A note on names: In scientific circles, Snake Plants are now considered part of the Dracaena genus, and the name Sansevieria has been retired. However, many people still know these plants by their former name, so we’ll sometimes refer to them as Sansevierias. We have an article on the subject here.
A sturdy Snake Plant lends a slightly wild look to any space, thanks to its jagged cluster of stripy, pointy foliage. But this effect is diminished when the leaves get fragile and skinny. If your Sansevieria is looking more like a beanpole than a bush, you’re probably racking your brain to figure out what happened – and how you can get to produce hearty growth in the future. So why do Snake Plant leaves get skinny?
What you’re seeing is called etiolation, and it’s what happens when a plant gets too little sunlight to allow for normal growth. Your Snake Plant is putting all its efforts into getting tall so that it can stretch past any obstacles that are blocking the light. Move your Snake Plant to a brighter area and start rotating it regularly to even out its exposure.
We’re sorry to say that the leaves on your plant won’t go back to normal even in better lighting. You’ll have to wait for new, thicker foliage to grow in. It can also help to prune away some of the older, skinnier leaves to make way for the new generation. See below for more detail on what causes etiolation in Snake Plants and how you can correct it.
Don’t Snake Plants Love the Shade?
Houseplant owners are often surprised to learn that their Sansevieria isn’t getting enough light. These are supposed to be excellent plants for dim spaces, right? Isn’t that why so many people grow them indoors?
Actually, no plant really likes to go without light. Yes, some houseplants get scorched if you let them sit right in the sun. And some, like Snake Plants, are so resilient that they can squeak by in environments that are far from ideal. However, there is a limit to what even these plucky survivors can tolerate.
If you asked a Snake Plant where it would like to stay…well, the other customers in the garden store would look at you funny. But if you had some mystical power that let you hear the thoughts of plants, your Sansevieria would ask for a sunny spot that gets at least a few hours of direct light per day.
The Story Behind Your Stretched-Out Snake Plant
When you place a Snake Plant in a spot that’s too dark, it will react by pushing towards the nearest source of illumination. Plants naturally grow toward the light, but the effect is much more dramatic when they sense that they’re not getting as much energy as they need. In nature, an excess of shade is usually caused by nearby obstacles like rocks, logs, or other plants, so the plant’s best bet is to try to rise above the competition.
In your home, though, this doesn’t do much good. The problem isn’t too much vegetation or debris – it’s that there’s too little exposure to the open sky. So a light-starved plant just keeps extending toward the closest window until it develops a long, skinny stalk that can’t support itself.
That’s etiolation, sometimes called “getting leggy”. In most plants, it causes elongated, abnormally slender stems and foliage, as well as wide spacing between the leaves. In Snake Plants, you’ll only see the effects in the leaves, because these plants don’t produce aboveground stems. The foliage will look sparse and skinny, and it may fade to a paler color that makes the normally vivid patterns look washed-out.
You might also notice a leggy Snake Plant’s leaves drooping to the sides because they’re too slim to stand upright. And the plant can develop a one-sided look as the foliage leans toward the closest source of light.
How to Make Your Snake Plant Bushy
The only way to get your etiolated Snake Plant looking fuller and healthier is to put it somewhere with better lighting. An illuminance meter can be a helpful tool when you’re looking for the right spot. Most of them will give you a reading in foot-candles. No, that’s not the name of a weird medieval torture device – it’s the amount of light shed by a candle from a distance of one foot.
At a bare minimum, your Snake Plant’s location should be brighter than 50 foot-candles, but if you want to be sure it won’t get etiolated, shoot for at least 100. For truly robust growth, look for a place that gets 1,000 or more foot-candles at the height of the day.
The ideal location for a Snake Plant is a wide, east-facing window where your succulent will get lots of sun during the cool hours of the morning. Southern or western exposures are also good, though you should make sure that the temperature doesn’t get above 85 degrees. It’s often a good idea to set your plant 2-3 feet back from a south-facing window or to diffuse the light by hanging some sheer curtains.
If you’re moving your plant from a very dim spot to a very bright one, don’t do it all at once. Swap it to the new space for an hour or two and then move it back. Over the next week or two, increase your Snake Plant’s time in the light a little bit each day. This will help it acclimate to the brighter conditions without burning its leaves.
One other option is to use grow lights. If you don’t have enough natural light to grow a bushy Snake Plant, you may be able to get the job done with one or two full-spectrum LED lights. It’s usually best to light up your Sansevieria for at least 12 hours per day unless it’s getting some sunlight and you’re just giving it an extra boost. A simple outlet timer will let you set the schedule. If you want to read more about grow lights, click here.
Rotation, Rotation, Rotation
One other important step in growing a bushier-looking Snake Plant is to turn it every so often. Even when they’re getting enough sun to avoid etiolation, plants tend to grow towards the light. This behavior is called phototropism. If your Snake Plant’s only getting light from one side, it will wind up tilting toward that side.
To fix this, give the pot a quarter-turn once a week or so. This will balance out your Snake Plant’s light exposure and encourage it to grow more evenly.
Removing Skinny Leaves From Your Sansevieria
Sadly, once a leaf becomes etiolated, it’s stuck that way. The only way to do away with your Snake Plant’s long and skinny foliage is to clip it off.
However, if you trim off all the plant’s leaves at once, you’ll deprive it of the ability to photosynthesize, and it will take a lot longer to send up new growth. We recommend snipping only the most severely leggy leaves at first. Then you can wait for the plant to produce healthier ones before cleaning up the rest.
It’s usually best to cut right down to the soil. A Snake Plant’s leaf won’t keep growing after you take off its tip, so if you cut only part of it off, you’ll be left with an awkward-looking flat-topped stub.
Even when etiolated, Sansevieria leaves tend to be pretty thick, so you’ll want to use a strong pair of clippers or a serrated garden knife. Treat the blades with a sanitizing agent before cutting; you don’t want to wind up with an infected wound on your plant. Rubbing alcohol from a first aid kit makes a good disinfectant, as does a 10% solution of bleach.
Start with the outermost leaves, pruning them as close to ground level as you can get, and work your way inward. Again, the more you remove, the longer it will take your Snake Plant to grow back, so be sparing. Don’t take off more than ⅓ of the foliage at a time if you can avoid it.
Now all that’s left to do is wait, rotate your Snake Plant, and watch it grow.
A crop of skinny leaves is one of the easiest problems for a Snake Plant owner to solve, although the solution takes patience. Now that you understand what’s been making your Sansevieria look leggy, you should have no trouble finding a spot that will help it grow strong.