Encyclopedia of Houseplants

Snake Plants Are the Forgiving Houseplants Perfect for Beginners

published May 9, 2024
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head on shot of a large snake plant in a gold pot, to the right of a dresser
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Prop Styling: Tom Hoerup

Whether you’re a seasoned plant parent or a complete beginner who’s on the hunt for low-maintenance houseplants, the snake plant should be a top contender. This tall, sculptural plant is beloved by many for its ease of care: It can tolerate low-light conditions (without even needing a grow light), it doesn’t require frequent watering, and isn’t as picky about temperature or humidity as other houseplants can be.

All that said, as low maintenance as snake plants can be, they still require more looking after than faux plants. Here’s what experts say you should know if you have a snake plant at home, or if you’re considering adding one to your houseplant collection.

Quick Facts About Snake Plants

  • Common Names: snake plant, mother-in-law’s tongue, Saint George’s sword, mother-in-law plant
  • Botanical Name: Dracaena (or Sanseveria) trifasciata
  • Family Classification: Asparagaceae
  • Native Location: tropics of West Africa and India
  • Sun Needs: non-harsh sunlight to part shade
  • Soil Needs: partially sandy soil
  • Water Needs: water every two weeks
  • Mature Height: common houseplants reach 2 to 4 feet
  • Toxicity: toxic to cats and dogs

Snake Plant Care

Light Needs

One of the most common questions about snake plant care is the amount of light these tropical houseplants need. The good news is that according to Sonya Query, a master gardener with Love, Plants, snake plants are low-fuss and independent. “They do well in a range of light conditions from low light to bright, indirect light,” she says. 

If you have your eye on a bright, sunny corner of your sunroom, Query says you may want to think twice. “Keep them out of direct, scorching sun, or they may get a sunburn,” she says.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Prop Styling: Tom Hoerup

Water Needs

Due to their succulent nature, snake plants also aren’t too finicky about water. However, Query offers her thoughts on the perfect moisture level and says that the soil should dry out completely between waterings, as overwatering is dangerous for the plant.

“It’s better to neglect them a bit than water too often,” Query says. “When you do water, water deep and thoroughly, but make sure they’re not sitting in wet soil.”

Other Snake Plant Care

Although snake plants adapt to more arid climates, they will benefit from humidity. As with any houseplant, it’s always important to check regularly for pests and dust the leaves — or wipe them with a wet cloth if there is a thick layer of dust or grime.

Snake Plant Varieties

  • Dracaena (or Sansevieria) trifasciata: one of the most common snake plant varieties
  • Dracaena (or Sansevieria) cylindrica: a slow and sturdy grower
  • Dracaena (or Sansevieria) laurentii: features yellow-edged leaves
  • Dracaena (or Sansevieria) hahnii: an unusual type that has compact rosettes
  • Dracaena (or Sansevieria) deserti: rare; features spiky shoots that fan out
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Prop Styling: Tom Hoerup

How to Repot a Snake Plant

Like most houseplants, snake plants thrive in well-draining soil, and potting soil mixed with perlite and sand is ideal. Mike Murphy, the owner of You Had Me at Gardening, also recommends changing the soil and pot every few years. “Repotting snake plants every two to three years refreshes the soil and provides more space for growth,” he says.

If you decide to wait longer, repot when your snake plant shoots spread out to fill its current pot. 

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Prop Styling: Tom Hoerup

How to Propagate a Snake Plant

You may notice the shoots dividing off into sections if you have a mature snake plant. These natural divisions are perfect for creating new plants. “You can propagate them by dividing large plants or by leaf cuttings,” Murphy says. 

Propagating Snake Plants by Division

Although you can see the sections above the soil, they are still connected underneath. Brush away the soil to see the bottom of the plant and its root system. Take a sterile, sharp knife and cut the plant grouping off at the natural division. Then, plant the newly divided part in a clean pot with fresh soil.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Prop Styling: Tom Hoerup

Propagating Snake Plants from Cuttings

When choosing to grow new plants via cuttings, use a clean, sharp knife to cut leaves off the plant; aim for about 6- to 8-inch lengths. Then, pop the leaf in water to propagate.

