Snake plant root rot (and how to save it)

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Snake plant root rot (and how to save it)

Your snake plant can survive a lot – your vacay with no plant sitter, the Covid lockdown when you killed all of your other plants with too much much, and probably – someday – even the apocalypse – but gasp! What’s that? Snake plant root rot? This is a serious problem if you don’t act fast. Read on to learn about the early signs or root rot in snake plants and what you can do about it.

It seems like those moments when you think you can do no wrong are exactly when those pesky brown spots and early signs of withering start to show. Even succulents, long hailed as the easiest plants to keep alive, can suddenly take a turn when the conditions aren’t right.

Snake plants are, in fact, a type of succulent known for their distinctive snake-like leaf patterns and zesty, striped green and yellow foliage. They are one of the most popular indoor plants for people who seem to kill everything else – and anyone who loved taking care of a Pet Rock as a kid 😂 

Buuut, snake plants are animate, living organisms at the end of the day, not rocks 🪨 Occasionally your snake plant will show you signs that something is wrong. Because snake plants contain a high percentage of water in their leaves, a consistent watering schedule is actually quite important to this resilient plant’s overall health. Snake plants only need watering every 1-2 weeks. If you let your snake plant sit in water for a prolonged period of time or overwater your snake plant one too many times, you will likely observe a phenomenon called “root rot.” 

What is root rot?

Root rot is a common houseplant disease that is typically caused by a fungal infection or prolonged exposure to a wet environment (e.g. water sitting in the bottom of your snake plant’s pot), limiting oxygen access to roots and causing the tissue to decay. Even without fungal infection, standing water alone can suffocate a plant’s roots and lead to big time trouble! 

Pathogens like fungus tend to thrive in wet environments. Fungus might be present in a plant’s soil for a long period of time, and only flourish when exposed to wet conditions, leading to a messy decomp situation where the sun don’t shine 😬

Whatever the cause, root rot cuts off your snake plant’s access to oxygen and nutrients in soil. This can quickly kill your plant if you don’t do something about it, ASAP!

Signs of root rot in a snake plant

signs of root rot in a snake plant

Ok, ok, we did name snake plants as one of the few plants that actually don’t need drainage to thrive. That’s true! *With the condition that you don’t overwater your snake plant. When excess water stays in your snake plant’s soil or at the base of its pot for too long, its roots are unable to pull oxygen and nutrients from the soil. 

Rot can quickly spread to other roots, and the low oxygen levels in the soil allow fungi such as pythium, Phytophthora, Rhizoctonia, Botrytis, Alternaria, and Fusarium to multiply. These colonies quickly move into the decaying root zone and get down to decomposition. Not good for your snake plant ❌

The reason root rot tends to strike fast and fatally is because most plant owners don’t regularly examine their plants’ roots for signs of distress. However, your snake plant will give you warning signs up top that something’s off underground. Here’s what to look for:

Early indicators of snake plant root rot

  • soft, jelly-like leaves. This is the first sign that your snake plant may be developing root rot. To look for this, lightly squeeze one of your plant’s long leaves between your fingers. The leaf should be plump and taut (plant nerds use the term turgid) from the tension of the water held inside. If the leaves are jelly-like or soft, this is a sign that something’s up in the root zone.
  • dark or soft spots near the base or stem. When this sign is present, it’s a pretty accurate indicator of probable root rot. When you notice these dark or soft spots, remove the plant from the soil and look at the roots to confirm your suspicion. 
  • wilted leaves. Wilted snake plant leaves can be caused by a number of factors, including underwatering and inadequate light exposure. If you have looked at potential other causes for wilted leaves and come up short, it is a good idea to check your plant for additional root rot symptoms.
  • yellow leaves. Yellow leaves are generally a sign of poor drainage and overwatering. If your plant has yellow leaves, make sure to check that the water is able to drain properly and look for signs of root rot.
  • black or mushy roots. If this is the case, we have bad news—the root rot has progressed significantly. When a plant is experiencing root rot, the affected roots turn black and often become mushy. A root that is rotted will separate from the plant as soon as you touch it. However, in many cases, not all the plant roots will have rotted, and the rotted ones can be removed to help rehabilitate the snake plant. 

What causes root rot in a snake plant?

what causes root rot in a snake plant

The base cause of root rot in snake plants is that their roots are oversaturated in water. While overwatering is one cause of this problem, water can also accumulate around a snake plant’s root zone for other reasons. Diagnosing the particular reason that your snake plant is waterlogged is the first step in rehabilitating it – and avoiding future root rot.

