The snake plant (scientific name Sansevieria trifasciata) is also called mother-in-law’s-tongue and viper’s bowstring hemp. With names like this, it’s easy to assume that these plants can survive just about anything. And it’s true: the snake plant has indeed earned a reputation for being an incredibly tough houseplant. But that doesn’t mean it’s immune to all danger.
Snake plants are native to rocky, dry climates in Western Africa, and they prefer well-draining soil that dries out slightly between waterings. However, your snake plant can’t go for much longer than two weeks without water. Some of the tell-tale signs of an underwatered snake plant are leaf discoloration, slow growth, brittle or shriveled leaves, bone-dry soil and leaf curl. When you see these signs, it’s time to take immediate action to rehydrate and rescue your plant.
Let’s dive deeper into what each of these signs really looks like, what you can do to save an underwatered snake plant, and how to avoid letting it get desperate in the first place.
Signs of an Underwatered Snake Plant
An underwatered snake plant will generally display a combination of these symptoms:
- Browning leaf tips and edges
- Yellowing base leaves
- Slow growth
- Leaf curling or drooping
- Dry soil throughout the pot
- Leaf wrinkling
- Leaves feel brittle
Let’s get into a bit more detail about each sign of trouble:
1. Browning Leaf Tips/Edges
When the tips and edges of a snake plant’s leaves go brown, it is a sign that these parts are not receiving enough nutrients.
The cells of a plant are so lacking in water that they are unable to transfer nutrients throughout all of its tissues. When this happens, your plant essentially sacrifices the older, farthest-away parts to send what it can to the newer, closer parts.
If you see this happening on your snake plant, you must take action to save it before all the leaves have turned brown! Once that happens, it’s usually too late to resuscitate.
2. Yellowing Base Leaves
Similarly, a snake plant struggling with dehydration will allow some of its smaller leaves to die in a bid to keep its bigger leaves alive. If your snake plant has a collection of younger basal leaves that always go yellow and die before they reach maturity, underwatering could be the cause.
3. Slow Growth
A snake plant that lacks enough water to keep its leaves alive and healthy will certainly have trouble growing new ones. If you notice that your snake plant has gone a really long time without becoming taller or producing new leaves, it could be a sign of dehydration.
This is especially true during spring and summer, which is typically the active growth season.
4. Leaf Curling/Drooping
This, again, is linked to nutrient deficiency caused by not having enough water. When the leaves of a snake plant go a long time without enough water and thus without enough nutrients, they literally are not able to hold themselves upright.
5. Dry Soil Throughout Pot
While it’s a good idea to let the first one or two inches of soil in a houseplant pot dry out before watering, you never want the entire thing to dry out.
If you pick up your pot and it feels light as a feather, that’s a surefire sign that your soil has lost far too much moisture. You can also check the moisture by sticking your fingers through the drainage holes on the bottom of the pot or by gently removing the root ball from the pot entirely to inspect it.
6. Leaf Wrinkling
Just like with human skin, a lack of moisture can cause your snake plant’s cells to shrivel up and lose volume, causing the leaf surface to wrinkle. You may even see dry brown areas within the wrinkling as the plant approaches terminal dehydration.
7. Leaves Feel Brittle
Snake plants are technically in the succulent family, meaning that they use their leaves to store water.
The leaves of a healthy snake plant are plump, firm, slightly shiny and are easily bendable. On the other hand, a sick or dehydrated snake plant will have thin, dull leaves that feel brittle to the touch.
Rescuing an Underwatered Snake Plant
If you think your Sansevieria is dangerously dehydrated, don’t despair. Here are a few ways to water your snake plant to bring it back from the brink.
The first and most important response is to water the snake plant immediately. Watering from the top is better than nothing, but the most effective way to rehydrate the roots and give them a fighting chance is by soaking:
- Take the plant to a sink and run cool water over the top of the root ball until water flows from the pot’s drainage holes.
- Then place a deep saucer or bowl under the pot, and fill this to the top with water.
- Allow your plant to sit in water for at least several hours. Check back regularly to see if you need to add more water to keep the level high. The idea is to completely saturate the root ball.
- After soaking for 5-8 hours, remove your plant from the dish of water and put it back in its normal spot (as long as the spot is ideal- more on that below).
Do Not Fertilize Right Now
Your first reaction may be to give your plant some fertilizer along with emergency water, with the idea of nutrition giving your plant a nutritional boost to aid in its recovery.
However, this is one instinct you should ignore.
According to the University of Georgia Extension, all houseplants could suffer chemical burns from excessive fertilizer, mainly due to salt build-up. And the danger is even greater when your plant is already in a weakened state from underwatering.
So wait at least a week or two to let your plant recover from the stress of getting too dry before giving any fertilizer.
When it is time to fertilize, make sure to use an organic fertilizer formulated for house plants. They’re less likely than synthetic fertilizers to cause chemical burn or nutrient overdose. Also, give a half-dose for the first time you fertilize as another measure to prevent accidental damage.
Increase Ambient Humidity
Most of the time, a snake plant will do just fine without any extra humidity.
But when you’re helping your plant recover from underwatering, a little supplementary humidity can help your plant heal its tissues. Remember, plants don’t just absorb water with their roots, but also with their leaves.
Easy ways to increase the ambient humidity include:
- Misting the plant every few days
- Placing it on a tray of damp pebbles
- Grouping it with other houseplants
- Keeping it near a frequently-used sink or shower
- Using a plant humidifier
RELATED: We’ve compiled a list of our favorite plant humidifiers to help you find the one that works best for you. Stop by to see the ones we’ve picked and learn more about why humidity matters for plants.
