t want to take a chance and risk snake bites. So, while most snakes are completely safe for your garden, it’s best not to attract any snakes, especially if you have a small yard, pets, and children.
If you have a large garden, with dense undergrowth and moist soil, this may attract snakes. But you may be able to keep areas safe using various methods.
Often snakes find their own safe haven in a garden, hiding under rocks or bushes where they can find rats, mice, and any other food. Generally, this is more likely in areas that are not built up, though not necessarily only in non-urban environments.
Specialists at the University of Florida’s information system extension advocate snake-proofing homes and garden structures. This involves plugging gaps and holes where they could gain access to your house or garden. So do the folks at Utah State University Extension.
The National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC) has similar advice. A cooperative agreement between Oregon State University and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, also advise people not to use chemical snake repellents. These, they say, can be a risk to people, their pets, and the environment.
What plants keep snakes away?
There have been several studies aimed at finding plant-based snake repellents. Some are inconclusive while others found their studies to be a waste of time.
A lot has been written about snake repellent plants in ancient Indian literature. There are also wide beliefs in folklore in India and other countries.
What the studies say
A 1988 study, Observations on Snake Repellent Property of Some Plant Extracts, undertaken at the Department of Zoonosis at the Haffkine Institute in Bombay, looked at oils extracted from plants. These include essential oils like juniper, cedarwood, neem, clove, eucalyptus, lemongrass, and sweet basil.
Based on the study, only Acorus calamus (a tall, perennial grass) and pine oils have any snake repellent properties.
A 2015 study undertaken at the University of Nebraska investigated the possibility of using essential oils to repel brown tree snakes from cargo in ships in the Pacific. Even though essential oils seem to be effective against mosquitoes and ticks, they decided it wouldn’t work to repel snakes.
Study that says some plants do repel snakes
There is, though, evidence that some scientists have been able to validate plants that repel snakes. A study by researchers at Delta State University in Mississippi, published in 2018, lists 11 plants that they found to be effective.
- Andrographis paniculata (king of bitters)
- Chili pepper seeds
- Datura stramonium (thornapple)
- Bitter kola seeds
- Tobacco plant
- Ocimum gratissimum (scent leaf)
- Sansevieria trifasciata (mother in law tongue)
- Turnera ulmifolia (yellow alder)
- Vetiveria zizanioides (Poaceae Vetiver).
A more recent study undertaken in Ghana and published in 2021 confirms that the strong odor given off by certain plants is an effective deterrent. The four most commonly named plants include onions and garlic.
- Nicotiana tobacum
- Allium sativum (garlic)
- Rauwolfia serpentine
- Allium cepa (onion)
The list also includes two trees, Garnicia kola (bitter kola) and Plumeria alba (nosegay). The seeds of bitter kola and the whole nosegay tree have a repellent scent. So, too, do Cymbopogon citratus (West Indian lemongrass) and Ocimum sanctum (holy basil).
They also say snakes are scared of several plants including mother-in-law’s tongue, Sansevieria trifasciata, also known as the snake plant. Most people believe this is because of its sharp leaves. Additionally, they are scared by Amarantus spinosus (thorny amarantus) and the creeping leaves of Argyreia Nervosa (elephant creeper).
Plants that Help Repel Snakes Naturally
There is a strong belief, partly backed by science, that snakes hate strong smells. For this reason, plants with a strong odor may be used to create a natural snake repellent.
Of course, if snakes are indeed scared of certain plants, they too may be natural snake repellent.
We have mentioned some of the plants researchers identify as possible snake repellents. Now we are going to add a few flowers to the list. All of these work well in a landscaping plan intended to add color to your garden.
Marigolds (tagetes) are bright, cheerful flowers that attract butterflies, ladybugs, bees, and other beneficial insects. It is the roots that repel garden pests, including moles and snakes.
Indigenous to parts of South America, they are grown all over the world. Popular garden species include the French marigold and the African marigold.
Plectranthus neochilus, also known as Coleus neochilus, blue coleus, smelly coleus, and the lobster flower, looks like a poor relation of lavender. Their purple-blue flowers are remarkably similar, but their foliage and smell are completely different.
San Marcos Growers, based in Santa Barbara, California, reports that the lobster flower is sometimes marketed to repel dogs. They say that its “skunky aromatic foliage” makes it deer resistant too and that even snails don’t like it.
It is indigenous to South Africa where it has an excellent reputation for repelling snakes. It is also used to repel flies and mosquitoes, as is sometimes nicknamed the fly or mosquito bush.
Tulbaghia violacea, more commonly called wild garlic or society garlic, is a popular garden plant that is also indigenous to South Africa. It is also known as pink agapanthus.
A medicinal plant rather than a vegetable, like regular onions and garlic, its leaves and flowers are often used in salads.
Commonly used to help cure sinus headaches, both its leaves and flowers smell of garlic when picked. The smell repels fleas as well as mosquitoes and ticks if you crush bits of the plant on your skin.
People often plant Tulbaghia violacea or pink agapanthus to discourage moles and repel snakes. The Zulu people, in particular, often plant it around their homes to get rid of snakes.
Note that pink agapanthus is not the same plant as the common agapanthus, Agapanthus praecox, yet another plant indigenous to South Africa.
What smell do snakes hate?
Scientists say that snakes hate any type of strong smells that are bitter, or unpleasant (to them). The smell of some plants, like marigolds or the smelly coleus, is difficult to describe, and they certainly aren’t the same. What they have in common is simply a very strong odor.
Some people, inadvisably, use toxic chemicals to try and repel snakes. Others use repellent products, many of which contain naphthalene, which is made from petroleum or coal tar and also used for mothballs, disinfectants, and explosives!
A pest control company in Sri Lanka makes a repellent from natural ingredients including cedar, cinnamon, and clove oil that doesn’t kill snakes. It’s called Snake Out and is certainly preferable to toxic chemicals.
But it’s a well-known fact that snake repellents aren’t 100% effective. As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, any type of repellent should be part of a larger plan to keep out pests, including snakes.
If you have a problem with snakes in your garden, don’t be tempted to use toxic chemicals. In any case, there is strong evidence that most commercial snake repellents don’t work.
At the same time, there is evidence that some plants work as natural snake repellent. Give it a try, you’ve got nothing to lose.