Snake plants are one of the few plants that suit a beginner gardener. Commonly known as mother in law’s tongue, this plant thrives through extreme neglect and requires little maintenance. Snake plant (Sansevieria Trifasciata) has wide, upright leaves with pale green horizontal stripes. While the healthy foliage should have bright to dark green color, a pale yellow coloring usually indicates some problems with growing conditions. The blades of your snake plant could be turning yellow for a number of reasons. If the problem persists, it can lead to plants getting sick and ultimately die. To avoid this, let’s investigate how to find the root cause, and how to fix a snake plant with yellow leaves.
To begin with, it’s great if you know which Sansevieria variety you have. Sometimes yellow leaves on snake plants are not a problem at all. A few cultivars of snake plants have naturally yellow or curling leaves. For instance, Sansevieria trifasciata “Twisted sister” features leaves with yellow borders that twist and turn as they grow. Sansevieria “Golden Hahnii” can have yellow stripes along the edges as well as in the middle of a leaf surface.
Well the symptom is obviously yellowing of the leaf. But as easy as it sounds, it’s crucial to observe and notice other features of the damaged leaf. This will help to identify the exact cause of the problem. For example, did the tips of the leaf first turn yellow? Are there dry brownish edges along with yellowness? Does the leaf smell bad? Is the leaf texture dry, papery or soggy to touch?
Yellowing of the leaves may be followed by slight curling of the tips, which occurs when that part of the leaf dries up. Sometimes there can be yellow patches or blemishes in the centre of the leaves. Also notice if the foliage is bent or drooping. A single leaf can start turning yellow or this can happen to multiple leaves at the same time.
What causes yellow leaves in a snake plant?
As mentioned earlier, there can be many different causes for a snake plant to suddenly turn yellow. It can be related to one or more of the factors including watering, sunlight, pest attack, soil conditions etc. Let’s see them one by one.
Overwatering the plant
Overwatering is the primary cause of death in snake plants. And yellowing of the leaves of Sansevieria is often associated with overwatering. When plants stay in soil that is too wet for too long, one of the signs you’ll notice is yellowing of the leaves. If the soil isn’t allowed to dry, the yellow area starts to increase, until the leaf is all yellow. As the soil stays wet longer and longer, whole leaves start to wilt, droop, and fall off. Too much water can ultimately cause root rot. The roots become dark, infected with a fungus and the plant slowly dies.
Now, how do you confirm whether the yellowness is caused by overwatering? You may notice other symptoms that the plant is getting excess water. Along with yellowness, the leaves can feel mushy and soggy to touch. They may lose the firmness and start drooping. The yellow patches turn brownish black when they start rotting. When there is a bad smell coming out from the leaves or the soil, it’s a definite indicator of rot. Try tugging on the leaves gently. If they pull easily out of the soil, the roots are rotting away. If you’re still not sure, remove the plant from its pot and inspect the roots for any signs of rotting. Yellow leaves are often accompanied with damaged roots, in case of overwatering.
Too much direct sunlight
The second most common reason behind yellow leaves of snake plants is too much sunlight. Leaving your plant exposed to intense sunlight may sometimes cause it to turn yellow. This can happen during the peak of summer when the sun is too harsh for the plant. Outdoor snake plants and plants kept in a sunny window are more likely to be affected by this. If a plant is moved too quickly from a dark shaded place to a brightly lit area, it can turn yellow.
A scorching sun can make the edges of the leaves yellow. After a while, the whole leaf can get pale. In some cases, the natural patterning on the leaf may become less distinct. The variegation on the leaf will also start fading. A pale yellow coloring across an entire leaf usually indicates sunlight problems. When only a part of the plant that faces a window is yellow, it usually means photodamage.
Underwatering the plant
Yes, it’s confusing that the same appearance can be the signal for two opposite things. But just like overwatering, underwatering also causes yellowing of snake plants. When leaves are deprived of moisture, they turn yellow. Too inconsistent watering (alternating between extremely dry and waterlogged soil) can also create stress and make the leaves yellow.
A lack of water will cause the plant to slowly dry out, with the leaves turning yellow from the tips downward. After the soil has been dry for a while, usually the oldest leaves start to get yellow all over, and then turn brown. To verify if the plant is underwatered, stick your finger 1-2 inches deep into the soil. If you feel no moisture at all, maybe the plant is drying out. Without enough water, the yellow leaves tend to develop dry, brown edges and wrinkled appearance. They’ll have papery texture and crispy, brittle tips.
