by Matt Gibson
The snake plant houseplant is a great additional to your home because of its ease of care and terrific look. But there are even more benefits, because the snake plant is also terrific for improving your indoor air quality.
These days, with pollution increasing at what experts call “an alarming rate,” it’s a little-known fact that the quality of air indoors can actually be worse than the pollution outside. The reasons for indoor air pollution are pretty obvious once you take a moment to consider the circumstances. Things that are just part of our daily life are to blame for polluting indoor air, such as poor ventilation, the seemingly neverending dust particles that tend to float around indoors (which can be exacerbated by dirty air filters and the like), and the volatile organic compounds that come along with items as everyday as cleaner and nail polish. Yucky stuff. It’s no wonder many people are choosing to decorate with houseplants like the snake plant as an affordable way to purify the air in their homes.
Along with the new information about our indoor air quality, there’s been an uptick in media attention focused on indoor air pollution. Of course, manufacturers and marketers of air-cleaning products have pillaged these news reports and studies for statistics and quotes they can put to use in their advertisements. It’s hard for people to know who to trust when faced with such an influx of information, much of it contradictory or coming from sources that have “a horse in the race” and stand to profit from public concern. As a result, many people have turned to expensive air-cleaning or air-purifying devices, some of which come along with more than consumers bargained for.
Some products that are branded as “air cleaning” or “air purifying” actually emit potentially harmful gases and other pollutants into the areas that they are supposedly tidying up. The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a report on air purifiers that aren’t what they seem from their advertisements: ozone generators are sometimes put on the market as air purification systems for use indoors.
Well, there’s no need to sift through the research to determine which new, expensive machine you’ll choose to clean the air inside the buildings that you spend time in, because simply adding a few houseplants to your interior decor can handle that job. And indoor plants aren’t just an alternative to air purification machines that’s easy on the wallet. Better yet, they won’t even raise your electricity bill.
Time Magazine’s Markham Heid reports, “One famous NASA experiment, published in 1989, found that indoor plants can scrub the air of cancer-causing volatile organic compounds like formaldehyde and benzyne.” (NASA’s famous experiment was created to explore how to best purify the air in space station environments.) NASA’s study proved that the common houseplants they tested were able to remove 90 percent of harmful chemicals from the air in their testing chamber within 24 hours. We now also know, thanks to a 2004 study on potted plants’ ability to remove benzene from the air, that microorganisms in the soil of houseplants do their part in air purification as well.
That 1989 NASA study ranked the snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata), the common houseplant that’s also called by a slew of other names, including mother-in-law’s tongue, high on their list of houseplants that most improve indoor air quality. Almost all plants will pitch in to purify their habitat by oxygenating the air around them, but the snake plant goes above and beyond—it reduces the number of toxins in the air as well as adding oxygen.
The attractive and practical snake plant actually placed in the top three air-purifying plants NASA tested based on a ratio that measured how much the plants purified the air as compared to how much surface area they occupied. That means the snake plant is one of the best out there to purify the air you breathe each day, and it’s also an efficient and economical trade-off for the space you give up when you bring any plant into your home.
The snake plant is not only one of the best houseplants you can add to your home decor to improve air quality. It’s also one of the easiest plants out there for gardeners to care for and maintain. Its ease of care makes it an excellent plant to give as a gift as well as a good bet for beginners to gardening, though it’s a favorite of experts as well.
Warning: There is one drawback to the snake plant that some gardeners should keep in mind before choosing a spot for it in their homes. The snake plant is actually very toxic to dogs and cats. If ingested by these pets, it can cause nausea, vomiting, and an upset stomach. The symptoms a pet that’s consumed snake plant will experience are mild enough, but few people out there want to take chances when it comes to their pets. So what does this mean for you? If you’re a pet owner and you need to improve the air quality of your home or workspace with a houseplant, you have two great options. Either pick out a couple of pet-friendly alternatives to the snake plant as alternative houseplants to help purify the air in your home, or make sure to place your snake plant well out of the reach of curious household pets.
Warning 2: Snake plants tend to add to their territory and reproduce through the power of underground rhizomes, which can cause the plant to spread to the point of being considered invasive. It’s a good thing that snake plants thrive in containers and flourish as indoor plants, or their tendency to take over when planted in the ground outdoors may have had a more significant effect on their popularity. As it stands, few houseplants out there can even compete with the snake plant—it’s been a gardener favorite for years thanks to its hands-off care requirements, stunning blade-like foliage, and ability to purify the air.
Varieties of Snake Plant
What gardeners commonly call the snake plant may also be referred to by its other names, including bowstring hemp plant, devil’s tongue, djinn’s tongue, mother-in-law’s tongue, snake tongue, and viper’s bowstring. Exclusively in Brazil, the snake plant is called Saint George’s sword. The following varieties are those you’re likely to encounter for sale at nurseries and garden centers or in trades with other gardeners who have plenty after dividing new shoots from their main plant.
Sansevieria trifasciata: “Hahnii” (or bird’s nest snake plant) only grows as high as six inches. Its leaves form a cluster-like shape similar to a bird’s nest.
Sansevieria cylindrica: The cylinder snake plant produces round, sturdy leaves that can grow to be several feet long. The leaves seem to arch outward from the central crown.
Sansevieria trifasciata: “Laurentii” (the variegated snake plant) is distinctive due to the creamy yellow margins that frame its deep green leaves. In order to successfully start a new plant, this species requires gardeners to use division instead of propagating more snake plants from leaf cuttings.
Sansevieria trifasciata: This “twist” variety of the snake plant shows off with curving leaves decorated by pronounced horizontal stripes and yellow variegated edges. This variety of snake plant grows to about 14 inches in height.
