Sansevieria (commonly called Snake Plant or Mother-in-Law's tongue) is a very popular indoor plant, and for good reason.
- Tolerant of most light conditions.
- Low maintenance.
- Slow to react to mistreatment, so even when they have been cared for poorly, they can last for some time with slow deterioration before becoming unsightly.
- One of the less expensive plants found at your local greenhouse. Much cheaper than similar short floor plants in the same category like Zamia, Aglonema, and Aspidistra.
There are things one should know about Sans to keep them in great shape, so let's get to know this fabulous houseplant.
Look at All the Sans!
Watering and Root Structure
One of the most critical components to understanding the Sansevieria is the root structure. This dictates a great deal about basic care for most plants; Sans are no exception.
Snake Plants have very shallow rhisomes for roots. They're typically grown in very deep, 24" tall grow pots with heavy soil. However, the roots of the plant itself only go down about halfway or less into that deep pot. The pot is designed more as a counterweight than anything else for sans of 10" diameter grow pots and larger.
Rhizomal roots spread outward; they do not grow down deep. Keeping this in mind, think about watering. If you are to water this plant through and leave it standing in water, the standing water in the liner will most likely not get used very effectively. As a matter of fact, it is not uncommon for a Sans watered in such a fashion to end up with a nice stinky liner full of stagnant water. It is possible that in a very high light and airflow situation this method might work out alright, after all, there still exists some amount of capillary action in the soil that can wick that water up where it belongs if the situation calls for this. Most indoor environments do not provide high light, airflow, or temperature. When indoors best watering practice for the Sansevieria revolves around consistency.
- Consistency in application all around the soil surface to ensure even distribution of water to the rhizomes throughout the area of the pot.
- Consistency in the frequency of application of the water.
- Consistency in the balance of the moisture content in the soil, not too wet, not too dry, and neither condition can exist for too long a period of time.
Aside from good watering practices, Sans don't require much else as far as regular care. It helps to wipe or dust down their sword-like leaves from time to time, but given the vertical disposition of their leaves, they normally collect much less dust than most other houseplants. As far as pests go, fungus gnats are really the only threat, and fungus gnats are usually a conditional problem that can be easily fixed with little to no real damage done to the plant itself. There are different varieties of Sans, the more compact the leaf structure on your Sans the less water the plant will use, and you may end up causing rot on really compact floret-like varieties if water is left in between the leaves. water the soil surface to the very best of your ability.
Sans are indeed hearty and fairly carefree but they do have some typical issues that arise, strangely enough, they all start at the root system.
Timber! Leaves tip over.
When a sword plant starts to have more of a horizontal, messy look going on, there are a couple of things that may have happened:
- Best case scenario is you have had your Sans for a long time and it has used up its topsoil surrounding its roots. The soil provides a bit of the support for this upright plant, if this seems to be the issue add some potting soil (I recommend cactus soil for these guys) to the surface and stand the leaves back up.
- More likely your Sans has been subjected to over or underwatering at some point which has damaged its root system which is the primary means of support for the vertical leaves. If this is the case then the plants will most likely continue to deteriorate slowly. You can also add potting soil in this case to prop the leaves back up but that is all that will do the plant structure will continue to degenerate in spite of your efforts. In this case, I say, better luck next time especially now that you have all this wonderful new information about the Sans. Coincidentally another big plus of the Sans is it's one of the less expensive houseplants available for purchase in your local nursery.
Bloated, Stinky Leaves
This is typically a sign of too much water at some point that burst all of the plants cells in a selected leaf. With such a thick leaf exterior it just turns into a nasty pouch for necrotic plant material when this happens. Remove these as you find them, as disgusting as they are they need to be taken off the plant or they can cause more trouble.
Completely Brown, Crunchy Leaves
This is a symptom that your plant has been left dry for too long, hopefully not long enough to have done significant root damage. If the problem is persistent you may be chronically under watering or missing the mark on the watering consistency practice in some way. Remove these as you come across them.
Brown Leaf Tips
This is another symptom of Overwatering or inconsistent watering. On many other houseplants, it is fine to cut this damage away but Mother-in-Laws Tongue scars very easily so in many cases more damage is done by trying to remove the tips.
Sans do scar badly if nicked or brushed against repeatedly. Overall, your plant should remain healthy at its core in spite of scarring but it can begin to look rough. Try to place Sans where they will not be in direct conflict with foot traffic, pets, children, doors, filing cabinets and the like to avoid scarring.
