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.
If you’ve recently moved your Snake Plant to a new pot, you may have noticed that its root system looks quite a bit different from those of your other plants. You might be wondering if what you’re seeing is normal. This article will give you the scoop on what a Snake Plant’s roots look like, how they grow, and how to tell when something is wrong.
A Snake Plant’s root system is a mix of thick underground “stems” called rhizomes and smaller twig-like roots. When healthy, they should be firm to the touch and light orange in color. Snake Plant roots often don’t grow more than a few inches deep; these plants prefer to send new rhizomes outward rather than extending down into the pot.
The main health issue to watch out for is root rot, a deadly illness that usually results from chronic overwatering. Affected roots turn brown, gray, or black and develop a mushy texture. They may also give off a nasty smell. We’ll explain how to spot and treat this problem, and provide some pointers on keeping your Snake Plant’s roots healthy and strong.
What Should a Snake Plant’s Roots Look Like?
You probably don’t inspect your Snake Plant’s root system very often. These plants grow relatively slowly and don’t require frequent repotting. So when you finally pop it out of the soil, you may be surprised at what you find.
The first unusual feature is the color. Lots of houseplant roots are white or khaki-colored, but the ones on your Snake Plant will probably be bright orange. Don’t worry, it’s not a sign of poor health! This color is perfectly normal.
The next thing that may seem odd is that there are thick tubers mixed in with the smaller, stringier roots. Closer inspection will reveal that all of your plant’s leaves emerge from these heftier segments.
Those bulkier structures are called rhizomes, and they’re a normal feature of Snake Plants. Like many succulents, your Sansevieria doesn’t have above-ground stems. Instead, its rhizomes wind through the ground until they find a promising place to send up some foliage. In nature, this helps these plants colonize their surroundings even when they’re unable to reproduce from seed.
This is one reason Sansevierias are so easy to propagate, or multiply. You can simply slice off a rhizome from the main root mass and plant it in a new pot, creating a clone of your existing plant.
How Deep Are Snake Plant Roots?
The third thing you might notice about your Snake Plant’s roots is that they seem awfully shallow. Your plant has a nice deep pot filled with healthy soil – why isn’t it using the space you’ve given it?
Once again, this is normal for Snake Plants. The soil in their native habitats is often sandy, rocky, and sparse. As a result, they’ve evolved to spread out more than down. It’s quite common for a Sansevieria to stick to the top 3 or 4 inches of soil and never delve into the deeper reaches.
This growth pattern can lead to unexpected difficulties. For one thing, many types of Snake Plant can grow more than 3 feet tall. Combined with their shallow root systems, their height can make them top-heavy and prone to tipping over. We recommend getting a fairly deep container, but don’t fill it as high as you normally would – you should only need about 4-6 inches of potting mix.
The other potential issue is that as your Snake Plant’s rhizomes push outward, they can strain or even crack the edges of the container! The only way to avoid this is to keep an eye on your Sansevieria’s growth so that you can divide your plant or pot it up to a larger container when necessary.
Recognizing Unhealthy Snake Plant Roots
How can you tell when there’s a problem with your Snake Plant’s roots? Sometimes you’ll get a clue from the state of the foliage, which tends to get shriveled, discolored, soft, and droopy when the roots aren’t functioning properly. But a definitive diagnosis requires you to pull up the plant and take a look “under the hood”.
As we explained in the intro, the most common issue to look out for is root rot. This happens when the soil remains wet for too long, allowing fungi and bacteria to reproduce in huge numbers and infect your plant’s root system.
Affected roots turn dark brown or black and become limp, slimy, and squishy. They may also smell bad – like vinegar, eggs, garbage, or even raw sewage, depending on what kinds of microbes are attacking your plant.
We offer a detailed guide on how to save a Snake Plant with root rot here. But here is the abbreviated version: snip off every single infected root, sanitizing your trimmers with 10% bleach or 3% hydrogen peroxide between cuts. Then plant it in a clean pot with fresh soil.
The other thing to look out for is fertilizer burn. As the name suggests, this generally happens when you add too much synthetic fertilizer, though mineral-heavy tap water can have the same effect over time. Fertilizer burn dehydrates the roots due to osmotic pressure from the high concentrations of mineral salts around them. They’ll wind up looking shriveled and crispy.
You can reduce the odds of fertilizer burn by flushing your Snake Plant’s soil every 6-8 weeks. Soak it slowly, letting the water drain out the base of the pot, until you’ve used at least 4 times the total volume of your Sansevieria’s container.
Keeping Your Sansevieria’s Roots Healthy
Nurturing healthy Snake Plant roots begins with the soil. Choose a rocky, fast-draining succulent mix, or make your own using the following formula:
- 40% coarse perlite
- 30% orchid bark
- 20% coconut coir
- 10% vermicompost
You should also water your Snake Plant thoroughly but infrequently. Test the soil every few days, and when the top 2-3 inches are dry, give it a good soak. This should avoid both overwatering and underwatering, as well as helping to prevent mineral buildup in the pot.
Want to read more about the ideal composition for your Snake Plant soil? Read this article: What Soil Is Best for Snake Plants? Plus Store-Bought vs. DIY Blends.
What If Your Snake Plant Has No Roots?
Occasionally, a houseplant owner will take their Snake Plant out of the soil to find an especially alarming sight: the roots have almost completely disappeared. All that’s left are a few foliage-bearing rhizomes, with maybe one or two stray roots clinging to them.
How did this happen? It’s almost always due to root rot. The foliage is so thick and fleshy that it can stay alive for quite a while using only the water stored in its tissues – even when an unseen, untreated infection is devouring the roots.
Is there any hope for your Snake Plant when it gets to this point?
Actually, there is. Sansevierias can regenerate from leaf cuttings, so you can slice off the foliage just above the point where the rot ends. Find the lowest spot on the leaf that doesn’t feel squishy and limp, then make your cut a little bit higher up. Transplant the cutting into a new pot of soil (or place it in a glass of water and wait for it to grow some roots before transferring it).
Sadly, certain kinds of variegation won’t carry over when you propagate a Snake Plant from a leaf cutting. If your Sansevieria has bright vertical stripes, like those on the classic Laurentii variety, it will lose them as it grows back.
Are Snake Plant Roots Edible?
Looking at those bright orange rhizomes, it might occur to you that they look a little bit like carrots – which might make you wonder whether you can eat them. Hey, we’re not here to judge. Maybe you’re really, really hungry.
But no matter how long it’s been since lunch, you shouldn’t snack on your Snake Plant’s roots. Every part of these plants is filled with toxins called saponins. They’re not usually deadly in humans, but they’ll cause some stomach distress. In some cases, they can also trigger a nasty reaction that makes your throat swell up.
So keep your Snake Plant out of your mouth and away from your pets and kids.
Your Snake Plant’s chunky rhizomes and shallow, orange roots might look a little bit odd. But there’s no reason to think they’re unhealthy unless they’re discolored, shriveled, squishy, or stinky. If you find any of those warning signs, you should take immediate action to rescue your plant!