Sansevieria Trifasciata or snake plant is a popular pick as an indoor houseplant. Although these plants are not difficult to maintain, overwatering seems to be the major problem with this species. Overwatering a plant doesn’t mean you poured on too much water. It means the soil is staying too wet for too long. Another way to say it is that the soil hasn’t been allowed to dry out enough before watering again. When snake plants sit in water for long enough, they are prone to root rot. If you’re going to grow any plant well, it’s very essential to know how to keep the root system healthy. For that, you must fix any problems early on before they permanently damage the plant. So, let’s see the signs and causes for overwatering and how to save an overwatered snake plant.
Symptoms of overwatering
Your snake plant will show signs if it has been getting too much water. The thing that makes it a little confusing is that the same symptom can be the signal for more than one thing. For instance, sometimes it can be difficult to differentiate between the signs of overwatering and underwatering. However, usually there are more than one indicator of illness. By noticing all the signals, you can correctly diagnose and fix your plant.
Dampness of soil
To find out whether your snake plant is receiving more water than it needs, you can check the soil dampness. Do this 4-5 days after you have watered the plant or just before you usually water. An easy way to do this is to stick your finger 1-2 inches into the soil and see how it feels. If the soil there is still damp, that means there is excess moisture. You can also use an electronic moisture meter to accurately measure the moisture in the soil. If you normally water your plant when the soil is still moist, it’s a clear sign of too frequent watering. And, if the soil is really wet and smelly, you need to do an immediate transplant to save the remaining plant.
Appearance of the leaves
The most noticeable symptoms of overwatering will be visible through the leaves of Sansevieria. Snake plant is a succulent and all parts of it (including leaves, rhizomes, roots) can store water. When a plant gets extra water, it holds it in the leaves. Over the period of time, the leaves become soggy and mushy. Slowly the leaves start turning yellow and shriveled in places. They can have yellowish green patches or turn completely yellow. Now there are many reasons why a snake plant can become yellow, but overwatered leaves can be identified by their soft and pulpy look.
The oldest leaves are more likely to turn yellow first. After a while, they start to bend or just flop over. Droopy snake plant leaves are often an indicator that the plant is overwatered. If the decay has already started, you can also smell a bad odor coming off from the leaves.
Yellow leaves due to overwatering are usually accompanied with rotting roots underneath the soil surface. Like all succulents, snake plants are susceptible to root rot in wet and soggy conditions. The best way to confirm this is to remove your plant from its container and take a look at the roots. Checking the roots will help you assess the damage level of the root system.
Roots that are healthy are yellow or white in color. However, rotting roots have dark brownish parts on them. If you touch them, the decaying roots will feel soft and mushy. Stinking bad smell is another certain indicator of root damage due to overwatering.
Fungus or mold on soil
Overwatering causes an array of problems from fungus, soil mold and root rot. Wet foliage is much more likely to form mold than dry leaves. Fungal infection tends to affect the young leaves near the center of the rosette. Sometimes the stem and soil surface will also get infested. In snake plants, Red leaf spot and southern blight are the most common types of fungal problems. You can identify them by the appearance of red spots on the leaves or white cottony web on the soil. Click here to read more about fungal problems in snake plants and how to treat them.
Identifying the cause
When you realize that your snake plant is overwatered and showing some of the symptoms listed above, the next step is to find out the cause for overwatering. You can interpret the information and relate it directly to your own plants. It would help to know things like what temperature you’ve kept the plant at? Is the area bright enough? Is there a draft there? Here are some of the reasons that can lead to an overwatered snake plant.
Watering too frequently
Clearly, watering too often is one of the main causes for this problem. It means that you watered the plant before it really needed water. Sansevieria is a drought-tolerant species and doesn’t need frequent watering. Typically snake plants should be watered every 1-2 weeks during warmer months.
Remember that the top layer of soil should be completely dry before each watering. Using a finger to test the soil is a very good way to measure the dryness/wetness of the soil. If your plants are in-ground, they’re much less likely to overwater. But again, they should not be in standing water.
Rich and heavy soil
A major cause of water retention is dense soil that doesn’t filter out enough water. Snake plants require a gritty and well-draining soil. Using regular garden soil without any additives is the absolute worst for a succulent like Sansevieria. Notice which potting mix you are using for your plant. The composition is usually written on the package. A heavy soil is rich and dark in color and takes a long time for the water to pass through.
Another test is to pick up the whole pot and weigh it. Do this 30 min after you have watered the plant. If the pot is extremely heavy, the water didn’t drain out and you need to change the soil.
Large pot size
Mother in law’s tongue should be planted in an appropriately sized container. A big pot means extra soil and extra moisture. If you have a small plant in a pot that is larger than necessary, the water just won’t dry quickly. The soil around the roots will remain moist for too long. And this will contribute to overwatering.