A notched cut on the bottom of the leaf can help create more surface area where roots can grow. Wait until roots are about 2 inches in length to plant in soil.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Prop Styling: Tom Hoerup

Common Snake Plant Problems

Snake Plant Pests

Snake plants don’t attract many pests, but Murphy warns that a few are still a concern. “While pests like spider mites and mealybugs may occasionally affect snake plants, they are generally resilient to pests and diseases,” he says.

Becoming Rootbound

Although snake plants don’t mind being root-bound, the pot can break due to the pressure if the root system gets too big.

Leaf Problems

Cracked or split leaves: Cut leaves off to the soil level if they get cracked or split.

Drooping leaves: When leaves droop, it’s usually because they aren’t receiving enough light, so move your plant to a brighter location.

Browning or yellowing leaves: You can also trim off browning parts, which indicates over or under-watering your snake plant. Yellowing can also be an indication of improper water levels.

FAQ About Snake Plants

Where should I put a snake plant in my house?

Although there are considerations for light ranging from bright indirect to partly shady, snake plants do well in certain spots.

“Snake plants thrive in well-lit areas of the house, such as on windowsills but can also adapt to low-light conditions,” says Murphy.

Blinds or a curtain that softly filters light will also help your houseplant get the sun it craves without overdoing it.

What does a snake plant do for your house?

Contrary to popular belief, a single snake plant isn’t the answer to cleaning the air in your home. Although a 1989 NASA study revealed that plants could absorb organic chemicals in the air, the highly controlled environment (a space station) wasn’t quite the same as being indoors on Earth.

Plants do generate oxygen and have a negligible role in eliminating minor toxins, but it’s not enough to be observable. “While snake plants are often promoted for their air-purifying abilities, a single plant won’t notably impact air quality,” says Murphy.

However, there are many snake plant benefits. They can help improve mental health, increase happiness, enhance productivity, and give a sense of purpose as you care for a living thing. Of course, they’re also beautiful decor.

Are snake plants toxic to cats and dogs?

According to Dr. Paola Cuevas, veterinary consultant at Dogster, the answer is yes. Snake plants contain saponins, and because these cause an unpleasant taste, animals are unlikely to ingest much of the plant — but it’s still possible. 

“It is important to note that saponins irritate the mucous membranes, and ingesting them could cause drooling, nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea in a dog or a cat,” Cuevas says.

Your pet may also experience decreased appetite, but it’s wise to take them to the vet if they keep vomiting and won’t drink. The ASPCA’s poison control hotline is also a helpful resource.

Are snake plants toxic to touch?

In some cases, yes, snake plants can cause skin irritations. According to the Dermatology Learning Network, the leaves contain calcium oxalate and saponins, which can cause mild dermatitis.

The risk of skin irritation is low, but those with sensitive skin should wear gloves when working with their snake plant.

Do snake plants like sun or shade?

Snake plants like filtered or indirect bright light or partial shade to thrive. 

Will my snake plant flower?

Because it’s hard to mimic the snake plant’s natural environment indoors, it’s doubtful that your plant will flower. “Although snake plants can produce small, fragrant white flowers under specific conditions, indoor flowering is relatively uncommon,” Query says.

Why is a snake plant nicknamed mother-in-law’s tongue?

Although you may be — or have — a thoughtful mother-in-law, the relationship between in-laws has often been one riddled with joking.

“Snake plants got the nickname mother-in-law’s tongue because of the sharp, pointed leaves,” says Query. “It’s a playful jab suggesting that the plant’s leaves are as sharp as a stereotypical mother-in-law’s wit.”

Is Dracaena or Sansevieria correct?

The snake plant’s scientific name can be confusing, but there’s a good reason. The name included Sansevieria until 2017, when genetic testing showed that the snake plant was actually a member of the Dracaena genus. Although Dracaena is correct, Sansevieria is still widely accepted.