The snake plant (Dracaena trifasciata, formerly Sansevieria trifasciata, USDA zones 10-12) is a wonderful houseplant for beginners because it is incredibly hardy and low maintenance, making it difficult to kill even for the least dedicated plant owner. This drought-tolerant succulent has a much longer life span than most other houseplants, so it's a good option for those who don't want to buy new indoor plants every year or two.
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One look at the long, sword-shaped snake plant leaves featuring alternating bands of grayish-green and dark green will tell you from where the "snake" in its name comes. While snake plants occasionally bloom, shooting up a long spike with multiple sweet-smelling white to greenish flowers, this is a rare occurrence, so it's best to assume that your snake plant will be flowerless for most of its life.
Best Uses for Snake Plants
One interesting factor to note about the snake plant, also called mother-in-law's tongue, is that there are around 70 different varieties of the plant, which vary in color, leaf shape, size and care requirements. Depending on the variety, they may grow anywhere from 6 inches to 7 feet high, so be sure to plan ahead based on where you plan to place them in your home.
That being said, these are highly adaptable houseplants, and they can survive with any level of light or humidity, so they can be placed in bathrooms, kitchens, living rooms, basements and even in direct sunlight on balconies or patios. Because they spread easily via rhizomes, it is important to avoid growing these plants outside of containers because they can quickly become invasive pests and take over your whole garden.
A few popular snake plants include:
- Dracaena trifasciata 'Hahnii' (bird's nest): Grows only 6 to 12 inches tall, making it a popular addition to office cubicles and home windowsills
- Dracaena cylindrica (dragon's fingers): Grows 3 to 6 feet tall and has tubular leaves that grow outward, meaning it needs more space, like in a living room corner or a nook in the bedroom
- *Dracaena trifasciata 'Laurentii': *Well known for its yellow edges that provide a striking complement to the rest of the dark-green leaves
- Dracaena masoniana (whale fin): Grows only a handful of wide, large leaves that resemble a whale's fin breaking through the ocean's surface
The striking appearance of the snake plant is well-suited to a variety of design styles ranging from classic to contemporary, but the lovely appearance isn't the plant's only major selling point. It's particularly great at improving the air quality in your home, filtering out toxic air pollutants including formaldehyde, benzene, xylene and more. In fact, these plants are unique in that they are one of the only common indoor plants (along with spider plants and peace lilies) that continue to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen at night, which means you may benefit by adding a snake plant on each side of your bed to purify the air while you sleep.
How to Care for Snake Plants
- Common Name: Snake plant
- Botanical Name: Dracaena trifasciata
- Sun Exposure: Partial sun
- Soil Type: Succulent and cactus mix
- Mature Size: 2 to 3 feet tall
- When it's in Trouble: Leaves become floppy, squishy or wilted; white or red spots appear on the leaves
- When it's Thriving: Foliage is long and firm
Soil, Light and Water Recommendations for Snake Plants
Snake plants left sitting in too much water will suffer from root rot, which is one of the few things that will kill this notably tough plant. Place a new snake plant in a succulent and cactus soil mix that is high in drainage material, such as perlite or pumice, since this is some of the best-draining soil available.
To further prevent root rot, water your new snake plant only when the soil is completely dry. Generally speaking, good snake plant care requires watering the plant no more than every two to eight weeks, providing less water in the winter during the plant's dormant period. Remember that overwatering is one of the worst things you can do to this plant, but underwatering isn't as big a deal, so always err on the side of too little water. Do not water the leaves but only the soil since leaving water buildup on the leaves can cause rotting. Avoid misting this plant.
When it comes to sunlight requirements, you'll be happy to know that just about anything will do. Ideally, the plant should be grown in indirect light, but it can grow in complete shade or in direct, bright light too as long as it's not too hot. Keep in mind that direct sun that is too hot can scorch the leaves, and too little light could leave the leaves less brightly colored and a little floppy. Light levels affect growth, with plants in low light growing more slowly than those getting sufficient light.
Fertilizer Recommendations for Snake Plants
Snake plants are truly low maintenance and do not really require fertilizer, though you can choose to fertilize them with a worm compost or all-purpose houseplant food. Do not fertilize more than twice a year and avoid fertilizing in late fall or winter because this is when the plants enter a dormant period and slow their growth.
Humidity and Temperature Recommendations for Snake Plants
This is yet another area where the snake plant makes life easy for its owner. In fact, while they prefer humidity, stale and dry air is also fine, which is why snake plants thrive in bathrooms and also do well in dry office cubicles.