Freezing cold temperature
Sansevieria plants are native to tropical regions, so they are not adapted to extreme cold temperatures. When the temperature drops below 50°F (10°C), parts or all of the leaves can get injured. Leaf damage can sometimes result in yellowing of leaves in snake plants. So, it is important to keep the plant warm during winters. Wet soil and temperatures near freezing point can kill the plant. This can happen to outdoor plants or when an indoor plant touches a cold windowpane.
If you have recently fertilized your snake plant, you may have to consider this cause. Snake plants are sensitive to over-fertilization. They should be fed lightly and only during the growth period. If your plant is in a low light area, it doesn’t require to be fed frequently. Too much fertilizer will burn the roots, so the leaves won’t receive sufficient water and nutrients. This can make the leaves turn yellow and brown.
Hold off on fertilizing when your plants are very young (have fragile roots), infected by pests or recently repotted. Click here for an in-depth guide on fertilizing your snake plants.
Old and depleted soil
Yellowing of leaves can also mean chlorosis, which is a loss of green pigment caused by deficiency of certain trace elements in soil. For instance, it can happen due to iron deficiency in lime-rich soils. Mineral imbalance causes a variety of yellowings and brownings in the leaves of Sansevieria.
Another reason is loss of draining capacity of the soil. When the soil becomes heavy over the years, it allows the roots to stay wet too long. This can in turn start root rot and yellowing of leaves. To keep your plant healthy, replace the soil after every few years, and occasionally feed the plant with nutrient-rich fertilizer.
Sap-sucking bugs can drain your plant of moisture. This problem quickly manifests itself by yellowing the plant leaves. Thrips, mealybugs and spider mites are common attackers on snake plants. You cannot see some of these tiny bugs, but they’ll make the leaves, especially the backs, feel a little gritty. If not killed early on, these pests proliferate and move all along the leaves. The little wounds on leaves exhaust your plant and accelerate yellowing, especially if your Sansevieria is already unhealthy from a nutrient deficiency or improper soil moisture.
When only one or two of your plant leaves have become yellow and they are on the outside of the rosette, it may be due to the natural aging process. In Sansevieria, young pups grow out from the center and the oldest leaves are on the outer perimeter. Old leaves yellowing and dying off is a part of the natural cycle. In this case you don’t have to worry about your plant.
Yellowing of leaves or leaf loss can be a sign of overcrowding or congestion. When your snake plant overgrows its pot, it shows such indications. Which means the nutrients and moisture is insufficient for the plant and it needs to be transplanted into a bigger container. You may also consider to divide the plant into two or more smaller plants.
How to fix the yellowing snake plant?
First and foremost, it’s important to identify what is making your snake plant unwell. You may find one or more reasons from the list of causes mentioned above. Follow these simple steps to quickly start healing your snake plant.
- Stop watering the plant immediately if you find it overwatered. On the other hand, if the soil is too dry, water the plant till the soil is soaking wet. Then allow it to drain freely. Allow the soil to dry completely between waterings.
- Move the snake plant into a room with bright filtered light. If it’s in a deeply shaded place, slowly transition it to the sunnier area over a period of time. Turn the pot periodically so the leaves get even light exposure.
- If you’ve overfed the plant, wash out the soil with water to remove some fertilizer. If the current soil retains moisture for weeks after watering, replace it with a loose, well-draining potting mix. Use a soil mix with sand or perlite, which dries out quickly. You can add a handful of organic compost or manure to improve the soil richness.
- Repot the plant to a larger container if the roots are wrapped tightly around the outside of the root ball.
- See if the green color returns within a few weeks after making corrections to water and sunlight conditions. Else, cut off the yellow part of the leaf using a sterilized tool. However, once cut, the leaf will not grow back to its original shape. So, you may want to trim it from the base. You can wait for the leaf to dry off and turn brown, and cut it dry (there is slightly less risk of infection doing this).
- Remove the rotten and damaged parts of the root ball and repot the plant into dry soil. If you notice that the roots are rotting and beyond repair, take the plant’s remaining, healthy leaves and use them for propagation.
Prevent your plant from going yellow again
Keep your snake plant healthy by keeping it in warm conditions and by controlling the amount of water it receives. Only water when the top 1.5-2 inches of soil is dry. Pour water until it flows freely from the drainage hole at the bottom of the pot. Be sure to discard any excess water that flows into the saucer. Repot the plant every 2-3 years to prevent the roots from becoming severely crowded. Weak and stressed snake plants are more susceptible to insects and diseases. So, take a good care of them to prevent any illness in future.