Snake plants (Mother in law’s tongue) have a reputation for being very hardy species. Their fleshy, succulent leaves lose water slowly and don’t require frequent replenishing. That’s probably why snake plants are popular and familiar members in many households. Although overwatering is a more common problem for snake plants, underwatering these plants is not impossible. Underwatering doesn’t necessarily mean you gave too little water to the plant at a time, it usually means a large gap between waterings. When this happens, most of the soil gets extremely dry before the plant is watered again. If you are wondering if your snake plant is underwatered, keep on reading to learn about dehydration symptoms, how to identify its cause and how to save your underwatered snake plant.
Why does a snake plant get dehydrated?
Snake plants are tropical plants and type of succulents that can survive on infrequent watering. Because of this, when some people first get into succulents, they are afraid of overwatering them. They tend to follow the watering regimen without carefully noticing the plant conditions. During the growth season, snake plants should be watered moderately, every 1-2 weeks. They need less water in the winters, maybe every 1-2 months depending on their environment. These are general guidelines applicable for most cases. But these recommendations are flexible. Different light, temperature and humidity conditions highly impact the water requirement for a specific plant. Neglecting these factors can sometimes result in dehydrated snake plants.
Sansevieria plants grow best in warm and hot climates. When the temperature is low, they become dormant. That’s why they need less water and nutrients during winters. Same is the case with light. The less light a snake plant gets, less water it consumes. However, if your snake plant is kept near a heater or a sunny window, it will demand more water. When there is more air draft, the air is too dry or the pot is made of porous material like terracotta, there will be more moisture loss from the soil.
Sometimes the soil itself can be a problem. Ideal potting medium for snake plants should be fast-draining and not dense at all. But if it’s too loose, it will not hold any water. For this reason, it’s recommended to add some peat, coco coir or pumice in the soil mix to increase its water holding capacity. These ingredients are coarser than the garden soil, but better absorbent than pebbles and gravel. They improve soil drainage and increase oxygen levels while retaining necessary moisture.
Symptoms of underwatering
Unfortunately the symptoms of over and under watering snake plants can look almost similar. Especially for new plant growers it can be difficult to tell apart. But there are some slight differences. And the more parts of the plant you check, you’ll get more information. This is helpful for correct diagnosis of the underwatering problem.
Appearance of the leaves
To tell if the snake plant has been underwatered, first and foremost, check the appearance of its leaves. If your snake plants are dehydrated, the first thing you are likely to see is some brown tips on the leaves. The tips are usually dry and feel crispy to touch. After the soil remains dry for a while, the brown area starts to increase down from the tips and along the edges. Leaves can get a wrinkled and shriveled appearance. Sometimes the leaves start curling. The brown parts feel dry, thin and papery to touch. If underwatering continues, the leaves might bend over, become limp and die.
The oldest leaves may become yellow all over, and then turn brown. Yellow leaves can be a symptom of both too wet or too dry soil. And this can be a little confusing. The main distinguishing factor is the leaf texture rather than color of the leaf. If the damaged leaf part is mushy or pulpy, then you’re over watering the plant. Underwatered plants have dry and fragile leaf tips or edges. Such plants typically grow slowly.
Dryness of soil
Second most important indicator of underwatering is the moisture content of the soil. Checking the soil surface is a reliable guide to whether a plant needs water. It’s okay to have the top soil layer dry. Before watering your snake plant, the upper 1-1.5 inches layer of soil should be dry. A good potting mix for snake plants distributes the moisture evenly in the entire pot. And the soil at the bottom of the pot can retain little moisture even though it’s dry at the top. But when the soil is extremely dry throughout, it’s a sign of underwatering. It means that all the water drained off or evaporated too soon. You can use an electronic moisture meter or some kind of probe to examine soil dampness near the roots. If the meter reads “dry”, the soil doesn’t have enough water in it.
The brown tips on leaves and dryness of soil are the most common symptoms of an underwatered snake plant. They tend to show up before any root damage starts. But in the worst cases, when the plant doesn’t get water for a very long time, roots start to get affected. Generally, roots of snake plant store moisture like all of its parts (leaves, rhizomes). Due to dehydration they tend to become dry and brittle. If you find that the roots are dead and crumble off in your fingers, it’s probably too late to save the plant.
Identifying the cause
When you notice any of the above signs of dehydration, you can confirm that your snake plant is underwatered. The next step is to identify the exact reason why this is happening. By resolving the root problem of underwatering, you can prevent this in the future. Here are some of the causes:
One obvious reason for plant dehydration is giving less water or watering it less frequently. An ideal way of watering snake plants is to water them thoroughly, let all the excess water drain off and wait until the top 1-1.5 inches soil layer is dry before watering again. Use your finger to go down into the soil and determine how moist it is. You can also use simple wooden items like chopsticks or Popsicle sticks.
A moisture meter will give a more accurate reading of what’s going on near the roots. Check the moisture level 2-3 days after watering the plant. If the needle goes all the way to the dry end, you should start watering the snake plants more often, maybe twice a week.
