How to Grow and Care for Snake Plants
Technically dubbed sansevieria, snake plants are one of the most popular houseplants in all of North America. "Originally native to western Africa, their broad, rugged, elongated leathery leaves are attractive to even the most experienced plant-smiths," horticulturist Daniel Cunningham says. "They come in an assortment of unique cultivars with genuinely interesting foliage, and the longer-leaved specimens can grow to exceed five feet."
According to Marc Hachadourian, the director of glasshouse horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden, this variety is the current moment's "it" succulent. "There's a reason sansevierias are so popular," says Hachadourian. "They're practically indestructible." He should know—he's been caring for one his grandmother gave him since he was four years old. (It's even survived a house fire.) While you may have seen the vertical, flat-leaf type (Sansevieria trifasciata) everywhere from doctor's offices to shopping-mall displays, variations like S. cylindrica 'Boncel' (above) are undeniably more intriguing. The sculptural plant produces spearlike leaves and occasionally sprouts white flowers that fill the night air with a heady jasmine-y scent. Treat it right, and you'll have a low-maintenance friend for life.
"Snake plants are one of the easiest indoor plants one can grow," affirms Benjamin Godfrey, the garden manager at Cornerstone Sonoma. "They're great for anyone who has a hard time keeping houseplants alive." From the right kind of containers to plant them in to watering tips and more, we asked Cunningham, Godfrey, and Hachadourian to share their advice.
Pot in a container with good drainage.
When it comes to planting and potting your snake plants, the type of container you use is key. "Snake plants don't tolerate over-saturated soils, so a container with good drainage is crucial," Cunningham explains. "If you prefer decorative planters, consider housing your snake plant in a plastic container with drainage holes that can fit comfortably into a more ornamental container—removing the center pot when watering and allowing it to fully drain before moving back to [a] larger container—to ensure the soil stays dry." According to Hachadourian, the size of the pot matters, too: While these no-fuss plants can grow in many conditions, S. cylindrica and its cultivars do best in smaller containers that slightly confine their roots, he explains.
Place in indirect sun, if possible.
While snake plants prefer indirect sunlight from a south or east-facing window, Cunningham says they are extremely adaptable to a variety of light conditions inside the home, including low light areas. "This is what makes snake plants so great," he explains. "Where too little light is generally an issue with several harder to grow houseplants, snake plants tend to thrive in those spots." However, Cunningham says to avoid placing them in a spot that receives direct western sun, or else the plant could dry out over time. "The intensity might burn the leaves," he warns. Don't place the plant too far from those precious rays, however, notes Hachadourian. If you do, the foliage will stretch toward the light and lose its compact, starfish-like form.
The size and material of the pot used, as well as the potting medium inside the container, will each impact how often your snake plant needs to be watered. "If these plants do have a shortfall, it is that they are susceptible to overwatering, so make sure you're not giving them too much water at any given time," Cunningham says. For this reason, Godfrey recommends watering them sparingly—about once every one to two weeks—and allowing them to dry out between watering. "In winter, it may be best to wait weeks or even months between watering." Hachadourian agrees, noting to "resist the urge to overwater." But since every home's environment (temperature, humidity) is different, let the plant be your guide. "The leaves should be plump and firm," he says. "If they start to look wrinkled and shriveled, give it a drink more frequently."
Plant in well-draining soil.
Cunningham says that one way to help prevent overwatering is to make sure your snake plants are potted in well-draining soil, like a cacti and succulent potting mix, or a mix that includes perlite, a white mineral product that improves drainage. "If you prefer liquid fertilizers, fertigate once a month with half of the recommended rate on the label, as snake plants do not require heavy fertilization," he advises. "I generally prefer granular slow release fertilizers applied to the top of the potting soil once in early spring and again in late summer, but they can certainly get by with a whole lot less."
Feed it monthly.
Succulents like a lean (as opposed to nutrient-heavy) diet. During the growing season—March through November—nourish them with organic fertilizer: Add fish emulsion to your watering can, or sprinkle worm castings on top of the soil and gently work them into the top layer before hydrating.
Prune periodically to grow new plants.
If at any time you notice any dead or discolored leaf material on your snake plant, Cunningham says they can be pruned back with sharp pruners. "For a cleaner look, be sure to cut at a point to match the same shape as the leaves nearby," he explains. If over time, longer leaves start to lean or spill outside the container, Cunningham suggests pruning them all the way to the ground. "The prunings could then be inserted a few inches into the soil and used to start new plants," he says. As for how to spread the plant love and propagate minis for your friends? With clean, sharp pruners, clip two-to-three-inch pieces from one leaf. Nestle the cuttings in containers filled with moist, well-drained soil, and keep them in the sun. A few weeks later, new plantlets should start to form, advises Hachadourian.