Why Is My Snake Plant Turning Yellow?

No matter what you call it — snake plant, mother-in-law’s tongue, or viper bowstring hemp — Dracaena trifasciata is one of the easiest houseplants to care for. It’s famous for thriving in low-light offices and homes with little TLC. But even this tough-as-nails species can suffer in the wrong environment.

If your snake plant is ailing, one of the first symptoms you’ll likely notice is yellowing leaves. A snake plant turning yellow can be caused by a number of things, most of which are 100% treatable. 

In this article, I’ll help diagnose your snake plant and provide expert advice for treating and preventing any new damage in the future. 

Why Do Snake Plant Leaves Turn Yellow?

Yellow leaves can occur in practically any plant species including snake plants. While some cases are completely natural — e.g., tree foliage changing color in the fall, or aging lower plant leaves yellowing over winter — uncharacteristically yellow leaves are a clear sign that something is wrong.

The main reason yellow leaves are a concern is that they indicate a lack of chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is a green pigment found in plant leaves. It plays an invaluable role in photosynthesis. Without adequate chlorophyll, the plant in question won’t survive for very long.

Chlorosis is the scientific term for leaf yellowing caused by an unusual lack of chlorophyll. Many people use ‘chlorosis’ to refer to yellowing triggered by nutritional deficiencies. However, this condition can be caused by a number of different factors, including moisture, soil quality, temperature, and pest damage.

Causes Of Snake Plant Leaves Turning Yellow

When a snake plant’s leaves begin turning yellow, the most likely culprits include improper watering, poor soil drainage, and insufficient light. Based on my own experience, it’s important to rule out any of these causes before assuming that something worse is going on.

Watering Problems

Did you know that snake plants are succulents? These houseplants are adapted to relatively arid climates, so they don’t need a lot of water to survive.

One of the most common mistakes I see from new snake plant owners is that they tend to ‘kill with kindness’. In other words, you might find yourself overwatering in an attempt to give your snake plant the best care possible.

On the other hand, leaving a snake plant for long stretches of time with no water is also a bad idea. As is keeping this plant in a container with inadequate drainage.

Underwatering

Snake plants do prefer to dry out between waterings but shouldn’t be left dehydrated for too long. I recommend watering whenever you notice the soil is over 90% dry.

Underwatering often occurs when we get busy, travel, or just forget about our houseplants’ needs. Personally, I like to keep houseplants in high-traffic areas so that I remember to water them on a consistent schedule.

snake plant leaves turning yellow and brown then dry
Snake plant turning yellow then drying from underwatering

Overwatering

Overwatering weighs down the soil and prevents the roots from taking up nutrients and oxygen. Because of this, most plants require a delicate balance of dampness and dryness to access everything they need.

As a general rule, your snake plant’s soil should just barely dry out between waterings. Watering more often than this can overwhelm the root system and cause stress to the entire plant, including symptoms like yellowing.

overwatered snake plant
Overwatered snake plant with soft leaves

Poor Drainage

Snake plants require well-draining soil and a container with ample drainage. If the soil holds on to too much moisture or there is nowhere for excess water to drain, you’ll end up in the same situation as you would by overwatering.

Root Rot

According to Pennsylvania State University, root rot is one of the most common diseases affecting snake plants. While root rot is its own condition, it’s usually a direct result of overwatering, poor drainage, or a combination of the two.

As the name implies, root rot is a health condition that impacts plant roots. It deteriorates the root system to the point that it can no longer function, preventing the plant from absorbing moisture, nutrients, and oxygen.

Because root rot can progress quickly below the soil’s surface before symptoms like yellow leaves appear, I strongly suggest inspecting your snake plant’s roots. 

Nutrient Deficiencies

Compared to other houseplants, snake plants don’t require much supplemental nutrition. Applying a diluted cactus and succulent fertilizer a couple of times per year — once in the spring and again in the fall — is sufficient.

If your snake plant turns yellow and more likely causes have been ruled out, however, any of these nutritional problems could be to blame:

Nitrogen

Nitrogen is one of the most important nutrients for plant health. Plants use nitrogen to manufacture chlorophyll, so yellow leaves are often the most obvious symptom of a deficiency.

A snake plant that lacks sufficient nitrogen may present with yellow or pale green leaves. Stunted growth is another common symptom.

For treatment, apply a nitrogen-containing fertilizer designed for potted cacti and succulents.

Magnesium

Magnesium is classified as a micronutrient and generally, isn’t as essential to plant health as nitrogen. However, a magnesium deficiency can still cause yellowing leaves in snake plants.

Not all fertilizer formulas contain supplemental magnesium. If your current fertilizer doesn’t provide magnesium, I recommend switching to one that does.

Over-Fertilizing

Overfeeding your snake plant could be the cause of its yellow leaves. Excess fertilizer can damage the roots and prevent moisture absorption. This can happen immediately after using a formula that is too strong or over time as fertilizer salts build up in the soil.

Improper Lighting

Snake plants are frequently advertised as low-light houseplants. Though it’s true they can tolerate minimal sunlight and still grow, snake plants need bright, indirect light for optimal health. Insufficient light may cause the foliage to fade or turn yellow.

When selecting a spot for your snake plant’s container, stay away from harsh, unfiltered sunlight. Excess sun exposure can yellow or scorch the leaves. This is often a problem when relocating snake plants outdoors during the warmer months.

Improper Lighting

Extreme Temperatures

Snake plants typically prefer conditions between 70 and 90°F. While they can tolerate temperatures down to 50°F for short stints, frost will almost immediately kill these plants. 

Note that rapidly changing temperatures can be just as stressful as those that are extremely hot or cold. Keep your snake plant away from cool drafts, air conditioners, radiators, and other sources of extreme temperatures.

Old or Spent Leaves

Old or damaged leaves may turn yellow before dying off. This is a natural process and shouldn’t cause concern unless your snake plant shows other signs of stress or disease.

You can carefully trim away yellowing leaves at the base using a pair of clean, sharp pruning shears.

Pest Infestation

Snake plants often play host to common pests like mealybugs, spider mites, and scales. These pests feed on plant foliage by piercing and sucking juices from the leaf tissue. You may notice spots or patches of yellow foliage where any of these pests have been feeding.

Mealy bug and fungus
Mealy bug and fungus infestation

You may also like to read Why Does My Snake Plant Have Brown Spots?

FAQ Snake Plant Turning Yellow

Should You Cut Yellow Leaves Off Of Snake Plant?

Removing yellow leaves from your snake plant can improve its appearance and help redirect energy to produce new, healthy foliage. Just be sure to retain some green foliage at all times, or else the plant will be unable to photosynthesize properly.

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Ben's horticultural interest grew when graduating from Hertfordshire University in 1997. Having contributed to numerous publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design Magazine, and The English Garden. He is also the author of Propagating Houseplants Made Easy.