Snake plants have been quite popular as houseplants for decades.
They are easy to care for, with attractive green foliage that can bring color to any room.
Unfortunately, two great plagues have threatened healthy snake plants over the years.
The first is the genetic sequencing that led to these plants being officially renamed from Sansevieria spp. to Dracaena spp. in 2017 despite being very different in appearance and care from dracaenas.
This has led to a lot of confusion when looking for snake plants (mother-in-law’s tongue). The general population disagrees with the rename and uses the previous species’ name but botanical sites now almost exclusively use the new name.
The second is a deadly infection called root rot. Sadly, it can easily be caused by snake plant owners trying to care for their sansevierias as if they were dracaenas.
Because these are succulent, if you force to speed the plant growth by overfertilizing or overwatering, your Snake Plant’s roots may become the victim of root rot.
How To Fix Snake Plant Root Rot
Root rot can be a deadly problem but can almost always be cured if caught early enough.
Getting rid of root rot is a 3-step process: identifying the cause, treating the infection, and taking preventative measures to prevent future outbreaks.
Step 1: Identifying The Symptoms And Causes Of Root Rot
Root rot can be bacterial or fungal, although fungal root rot is far more common.
The warning signs of root rot infection begin with some yellowing or drooping of the snake plant leaves.
They might also become mushy or saggy.
As the infection spreads, you’ll begin to notice a foul odor coming from the soil and may notice lesions or dark spots forming at the base of the plant.
Root rot in snake plants may mimic signs of thirst, like brown-edged leaves, wilting, and a lackluster appearance, as the choking roots struggle to absorb nutrients and oxygen.
Excavation will reveal brown or black roots (the black ones are already dead), and how extensive this damage is will determine if the plant can be saved.
Thankfully, the cause can almost always be traced back to care issues.
- Poor watering: Always use the soak-and-dry method to avoid excess water and ensure the container has adequate drainage holes. Before watering your snake plant, check the soil moisture by using a moisture meter or sticking your finger about an inch into the soil.
- Soil Compacting: Use an aggregate such as coarse sand or perlite to help keep the snake plant soil loose, and always use a fresh potting medium when repotting your plant. You can also reduce the risk of rot by choosing a coarse, loose-growing medium that won’t hold on to lots of moisture.
- Container Size: While root binding is a concern, if you put the plant in a too-big container, the roots won’t reach all of the water, allowing fungal spores and mold to breed.
- Contaminated Soil or Tools: Reusing contaminated soil (or cheap potting mixes from unknown companies) can have the same effect as using unsanitized tools; namely, your plant can be exposed to existing traces of root rot and become infected.
Once you know (or are pretty sure) which of these potential causes is at fault, you can begin the process of recovery and prevention.
Step 2: Treating Root Rot
At one time, discovering root rot meant discarding a plant immediately. However, the condition is treatable as long as there are still some healthy roots.
Thus, the first step is to remove the plant from its container and gently rinse off the soil.
Avoid using too much water pressure and be gentle, as even healthy roots can be fragile. Additionally, don’t use tap water. Snake plants can be sensitive to chemicals, so do use distilled or rainwater for your plant.
Now inspect the roots, identify any brown or black ones, and estimate how extensive the infection is.
- 25% percent damage is easy to recover from
- 50% percent damage will require some extra TLC but still has a high recovery rate
- 75% percent can be hit-or-miss, but the plant will often survive long enough to produce some healthy pups
- Anything over 75% percent means the plant likely won’t survive. You should probably bag it up securely and discard both the plant and its soil.
Remove the Infected Roots
If the plant can be salvaged, grab a sharp knife or pair o shears and sterilize them by dipping the blades in either isopropyl or rubbing alcohol (the higher the percentage, the better).
You can also use a solution of 1 part bleach in 10 parts water, although this is more effective later on for the plant itself.
Using sharp scissors, cut away each infected root, be careful not to damage healthy roots, and sterilize the tool again after each cut.
To ensure that no fungus spores remain, treat the cut roots with a fungicide solution.
Prune the Plant
You’ll also need to prune the foliage heavily for plants with 50% percent damage or more. However, minor damage requires far less butchering.
Cut away any leaves that are heavily diseased (i.e., Mushy or wilted).
For more heavily damaged plants, you’ll also want to remove any yellowed leaves and older ones (those outside the plant).
If the plant lost 50 to 75% percent of its roots, you’d need to prune away as much as ⅓ of the foliage.
Remember to sterilize after each cut and put all of your scraps in a sealable plastic bag so they won’t cross-contaminate any other nearby plants.
Finally, if your snake plant is flowering, you’ll want to cut the flower stalk.
This helps the plant conserve nutrients and will reduce the amount of stress caused by losing so much foliage at once.
Sterilize the Healthy Roots
There are two ways to do this: dipping in a fungicide or dipping in a bleach solution.
If doing bleach, go with 1 part bleach to 10 parts water and soak for 20 to 30 minutes.
Then, allow the plant a day or two to air dry (you won’t have to do this with a fungicide dip).
You can also add mycorrhizae treatment, powdered cinnamon, or sulfur powder to the roots to help prevent fungal growth.
The final step is essential, as your plant will be heavily stressed and highly susceptible to disease and pests for a while.
Use a sterile new pot or the old pot; however, when reusing the same pot, make sure to clean it thoroughly with a disinfectant bleach solution to eliminate any bacteria and fungi, and add fresh potting mix.
When choosing soil, pick well-draining potting soil with a mixture of cactus soil and compost. Be sure to amend the soil with aggregate to ensure it drains well and only use a container with suitable drainage holes.
Have a moderately watering schedule, and don’t use any fertilizer during this period. Also, avoid direct sunlight.
Pro Tip: Place a ½ to 1″ inch layer of gravel or aquarium stones in the bottom of the pot before adding your soil. This gives an extra buffer zone in case of overwatering.
Step 3: Prevention
As mentioned in the first step, root rot is almost always the result of a care issue.
Always use the soak-and-dry method when watering, and use a fresh potting medium every time you repot the plant.
Even with proper watering, poor soil drainage can cause too much moisture in the soil and hinder the roots from absorbing it effectively.
Only buy potting soil from reputable companies (Miracle-Gro is perhaps the best choice for those with a low budget and an excellent reputation).
Companies selling cheap mixes will often skip proper sterilization steps to keep their costs down.
Also, always keep your tools sterilized before, during, and after any pruning. Also, wash your hands between plants to keep the risk of cross-contamination minimal.