Snake Plants (mother-in-law’s tongue) of all kinds are beautiful succulents that clean the air and tolerate various conditions. They can be several feet tall or only a few inches high with wide or narrow, flat or cylindrical leaves. They are easy to care for and make a bold statement in a home or office.
In other words, they’re great houseplants but need the right care to shine. They need the right light, temperature, humidity, soil, water, and pot. And they also need to be repotted regularly every 2 or 3 years to keep them from becoming root bound.
What does root-bound mean? Some people call it pot-bound, which is the same thing. It means that the roots have overgrown the pot and are causing problems. Snake Plants like to be snug in their pots but do not like to be root bound.
Quick Answer: Do Snake Plants Like To Be Root Bound?
Snake Plants prefer snug pots but don’t thrive when excessively root-bound. Root-bound snake plants suffer from nutrient deficiency, dehydration, pest susceptibility, and potential root rot. Ideally, repot these plants every 2-3 years to prevent them from becoming severely root-bound and ensure their overall health.
How Can You Tell If Your Snake Plant Is Root Bound?
If your plant is not thriving, has yellow leaves, and has become droopy, it may be root bound if you haven’t repotted it in several years.
The way to check is to set the pot on its side and gently pull out the plant and its root ball from the pot. Take a look at the root growth.
There are three levels of root-bound overgrowth, from slight to extreme:
- Slightly root-bound: When the roots start growing around the root ball on the inside surface of the pot.
- Moderately root-bound: When a network of roots forms a pad around the root ball, and they grow out of the drainage holes.
- Extremely root-bound: When the roots have grown through the soil to the point where it’s mostly roots, and they’re coming out of the drainage holes and sometimes even up through the top of the soil.
What Does Being Root Bound Do To the Plant?
When a Snake Plant is growing in the ground, such as in its native West Africa, its roots have a chance to expand, absorb available nutrients and water, and support the plant.
But when it’s growing in a pot, the space for the roots to expand and the amount of soil is limited and needs to be refreshed from time to time.
If the plant hasn’t been repotted for several years, the soil will break down, and the available nutrients in the pot will become depleted. Roots will eventually replace the soil, causing the following problems for the plant:
When the soil has broken down and been replaced with roots, there will be minimal nutrition for the plant to absorb. Its leaves will become yellow and droopy, and the plant could die if nothing is done to correct the problem.
When there isn’t much soil in the pot, and it’s just a network of roots, there isn’t much material to absorb water and make it available for the plant.
Any remaining soil dries quickly, and water runs through the pot and out the drainage hole, leaving the plant dehydrated. Its leaves will become thin and wilted and eventually die.
Susceptibility To Pests
Root-bound Snake Plants become weakened and susceptible to pests such as aphids, spider mites, mealybugs, and scale.
Susceptibility To Root Rot
When plants are severely root bound, their pots can bulge and break from the pressure of the roots.
How To Fix a Root-Bound Snake Plant
These problems can severely damage or kill your plant, but fortunately, you can get your plant back on track by repotting. The best time to do this is in the late winter or early spring.
Materials You’Ll Need
- Scissors, knife, or clippers – for trimming the overgrown root system and dying foliage
- Spoon or scooper – for adding soil to the pot
- Moist potting soil – either a succulent mix or indoor soil amended with perlite, pumice, peat moss, sand, or coco coir
- Pot – use terracotta (the best choice) or plastic, composite, or ceramic with at least one hole in the bottom for drainage
Steps To Repotting Your Plant
- Remove the root ball from its current pot.
- Cut away the excess roots that are circling and filling up the pot, leaving 4-5 inches of roots growing straight down from the rhizomes.
- Trim any dead or droopy leaves.
- Separate any pups that you would like to start in another pot.
- Fill the pot part way up with moist, well-draining soil using the spoon or scooper.
- Hold the plant firmly in the center of the pot and fill the pot up with soil to the base of the leaves, covering the rhizomes.
- Press the soil down around the plant.
- Water your plant only when the potting mix dries out.
- Set your pot in a medium bright location away from hot or cold drafts.
- Wait a week to water it since the moist soil will be enough for it to start.
- Hold off on fertilizing it for about a month.
Care After Repotting
After you repot your Snake Plant, you’ll need to give it the right kind of care so that it will thrive. It is tolerant of variations in conditions, but if you provide it with the best light, temperature, humidity, soil, pot, and water, you’ll have a beautiful Snake Plant for years to come.
Even though Snake Plants are often considered low-light plants, they need a source of bright indirect light to grow their best. An east- or north-facing window is best that is bright but out of the direct sun’s rays, which can burn the leaves.
If the only available windows are west- or south-facing, set the plant back from the window, or hang a sheer curtain to soften the direct light.