Sansevieria trifasciata: This type, called “Bantel’s sensation,” grows up to three feet high and has sharp narrow leaves decorated with white vertical stripes.
Sansevieria desertii, sometimes called “rhino grass,” grows to around one foot tall and has showy succulent-like leaves that are tinted in red.
Growing Conditions for Snake Plant
Snake plants were practically custom-made to perform well as indoor houseplants. They only require the very basics of warmth, occasional hydration, some indirect light, and a well-draining soil to thrive. The snake plant is widely considered one of the most tolerant, least demanding houseplants a gardener can find when it comes to care. The stately plants will look fresh and healthy for years, even if they’re subjected to long periods without water or inadequate lighting. The snake plant prefers indirect but steady lighting along with some time in direct sun, though the plants will adapt to a range of lighting environments, including full sun conditions as well as very dim living situations.
The snake plant enjoys moderate hydration, so be sure to allow its soil to dry completely between waterings. During the winter months, reduce watering to once per month or whenever the soil is dry to the touch. When in doubt, err on the side of caution when it comes to watering a snake plant and skip the moisture until you’re sure it will be welcome. Too much water is one of the only things that will kill a snake plant outright.
Snake plants enjoy balmy temperatures and will suffer greatly if they’re exposed to weather below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Though these plants prefer a loose, well-draining potting mix, they will tolerate a sandy soil well enough to survive if that’s the only option.
Feed your snake plants with a mild cactus fertilizer throughout the growing season. Do not fertilize them during the winter. One good option for fertilizing houseplants if you have a compost pile going is to make your own compost tea ice cubes to place in their containers.
How to Plant Snake Plant
Snake plant can be grown either from seeds or from cuttings, but the most reliable and widely used method of getting new snake plants is to divide your existing specimens and then repot the newly separated divisions. Also, the new shoots that sprout up from the soil as freshly sprouted spikes (the result of those underground rhizomes) can be gently removed from the main plant and potted independently.
Care of Snake Plant
Aside from occasional watering, repotting as needed, and annual division around springtime, there is not any major care or maintenance needed for gardeners to enjoy success with the snake plant.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Snake Plant
While snake plants are considered highly resistant to pests and diseases, there are a few problems that do occasionally crop up to plague them. Be sure to keep an eye out for slug or snail damage so you can take action to combat these slimy pests. If you see small holes chewed into the leaves, go on the offensive and make a slug-and-snail-luring trap. Just pour one inch of stale beer into a small plastic container, then bury it your trap up to a half an inch from its rim very near the snake plant in question. (Place the trap in the same container as the affected snake plant). Snails and slugs will make a beeline to the suds and drown in their attempts to imbibe the liquid.
Repotting a Snake Plant
Replant snake plants in late winter every one to two years, or when their roots become crowded and start to grow outside of their pots or containers. When selecting a new pot for a snake plant, always choose one that is at least one or two inches larger in diameter than the plant’s current home. Make sure the container you’ll transplant into has adequate drainage holes, and fill it a third full of potting soil mix.
Water the snake plant in its current pot deeply to help loosen the roots from the soil before you remove the plant from its old container. Taking the time to perform this step ensures that the plant will slide out of its current pot instantly and easily. To remove it, rest your hand gently on the top of the soil so that the base of the plant is supported as you lift. The root ball should slide out of the current pot when you turn the snake plant upside down. Trim off any dark-colored roots near the exterior of the root ball, as their dark color indicates that they have developed root rot. Be sure to use a clean knife or clean gardening shears for the trimming of these rotten roots—using dirty tools in the garden is a great way to spread disease throughout your plant population.
In its new container, the snake plant’s root ball should sit one to two inches beneath the rim, and the plant should be buried up to the same place as it was in its previous pot. To adjust, simply add or remove soil from beneath the root ball until the snake plant is sitting at the proper depth. Then fill in around the plant’s roots with additional soil once any needed repositioning for height is complete. Thoroughly water your snake plant after it’s been repotted to help the root system adjust to its new home. Wait at least one month before using fertilizer after a snake plant has been moved to a new container.
Other Great Houseplants for Air Purification
Other houseplants that are great for indoor use and powerhouses when it comes to air purification include the Bamboo palm, Boston fern, Chinese evergreen, gerbera daisy, dragon tree, pot mum, peace lily, and spider plant.
Want to see videos about growing snake plant?
This video breaks down the details of the NASA study on plants and indoor air purification:
This 11-minute how-to provides a detailed tutorial on growing and caring for snake plant:
Check out this vlog from Donna Joshi for 10 tips on how to grow a snake plant indoors:
This video highlights three different ways to propagate snake plant successfully:
This tutorial shows you how to divide and cut a snake plant to make unique and classy housewarming gifts:
Want to learn more about growing snake plants?
See these helpful resources:
The Old Farmer’s Almanac covers Growing Snake Plants: How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Snake Plants
Green Decor covers 5 Facts Everyone Should Know About Snake Plant – The Best Indoor Plant
Business Insider covers The Best Air Purifiers You Can Buy
EPA covers Ozone Generators that are Sold as Air Cleaners
Gardening Know How covers Snake Plant Care
SFGate covers How to Grow a Snake Plant
SFGate covers Repotting Snake Plant
The Atlantic covers The Air Pollutants in Your Medicine Cabinet
The Spruce covers Growing the Snake Plant (Mother-in-Law’s Tongue)
Time covers You Asked: Can Indoor Plants Really Purify the Air?
YouTube video on A NASA Study Explains How to Purify Air With House Plants