Too little sunlight
A snake plant needs just an occasional drink, especially if it has not been getting any sunshine on it. Sunlight can evaporate some water through the soil surface. Porous pot material like terracotta also helps to draw out extra moisture in hot climates. More sunlight encourages plant growth, which demands more water and nutrients.
On the other hand, when a plant is in low light conditions, it needs relatively less water. Snake plants can survive in dim light as long as they are not overwatered and overfed.
Sansevieria plants do not require much water during the winter. It’s due to the low light situation as well as cold temperature. Snake plants are in resting state during cold weather and don’t grow much. Hence, they don’t need much watering or feeding during winters.
It’s a good idea to reduce the watering to the minimum during the winter time. Normally once a month is sufficient.
How to save an overwatered snake plant?
Whether your plant can be fixed or not depends on how long the plant’s roots were left in wet soil and how badly rotted the roots are. Note that not all plants can be saved, but early intervention can help. If some of the leaves are dead, but roots are in good condition, you may be able to get them to grow back some new pups. When the roots are fatally injured, the plant may not recover.
If the overwatering condition has been of short duration, there are several approaches to save an overwatered plant. You can follow any or all of these steps, depending on your plant’s condition.
Remove the plant from its pot
First of all, lift the whole plant out of the pot. You can use a knife to scrape off the sides so it’s easy to remove. Then place the root ball and wet soil on newspaper. Shake or wipe off the dirt from roots as much as you can. Gently remove soggy, loose soil, or old soil around rotted roots.
After that, loosen up the roots with your fingers. See if there are any living roots, and protect those. Healthy roots are firm to touch and yellowish white in color.
Dry out the roots
Next, you’ll have to dry the whole plant off. You can use paper towels, newspapers or old terry cloth to remove most of the water from the roots. Wrap the roots with a towel or newspaper, gently squeeze and draw out as much water as possible. Repeat this process until the newspaper absorbs little to no moisture. Sitting the root ball directly on the newspaper is the most convenient way to dry it.
If it’s a small plant, you can place it on top of a baking rack so it gets air circulation from all sides. Arrange a small fan to blow on the plant a few feet away from it. This helps for increasing evaporation and transpiration. Do not use any heating instrument like a hair dryer, as it can cause more damage. Now, let the plant sit on a stack of newspaper and just leave it laying in the shade for 3-5 days depending on temperature where you live. It can be very tempting to re-pot the plant but don’t. A snake plant won’t die even if you will leave it out of soil for some days.
Cut off the damaged parts
After a few days, check and see if any more leaves have wilted or turned yellow. Leaves that are yellow from the base are done for and won’t recover. Bright green and healthy-looking leaves will do just fine. Cut off all the affected leaves one by one and take a look at the roots. You might notice some brown, rotted spots there. If any parts of the root are soft or mushy, cut them off as well. Use sharp and sterilized tools to do this. Check the roots and make sure there are no damaged spots left.
Prepare the soil
Create a good soil mix or use ready-to-use potting mix for cacti and succulents. Any excess moisture left in the roots will be distributed in the new dry soil. Make sure to use relatively dry and fast-draining potting soil. There should be at least 50% additives like perlite, chicken grit, coarse sand, or pumice to improve the drainage capacity. This makes it less likely to be over-watered. It’s better to use a fresh soil mix, removing as much of the old soil as is reasonable. Especially if you’ve got a fungal infection near the soil line, replace the potting mix completely.
After your plant has been sitting for days with its roots exposed and the whole thing is firm and dry, it’s time to repot it. You might want to use a terracotta or clay pot, as soil dries faster in them. Because porous materials like clay allow water vapor to pass through the walls. Use a pot just big enough to barely fit the root system. Drainage holes are an absolute must for snake plants. Make the holes at the bottom of the pot, if it doesn’t already have them. Choose a pot that’s not too deep.
Use a clean potting mix and maintain the original soil level. Don’t bury the leaves into soil. Pot it up dry, then let it sit in dry soil for 1-2 days. After a couple of days, pour some water slowly until it starts dripping from the drainage holes. Then wait for 12-25 minutes to allow all the water to drain off. Make sure no water sits in the saucer. Leave the plant alone to recover for at least a week.
This step is required only when the roots of your snake plant are beyond repair. If the plant’s roots have slight damage but are still healthy, it’s worth trying to save it by drying out and repotting. But if the roots have rotted away, it might be too late. However, the great thing about snake plants is it can be grown from just leaves.
For this, choose 2-3 healthy green leaves and cut them off. You can now discard the plant with its roots. Take each leaf and cut it into parts, at least 3-4 inches long. Place the pieces in a moist potting mix with their tops up and bottoms down. Keep the soil moist to semi dry, but never sopping wet. After a month gently tug on the cuttings to see if they resist. Don’t pull them out just yet. It can take a couple months to grow strong enough roots. Then you can place them separately to create new plants.