If you bring your plant outside during the summer, set it in the shade under a tree, porch, or patio where it will get bright light but not the harsh sunlight.
Snake Plants are native to the hot, dry environment of West Africa. They do well between 65 and 90 degrees F, well within average household temperatures. Above 90 degrees F, they will wilt and shrivel, and below 65 degrees, their growth will slow, and they will fail to thrive.
Be careful of your plant if it’s enjoying the summer weather outside. When temperatures soar, please keep it in a cooler location in the shade. And in the fall, when temperatures drop, bring your plant in before it gets too cold.
Also, remember to keep it out of hot or cold drafts, such as hot air vents or air conditioners.
The humidity is 10-30% where Snake Plants are native in West Africa. Average household humidity is about 30-50%.
Still, your Snake Plant will tolerate this level if there is enough natural air circulation around it and it does not live in high-humidity areas like the bathroom or kitchen.
Outside in the summer, make sure your plant has enough air circulation so it does not develop fungal diseases.
Since Snake Plants are succulents, the best soil is a light, porous, well-draining soil mix. You can use a cactus soil or succulent potting mix or make your own with half indoor potting soil and half perlite, coco coir, peat moss, coarse sand, or pumice.
It’s important for your plant’s health that the soil has plenty of aeration.
When you repot, choose a new pot one-quarter to one-half larger than the root ball after trimming the excess roots away so the plant is comfortably snug.
The pot should be low and wide since Snake Plant roots are shallow, and the tall varieties need stability so they don’t topple over.
Pots come in several materials, such as terracotta (clay), ceramic, plastic, and composite.
Terracotta will allow moisture to escape through its walls, unlike the other materials which hold moisture in. But any of the materials can work fine as long as they have a drainage hole in the bottom.
The way you water your plant is essential for its health. Snake plants are succulents that only need to be watered when the soil is dry or almost dry, so it’s better to test the soil first rather than water on a schedule.
Test the soil by digging your finger or a chopstick down into the pot 3-4 inches or more if you have a tall pot. If it comes out dry, it’s time to water, but if it’s still moist, wait a week and test it again.
When you water, allow it to run through the soil until it flows out of the drainage holes in the bottom. Let it drain completely, and empty any excess water from the dish under the pot.
Snake Plants grow slowly, so they don’t need much fertilizer. The nutrients in the soil are usually enough when the soil is fresh, and the plant was recently repotted. But after a year or more, the soil will become increasingly depleted of nutrients, and you can fertilize to boost your plant’s nutrition.
There are many types and formulations of fertilizers available, but whichever kind you decide to use, make sure that you only use half of what is recommended to prevent fertilizer burn.
You can mix a small amount of granular succulent fertilizer into the top of the soil in the spring, which should last the whole season from spring to fall. Or you can use all-purpose liquid fertilizers, powder, or crystals that you dilute in water to half-strength and water with once a month during spring and summer.
If Snake Plants are root bound, they can become weakened and susceptible to pests, such as aphids, spider mites, mealybugs, and scale.
Aphids, spider mites, and mealybugs can be controlled by hosing the plant with water to knock as many pests off as possible. Then spray it with insecticidal soap and/or Neem oil or wipe the leaves down with rubbing alcohol and water to kill any remaining ones.
Scale are small, oval, hard-shelled insects that are hard to knock off and won’t be killed by a spray.
The best way to control these beasties is to wipe them off with rubbing alcohol and water or alcohol wipes.
If the leaves are yellowing and beginning to have some mushy tissue, you may have a case of root rot, a fungal disease, which in root-bound plants is caused by poor drainage.
When water builds up and cannot drain through the soil, it fills up the air pockets, and the roots can’t “breathe” or absorb oxygen, creating a low oxygen (anaerobic) condition that is a perfect breeding place for fungi to grow.
To remedy this situation, turn the pot on its side and gently pull out the root ball to get a good look at the roots.
Healthy ones should be white and firm, but those affected with root rot will be black, mushy, and smell bad.
Cut the excess root-bound roots off, including the infected ones, and wash the healthy remaining ones with a solution of three parts 3% hydrogen peroxide to one part water or with a fungicide like Neem oil to kill any remaining fungal infection. Then replant your Snake Plant in a clean pot with fresh soil.
Nancy has been a plant person from an early age. That interest blossomed into a bachelor’s in biology from Elmira College and a master’s degree in horticulture and communications from the University of Kentucky. Nancy worked in plant taxonomy at the University of Florida and the L. H. Bailey Hortorium at Cornell University, and wrote and edited gardening books at Rodale Press in Emmaus, PA. Her interests are plant identification, gardening, hiking, and reading.