The snake plant goes by many names. The most common name is the mother-in-law’s tongue. There are over 70 species in the Sansevieria genus.
Each of these belongs to the group of succulents. Being in that group puts them at high risk of overwatering. That is the leading reason why snake plants die prematurely.
Whenever you grow succulents indoors, you need to know how to pot them, repot them, how to water succulents, and the proper fertilizers to use for each different type.
Failing that, you can find yourself having to revive an overwatered snake plant. At its worst, propagation may be the only way to save part of a dying snake plant.
Get the lowdown below on snake plant root rot, including the causes, what it looks like, how to fix it, and prevent it from happening in the future.
Snake plant root rot
This happens when the soil holds too much moisture for too long. It can be a direct result of overwatering. More often, when root rot happens on snake plants, it is because the soil does not drain fast enough. Fertilizer overdosing can affect soil quality, too.
How to identify snake plant root rot
The leaves on the snake plant should be green, possibly with yellow edges depending on the type, but always standing tall and firm.
As a succulent plant, the inside of the leaves holds loads of water. That is why they can stand upright.
The way succulents (not just sansevieria) retain water in their leaves is what makes them extremely drought tolerant. They do not need much watering.
When there is excess moisture in the soil, the leaves turn brown from the bottom up.
Early symptoms of roots rotting are the base of the leaves turning brown.
If you pinch the brown part of the leaf between your thumb and forefinger, it will feel squishy.
When you feel mushy leaves, push your finger into the topsoil to expose the roots.
Healthy roots are white to tan brown. Decaying rotting roots are dark brown. Dead roots are black.
As with any plant with decaying roots, there will be a musty odor leaching from the soil. A musty scent is always a symptom of dampness.
When the smell is present on plants with browning leaves, there is a good chance that the roots are rotting.
Causes of snake plant root rot
Besides overwatering, several things can damage the roots of any succulent plant, making them susceptible to root rot.
Common issues to be careful with are:
Snake plants do not need much fertilizer added. Only a little amount infrequently, at a diluted strength, and never during their dormancy period (late fall through winter).
Overdosing can cause root burn making them susceptible to fungal diseases that lead to root rot.
Snake plants damaged by root burn can cause curly leaves on snake plants, drooping, and brown spots on the upper parts of leaves.
The potting mix to use for any succulent plant needs to be well-draining.
If water is retained in the soil, it is at the expense of oxygenation. A lack of oxygen will suffocate the roots directly leading to root rot.
For the roots to grow, they need room. Every few years, the roots will outgrow the pot they are growing in. The most telling sign is when you see the roots poke through the drainage holes.
That is a sign they cannot grow inside the pot. That is when to repot succulents.
How to treat snake plant root rot
Snake plant root rot is irreversible. At least for the roots already damaged. For that reason, the only treatment is to root prune diseased plants, then repot with fresh potting soil.
When repotting, only increase the size of the container by an inch to two inches. Putting an already stressed plant into a pot that is too big will cause moisture problems.
The bigger the container, the more moisture the soil will hold making it more susceptible to a repeat of the same.
If you can, keep the potting soil the same as the plant is used to.
As an example, a plant that is already acclimated to an ideal potting soil mixture for houseplants that is rich in perlite, coco coir, and perlite, will be used to fast drainage.
Switching to a potting soil that has less aeration can make the plant struggle.
Generally, any plant finds the repotting stage stressful. It will be more noticeable on diseased plants recovering from root rot.
Only change the type and ratio of potting soil mixture if it did have poor drainage.
Sterilize your tools
When cutting away damaged roots, work with sterile tools only. Every cut you make, wipe your blade with rubbing alcohol. The reason being, fungi thrive in moist soil.
When you have some roots rotting and others healthy, you do not want your blade to transfer fungal spores that can infest your new potting mix.
Starting a new snake plant from a dying one
In the worst of scenarios, all the roots could have rotted. When that is the case, take advantage of how succulents grow. Roots emerge from leaves. You can take a cutting from a leaf, root it in water, then repot in new potting soil.
At least, that should happen.
Cuttings from leaves that are taken from a plant with root rot can make the cuttings weaker. The better solution for rooting cuttings is to learn about how to propagate succulents with honey.
The honey acts as a rooting hormone, helping it to root in the soil.
How to prevent a repeat of snake plant root rot
The best way to prevent root rot from getting a start in your potting soil is to ensure the soil and the pot you grow the snake plant in drains well.
Adding perlite or pumice increases drainage.
Not all pots have drainage holes. If yours doesn’t, punch holes in plastic pots with a sharp nail, or for clay pots, drill a hole through its base. An alternative is to elevate the roots by lining the base of the pot with pebbles or gravel.
There is a higher risk of overwatering occurring in pots without drainage holes.
When working on any part of your plant, be it with trimming off damaged roots, stunting growth by snipping leaf tips, or even poking your finger in the soil to test its moisture levels, make sure everything is sterile.
Use rubbing alcohol (isopropyl alcohol) for your tools.
Hand sanitizer products also contain enough isopropyl alcohol (70%) to kill microbes, fungal infections on contact and they dissipate fast so they do not linger on cut stems and leaves like a harder solution would, such as bleach.
Good fertilizer practice
Fertilize irregularly only during the growing season, never in the winter. The best fertilizers for houseplants will have multiple nutrients, each in equal amounts.
Indoor grown succulents only need houseplant fertilizer at a diluted strength.
Follow the manufacturer’s instructions that come with each product. They are all different.
As a guideline for when to fertilize, snake plants grown with bright light need more plant food. In low light conditions, they may only require a fertilizer feed once annually.
Frequently Asked Questions related to snake plant root rot
Is root rot contagious?
Root rot can spread between any houseplant grown in soil. Often, it is spread on the tools used for pruning. When any plant is damaged from sitting in waterlogged soil, be careful to sterilize your tools to avoid spreading fungal spores.
Do houseplant pests cause or spread root rot?
Houseplant pests such as aphids, and spider mites can spread fungal spores between plants. Moist soil is what attracts insects. If you see your insect population increase, check your soil moisture level, inspect the roots, cut back on watering, and treat with a pesticide like neem oil.
Marcel runs the place around here. He has a deep passion for houseplants & gardening and is constantly on the lookout for yet another special plant to add to his arsenal of houseplants, succulents & cacti.
Marcel is also the founder of Iseli International Commerce, a sole proprietorship company that publishes a variety of websites and online magazines.