Similarly, they'll do pretty well in a wide range of home temperatures. As long as you're not freezing, the plant is probably fine. The only thing to keep in mind is to keep your snake plants away from drafty windows and avoid putting them outside during the winter because they don't like frost or temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
How to Prune Snake Plants
You don't have to prune snake plants, so if you want to skip it, go ahead. That being said, pruning can be useful for maintaining the size of your snake plant, removing damaged leaves and modifying the shape of the plant. If you want to keep your snake plant in the same container its entire life or want to keep it from getting too large for its space in your home, you'll probably want to prune periodically to prevent it from becoming rootbound. Because these plants are slow growers, you shouldn't need to do so more than once a year.
The same is true about shaping the plant since you'll usually just want to remove older leaves that have curled or bent in an undesirable manner. As for damaged leaves, you'll only need to do this as necessary to remove leaves that have been harmed by overwatering, pest infestations or other problems since damaged leaves will stay on the plant until you manually remove them.
Before cutting any leaves, check the plant's health to make sure it is healthy enough to be pruned and to identify any damaged leaves that should be removed. If the plant is in poor health due to overwatering, insect infestation or another issue, allow it to recover to avoid overstressing the plant by pruning it. Snake plants are hardy enough that they can be pruned at any time of year, but they will recover quicker if you remove leaves during the active growth phase in spring or early summer.
Always use a sharp, sterile pair of pruners on leaves, removing them at the soil line. Select older leaves for removal over newer leaves and keep your pruning goals in mind: maintaining size, removing larger leaves, improving appearance and discarding damaged leaves as well as those growing in an unfavorable shape or direction.
Potting (and Repotting) Snake Plants
Terra-cotta pots are preferable over plastic pots because they dry out quicker and more effectively than plastic. Always choose a pot with one or more drainage holes. When repotting, don't bury snake plants too deep or the new leaves will have a hard time breaking above the soil. Just plant them as deep as they were planted in their prior container.
While plants that have become rootbound will eventually need to be replanted, snake plants are notably tough, so you don't need to be overly concerned about rescuing your plant before its roots get too crowded. In fact, snake plants will generally only bloom if they are a little rootbound. If you notice that new leaves start wilting before they mature, or the older growth starts wilting despite not having been overwatered or exposed to cold, this could be a sign that the plant needs to be repotted.
Snake plants will generally need to be replanted in a new pot that is 1 to 2 inches wider every two to five years, but those growing slower because they are in low light conditions may not need to be replanted for five to 10 years. For best results, repot plants in the spring when they are in their active growth phase.
How to Propagate Snake Plants
Propagating snake plants is easy since they are such prolific growers. This can be done through division or leaf cuttings, and either way will result in new growth in as little as a month. Division is considered the most reliable method of propagation and requires cutting out one or more leaves along with the attached roots and replanting this part of the plant in a new pot. This is best done in the spring during the plant's active growth phase.
If you don't want to remove your plant from its pot, try leaf cutting. Remove one leaf from its roots at the soil line and then cut it into four sections. Put each section into a pot filled with good draining soil and water as necessary.
Common Pests and Other Problems for Snake Plants
Snake plants are so hardy that one of the only problems owners face is that dust may collect on the leaves. It can easily be wiped away with a damp cloth. That being said, these plants can occasionally become infested by mealybugs or spider mites. One of the best ways to treat these pests is to apply neem oil. Be sure to act as soon as you notice the infestation so the bugs don't have a chance to multiply. Avoid using insecticidal soap, which may damage snake plants.
Common Diseases for Snake Plants
The most common issue people notice with their snake plants is root rot caused by overwatering, which will result in the leaves being squishy and floppy at the base. Fortunately, these plants tend to recover from this issue fairly well once the soil has been allowed to dry out for a sufficient time. If the leaves continue to show signs of distress, though, remove the plant from the pot, cut away all rotting leaves and roots and then repot the healthy remaining portion of the plant in fresh soil.
Sometimes, people notice small reddish-brown spots on the leaves. This is usually caused by someone misting the leaves of the plant, which results in fungal growth. To treat this, remove the affected leaves and only water the soil around the plant and not the leaves.
Toxicity Information About Snake Plants
Perhaps the one downside of snake plants is that they can be mildly toxic to humans and quite dangerous to pets. If eaten, swelling, numbness, mouth pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea may occur. While most pets avoid eating this plant, it is still advisable to keep these wonderful houseplants away from kids and pets.