Another way to tell if the soil is dry is by its weight. It’s better to try this technique in summer, as plants may not handle the wet soil in winter. Wait till you think the plant needs watering and then add water thoroughly. Put the plant in a sink to drain completely or collect the water in a saucer. After 20 minutes of draining, pick up the pot and pay attention to its weight. That is your moist weight. Check the weight every few days by picking up the pot. After a few weeks, you’ll learn how the soil feels with or without water. To make things easier, you can measure the weight on scale and note it down.
Fast water evaporation
Even if you are watering the snake plant regularly, it may run out of water due to fast evaporation. For instance, a heater can quickly dry out the soil in small pots. Pay attention whether you have kept a snake plant in a warm room with a heater nearby. The central heating system can dry out the pots even faster than in the summer. Such plants will need water more often. In the winter, they will require water more than just once a month.
Air vents, box fans or a ceiling fan will also encourage pot soil to dry out faster. Avoid keeping your snake plants very close to the air-circulating devices. Try not to use any instrument like a hair dryer to remove excess water from the soil. It can also cause heat damage to the leaves.
Too loose potting mix
It is true to say that most snake plants die from over, rather than under watering. For this reason it is always better to have a loose soil mix that prevents overwatering and root rot. However, too loose of a mix can cause quick draining and negligible water retention. Ingredients like gravel, coarse sand, pebbles will let all the water pass through. And pumice, perlite, vermiculite, coco coir retain some moisture in soil while keeping a good air flow. Garden soil and organic compost add nutrients but make the soil mix denser. It is important to maintain that balance between good drainage and sufficient moisture holding capacity. It’s a good idea to invest in a soil mix formulated specifically for snake plants.
This isn’t related to watering as such and is relatively uncommon, but too much nitrogen in soil shows similar signs as underwatering a snake plant. A typical symptom of nitrogen overdose is burning the leaf tips causing them to turn brown. Some leaves can turn yellow due to lack of other nutrients. Over the time it will result in burnt and damaged roots. Most commercial fertilizers add a greater percentage of Nitrogen. Natural fertilizers like compost may also have more Nitrogen than other nutrients.
If you’ve fertilized the soil too much, nitrogen toxicity might be a reason. Soil test strips can be helpful to measure the pH of soil. If nitrogen overdose is the case, consider adding a teaspoon of potassium sulfate per gallon of water. Potassium balances nitrogen and doesn’t harm good microbes in the soil. In future, always use a balanced fertilizer (equal ratio of N-P-K) for snake plants and try not to go overboard with organic fertilizers.
How to save an underwatered snake plant?
When the damage is little, an underwatered snake plant can most probably be saved. Healing the leaves completely is not possible. Once they are damaged, the scars are permanent. But you can definitely prevent further damage. As long as the roots are healthy, new pups will grow out of them. The first important step for saving an underwatered plant is to determine the problem and fix it. Here are some tips for reviving a healthy look of your snake plant.
Cut off severely affected parts
The damaged leaves of the snake plant will not recover and retain that appearance. With proper care, they may not necessarily get worse. Leaves which still have some firm and healthy parts can be trimmed back. However, if you think that half-cut leaves won’t look nice on your plant, it’s better to cut them off at the base and say goodbye to those whole leaves. Remember to use a sterilized pruning shears, knife or a pair of scissors.
Fix the soil mix
If your soil is too loose and free draining, it won’t retain water at all. It can make the water that’s poured in immediately run through the holes at the bottom without soaking the soil. If this is the case, add some peat moss, perlite, coir or regular soil in the mix. Beware not to add more than one third of the total mix. Pour in water and leave the plant to sit in it for an hour, then throw away the drained water outside the pot. Check the moisture level regularly for the next 2-3 days.
Alternatively, replace the potting medium with a relatively less draining mix. Click here for some suggestions on potting mix combinations. When you need to feed the plant, use a 10-10-10 general purpose fertilizer. Liquid based or granular slow release fertilizers are best for snake plants.
Place the pot in suitable environment
Keep the plant at a moderate distance from air vents, heaters etc. Plants situated in brighter and warmer regions will need more water than those in shaded and cool areas. More light is often better for plant growth, especially for new plants until they are thoroughly rooted. A period of at least 3-6 months should ensure this. After that you can reduce the light levels and water. Avoid strong sunlight in any case. In hotter regions, snake plants can tolerate a little sun in the mornings and evenings.
Follow a good watering regimen
Last but not the least, it’s crucial to follow a suitable water regimen depending on your plant conditions. You can water snake plants with warm water (up to 80°F or 27°C) in winters. Water them in the morning as it’s warmer during the day. Snake plant roots shouldn’t be kept wet and cold for too long. After the soil is completely dry, water deeply until it runs through the drainage hole. Snake plants don’t necessarily like to go completely dry before you water, but at least the top layer should be dry.
Hope you found this article useful. I would like to know how you fixed your under-watered snake plants.