Remember that if you bring a new Sword Plant to your home or office, it is being moved from an ideal plant setting that generally has more available light, heat, and, airflow than where we live and work so they will naturally have a period of adjustment in which they may react as if they have been over or under watered. This is how a plant restores balance when its environment changes, only be concerned if the issues are excessive or persist for longer than approximately a month after the plant has been placed in its new home.
Otherwise, enjoy your Sansevieria!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: When I water my snake plant, should water come out from the drainage hole? Should the entire pot be damp or just the top?
Answer: To water a Sans effectively try to keep the soil surface moist with only brief periods of drying. Due to the nature of the roots, which are typically no deeper than about 2-3 inches deep in the pot, you will want to water enough to satisfy those roots consistently. Any excess water will go deeper into the soil but will only need to supply a network of small tap roots. If there is excess water building up in a liner or the bottom of the container it is too much. In most situations I have found with a Sans that more frequent watering (every week or every other depending on light conditions) of smaller amounts, while distributing that water evenly across the soil surface have proven to yield the best long term results.
Question: The edges my sansevieria leaves are jagged and almost serrated. It looks as though something, or some insect, has been trying to eat them, but I can see anything live on them. What could be causing this?
Answer: If your plant is in a high traffic area, I bet it may be getting brushed up against, causing the damage. If it is not in a high traffic area I would still lean toward human or animal contact causing the damage. If that does not explain it, it would probably be a larger insect of some sort. However, sansevierias are not a meal of choice for most insects, and pest infestation is extremely rare for this plant indoors.
Question: The tips of my snake plant are really skinny. Does this mean it's not getting enough of something?
Answer: The thinning foliage on your Snake plant as described would most likely be the result of less than desirable lighting, or a light source that the plant is straining to reach.
Question: The roots of my Sansevieria like to run across the top of the soil. Should I cover this with potting mix or leave it be? Maybe I’m watering too much also?
Answer: Some surface exposure of the rhizome of the Sansevieria roots is normal. If the exposure becomes excessive, to the point the stability of the foliage stalks gets to be unstable, adding a modest amount of topsoil is a good idea. Any plant, Sansevieria included, will consume soil overtime, and normal watering will compact remaining minerals causing the soil mass to diminish. I would guess that your watering is fine, particularly if the plant appears to be otherwise healthy.
Question: There is a small brown dot on my Sansevieria nearing the top of the leaf. Is this something to be concerned about, and/or how do I treat something like this?
Answer: Sansevieria are known to get contact scars quite easily. What you are describing sounds like a contact scar meaning that the plant was hit, scraped, or scratched by something at some point. This can be a bit unsightly, but it is merely the plants equivalent of a scab created to protect and heal a wound. Only be concerned if more begin to appear, there may be something like a pet or child being too rough with the plant, or it might be placed in a spot that allows for too much contact.
Question: Is a snake plant a monocot or dicot?
Answer: It is a monocot.
© 2012 thoughthole
What Do You Think About Sansevieria?
S. karve on June 24, 2020:
Is it okay to plant sansevieria( tall varieties) in a 3 inch deep bonsai tray?
brittany on May 21, 2020:
My sans have very thinning tips, and they are not hard anymore, they are easy to bend. What does this mean? Its a new plant, and I repotted it in terracotta.
megan on May 13, 2020:
I have a sans that has curling leaves so the leaf tip eventually points to the ground. I just noticed today that a couple leaves have brown edges/spots. I really want to save this plant- it belonged to my grandmother who died in 1979.
Sandra Garland on June 10, 2018:
Cannot find answer of what to do when leaves are turning yellow
kim on November 23, 2017:
I believe this is the by far the best website for gardening I've ever read. I've been navigating so many different websites but my search ends here :)
Just right amount of information in every aspect: not too much, not too little. I've bookmarked dengarden and will visit again and again !
Thanks from S. Korea :)
Frenchy21 on May 25, 2017:
I am just beginning to learn about them. Love them! I have one that's been in my family for 45 years. I enjoyed your article a lot. Always looking for more information on Sans and where to find them and repot them.
Lizzy on March 27, 2016:
Very thorough info.
thoughthole (author) from Utah on February 08, 2012:
Thank You Lori.
LoriSoard from Henryville, Indiana on February 07, 2012:
Excellent details to this article. Voting up and useful.