Safely Removing Snake Plant Leaves Damaged by Underwatering
Once you’ve addressed the immediate issue of underwatering, it’s time to think about removing the damage.
First of all, don’t think that you need to remove every leaf that has damage- at least not right away. Leaves that are only partially damaged (those with brown tips/edges or that are only partially shriveled) are still working for the plant by photosynthesizing sunlight to create sugars and performing water and oxygen exchange through their surface.
In fact, if one of these leaves is too affected to continue carrying out these tasks, the plant itself will cut them off from nutrients and allow that leaf to die. So you can wait to remove leaves until they are very clearly no longer supporting or being supported by the plant.
It’s also a good idea to wait to prune an underwatered snake plant until it begins generating new leaves. That will help replace the ones you are taking off and avoid undue stress on your plant.
When it does come time to remove leaves, reach for a pair of sharp, strong scissors or hand pruners. Once you’ve got your cutting tool, clean off the blades with isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol to avoid spreading any microbes to your plant.
Water your plant well before making any cuts. Then cut off the affected leaves at the base, as close to the soil surface as possible.
Afterward, don’t water or mist your plant for a few days to avoid introducing bacteria to the cutting sites.
Preventing Underwatering in the Future
So what may have brought this overly-dry situation about, and how can you prevent it in the future? Here are 5 things you can do to keep the moisture level safe:
- Avoid strong sunlight
- Move away from heating and air conditioning vents
- Consider repotting in a larger pot
- Keep a watering schedule
- Use a moisture meter
Let’s break each point down:
1. Avoid Strong Sunlight
Snake plants like bright sunlight, but it’s important to remember that the area in front of bright windows often generates a very warm, greenhouse-like environment.
The increased heat and greenhouse effect can easily dry out the soil in a pot before you realize it. This is especially true of clay or terra cotta pots, which are porous and allow moisture to escape from the sides of the root ball, not just the soil surface or the drainage holes.
If your snake plant has been living close to a very bright and warm window, try changing its position so that its pot receives less direct sunlight. You could do this by:
- Moving it 1 or 2 feet away from the windowpane
- Shading the pot by placing books or decor in front of it
- Moving it to an east-facing window instead of a south or west-facing window
2. Move Away from Heating and Air Conditioning Vents
HVAC systems produce filtered air that’s usually very dry. If your snake plant is too close to a vent, it may be experiencing the equivalent of dry, windy conditions with air that is either quite warm or very cool. Both of these conditions can suck out moisture, not just from the soil but from the plant’s actual cells.
Relocate your snake plant away from vents connected to a heating and cooling system to keep the dry air from withering and dehydrating your plant.
If your plant is on a stand above a vent, you could also install an air vent deflector to direct the airflow away from direct contact with the plant.
3. Consider Repotting in a Larger Pot
As your plant grows, its roots can take up so much room that there’s almost no soil for water to soak into. This means that the water just runs out of the pot rather than being available for your plant’s roots to absorb slowly.
Here are some signs that your snake plant has outgrown its pot:
- Roots visibly growing on the soil surface
- Root tips peeking through the drainage holes
- The roots are tightly bound and growing in a circular pattern when you remove the plant from its pot
The solution here is to repot your snake plant into a more spacious home. Typically, a pot that’s about 2 inches larger in diameter than your current pot is a good rule of thumb.
We’ve written a detailed guide to repotting plants that also includes photos of each step. Even though the plant in the article is a pothos, the steps remain the same for a snake plant. Stop by to learn more!
4. Keep a Watering Schedule
Yes, we know–pretty old school! But if you’re like me, you think you’ve just watered your plants a couple of days ago when, in fact, it’s been a week and a half.
Writing things down or scheduling them into your phone is truly helpful when you’re forgetful, busy, or just want to be as responsible as possible.
Also, most houseplants can bounce back far more easily from underwatering than they do from over-watering. Keeping a record of when you last watered can help prevent you from overdoing it with the watering.
5. Use a Moisture Meter
A moisture meter takes the guesswork out of determining how moist the soil of your snake plant is. Especially for new plant parents who aren’t quite sure about optimal soil moisture levels, these tools can be very helpful.
How Much Water a Snake Plant Needs
As natives of warm, rocky places on the earth, snake plants don’t require frequent watering or constantly moist soil.
We recommend starting with checking your soil moisture once a week and customizing your routine from there.
- During the active growth period of the spring and summer months (typically April-September) plan to water your snake plant every ten days to 2 weeks.
- Winter dormancy usually begins in October and lasts through March. During this time, your plant is resting and only needs water about once per month.
Then, when you do water, make sure to give it enough so that you can see some puddling in the saucer below the drainage holes. That means that the water has traveled through all the soil and thus all through the root ball.
Signs of an Overwatered Snake Plant
In your zeal to prevent an underwatering emergency, it’s important not to go too far the other way and give too much water. This is by far the greater danger to snake plants.
If you have a consistent watering schedule that delivers the right volume of water to the plant, it shouldn’t be a problem.
But just in case, here are a few things to watch out for:
- Yellowed leaves
- Leaves with a limp, soggy texture
- Soil that never looks dry
- A pot that is heavy for its size (indicates waterlogged soil)
- Gnats congregating on the soil
- Mold growing on the basal parts of the leaves near the soil line
Snake plants are naturally durable, and in most cases, they’ll be able to bounce back from a case of underwatering. Carefully observing the moisture level in the soil and giving water accordingly can help prevent the problem from happening again.
Do you have any experience with bringing house plants back from the brink? Let us know in the comments below!