Common causes of root rot in snake plants

  • overwatering. When you overwater your snake plant, the soil cannot properly dry out. This causes the roots to become waterlogged, and leads to rot.
  • poor soil drainage. Even if you are watering your snake plant appropriately, poor soil drainage can quickly lead to too much moisture in the soil and even prevent the roots from absorbing the moisture that is present. When the soil doesn’t drain well, water fills all of the pore space in the soil and leads to trouble. Make sure to use the best soil for snake plants the next time you repot your dracaena! 
  • inappropriate pot size. When a pot is too big, it will tend to hold more water than your snake plant needs, leading to mold growth and soil saturation. The large pot size keeps the soil wet for too long and encourages bacterial and fungal growth.
  • cold weather or temperatures. When the air is cold around the snake plant, it can prevent the soil from drying properly. It takes an extended time for any excess moisture to evaporate, leaving the roots to sit for a prolonged time in a damp environment.
  • dormant fungi. Sometimes, fungi are present in the soil but dormant. When the soil becomes waterlogged, the fungal spores can quickly take action and attack the root of the plant.

How to save a plant after root rot

how to save a plant after root rot

If you’ve noticed the signs of root rot in your beloved snake plant and want to save it, you have a few options. With all the doom and gloom ⬆️ we’ve covered so far, you may be wondering: Can a snake plant recover from root rot? If the root rot is in its early stages, yes! The key is to remove your plant and replace the affected soil immediately to stop the problem from spreading. After this, remove any rotted roots and repot the plant in fresh soil. You can add mycorrhizae treatment, cinnamon, or sulfur powder to the roots to help prevent fungal growth. Follow these steps for how to fix root rot in a snake plant:

What you’ll need:

How to save your snake plant from root rot:

  1. Tip your snake plant on its side, if possible, and gently pry it loose from its pot.
  2. Shake the soil free from the root ball to examine the roots more closely.
  3. Examine your snake plant’s root ball, gently untangling them to observe the affected area. Separate rotting roots (black and mushy) from healthy ones (white and firm). Use your sanitary scissors to snip the rotting roots away from the root ball.
  4. Mix your fungicidal solution as directed and treat the roots. 
  5. Prepare your new pot with fresh soil. If using the same pot, wash it thoroughly before filling with fresh succulent soil. 
  6. Repot your snake plant and fill in with fresh soil. The root and shoot space should leave about 1-2 inches for root growth. 
  7. Place the plant away from direct sunlight to recover.
  8. After 1-2 weeks, resume watering.

How to prevent root rot

As any of us who have dealt with a root rot fiasco have learned, prevention is much easier than trying to combat the problem. To prevent root rot, start with an appropriate watering schedule and good drainage to ensure that your snake plant is getting the oxygen and water it needs to thrive.

Top root rot prevention strategies

  • don’t overwater. Yep, you heard me. Just don’t do it!! During winter, snake plants only need watering once or twice a month. In the summer, once every two weeks is generally enough to keep this succulent happy.
  • use a new potting mix. Using old soil can increase the changes of root rot because of potential dormant fungal spores. Make sure you always start fresh with new soil.
  • disinfect pots before using. Similar to using fresh soil, it’s important to disinfect pots to ensure there are no dormant fungi waiting to attack.
  • use pots with drainage holes. Even if you are watering appropriately, inadequate water drainage can lead to waterlogged plant roots.
  • use the right soil mix. Using a soil mix specifically for succulents can help to give your snake plant the best environment to thrive.
  • don’t over compact the soil. This goes hand in hand with repotting (i.e. make sure you repot every year or two). Soil compacts naturally over time and needs to be changed to improve your plant’s drainage. 
  • let the soil dry between watering. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to watering plants, and factors such as temperature, humidity, and sunlight can – and should – affect your watering schedule. To prevent overwatering, the best rule of thumb to follow is to wait for the soil to dry before watering the plant again.

The bottom line

the bottom line

Plants are a great way to brighten your living space and have been shown to have beneficial effects on air quality, stress levels, and fatigue. However, pesky plant problems like root rot can definitely cause more stress when they get out of hand. Understanding the signs, treatments, and preventative measures for root rot in snake plants will help you care for this resilient plant like a pro. Happy gardening!

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