What To Know About Snake Plants

With a surprising number of varieties, shapes and colors, plus a hardy disposition, no wonder the snake plant is incredibly popular.

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The snake plant — AKA mother-in-law’s tongue, Saint George’s sword and viper’s bowstring hemp, is again gaining popularity with indoor gardening enthusiasts. No surprise, since they’re beautiful, as well as evergreen and drought- and pest-resistant. If you want to liven up your home entrance, then these are the perfect entryway plants.

“There are so many different shapes and colors of snake plants and that intrigues plant parents, new and old,” says The Houseplant Guru Lisa Eldred Steinkopf. She goes on to list examples including upright, bird nest-shaped, variegated with shades of pink and some large enough to earn the name Whale’s Fin.

Want to know how to grow snake plants successfully, indoors or out? Keep reading.

What Is a Snake Plant?

The snake plant was recently reclassified from a Sansevieria to a Dracaena, after flowering plant classification agency APG III (Angiosperm Phylogeny Group) discovered that its genetic structure meant it behaved like Dracaena’s Old World tropical trees and succulent shrubs.

Considered a rhizomatous perennial, meaning it has underground stems, snake plants come in several forms, from twisty to rosette to cylindrical, and grow sword-like leaves that can be plain, striped (variegated) or marbled; often forming thorny points at the ends. Some, like the mother-in-law’s tongue, can produce fragrant flowers.

Where Do Snake Plants Grow?

Primarily used as a hardy indoor indoor plant, snake plants are native to Africa, which explains their high tolerance for hot, dry temperatures. If you want to cultivate snake plants outdoors, ideal conditions are in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones eight and above, where frost is unlikely. “I have seen them used as landscape plants in Florida,” Eldred Steinkopf says.

Snake Plant Care

By all accounts, snake plants are relatively easy to care for, but keep these factors in mind.

Lighting

Eldred Steinkopf cautions that snake plants are not the low-light plants they’re often touted to be. “They will grow prolifically, but only if in the correct light,” she says. Of course, much depends on the specific variety, but in general, snake plants need bright light and even full sun — indoors or out — to thrive.

Soil

The best potting soil, Eldred Steinkopf says, is a high porosity potting medium. Good drainage is an absolute must because even the hardiest plant can succumb to root rot. A few quick ways to improve plant drainage:

  • Enlarge small drain holes at the bottom of pots;
  • Place rocks or other plant pot filler at the bottom;
  • Use deeper pots to allow plenty of room for roots to dry faster.

Watering

“As with every plant, water thoroughly until the water runs out the drainage hole. Then, allow [the soil] to almost completely dry out before watering again,” Eldred Steinkopf says.

If your plant lives in a lower-light environment, it won’t need watering as often as one in a brighter area. “Often the leaves flop over because they are soft from not enough light. People mistake that for needing water and so give it a drink” she says.

Fertilizing

Fertilizing plants regularly throughout the growing season is a fairly standard gardening practice. Given indoor snake plants won’t grow as quickly as their outdoor counterparts, feeding them about once a month is usually satisfactory.

Staking

If grown in the correct light, a snake plant shouldn’t flop over, so staking isn’t necessary. If you find your snake plant’s leaves are falling over, it likely means it’s either not getting enough light or has been watered too much and may be showing signs of root rot.

Pruning

Snake plants rarely need pruning unless they have damaged ends, which can be trimmed off with clean garden scissors.

Is Care Different for Indoor and Outdoor Snake Plants?

Like those grown indoors, outdoor snake plants in full sun need more water. If they’re grown in a container and watered often, Eldred Steinkopf advises feeding the plant with more fertilizer as nutrients will be flushed from the soil.

How To Propagate a Snake Plant

Snake plants can be propagated in two ways: From leaf cuttings or by using the division method.

To propagate snake plants with non-vertically variegated leaves, follow these leaf-cutting steps:

  • Cut off a leaf and slice it into sections;
  • Notch the bottom edge of the cutting;
  • Allow the leaf to callus over by letting the edges dry out and harden a bit (around two days to a week);
  • Stand up the leaf in a narrow jar of water, leaving it to sprout roots;
  • When the roots are about an inch or so long, plant the new snake plant in moistened potting soil.

Snake plants are spread by underground rhizomes (a mass of roots) and as they creep along underground, they send up more leaves. These leaf clumps can be cut apart and planted separately, as you might with hosta, says Eldred Steinkopf. Use a knife to help if the rhizomes are too thick.

To reproduce a snake plant such as Laurenti, which has yellow stripes on the edges, employ the division method (splitting apart the plant):

  • Remove the snake plant from the pot;
  • Cut the rhizome into pieces with a knife, making sure each cutting has leaves;
  • Pot the cuttings individually in moistened potting soil.

Are Snake Plants Toxic To Cats and Other Pets?

Yes. According to The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), snake plants can be toxic to dogs and cats. Though ingestion is rarely deadly, it’s important to keep these plants away from pets because they can potentially cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. If your pet consumes part of your snake plant, call your vet right away.

“I’ve never seen my cat nibble on my snake plant, but there are other pets who nibble on everything, so be aware,” Eldred Steinkopf says.

Toni DeBella
Toni DeBella is a culture and lifestyle writer, reviews expert and DIYer covering everything from pests to pool cabanas to painting. For over a decade, Toni was the owner of a successful faux finishing, mural and children’s furniture business before moving to a career in writing. Her work has appeared in The Telegraph, Fodor’s, Italy Magazine, DK Eyewitness travel guides and others. She lives in a medieval hill town in Italy where her bicycle “Raoul” serves as her primary mode of transportation.