Snake Plant and Mother-in-Law's Tongue

Tips on Growing Conditions, Propagation and Repotting

Row of potted plants in black pots
Steven Nilsson / Getty Images

Sansevieria trifasciata, also called viper's bowstring hemp, snake plant, mother-in-law's tongue or Saint George's sword (in Brazil), is a species of flowering plant in the family Asparagaceae, native to tropical West Africa from Nigeria east to the Congo.

These are architectural plants with stiff, upright leaves up to 3 or 4 feet tall. The Snake Plant has green banded leaves, while the Mother-in-Law's Tongue features a yellow border.

These plants are among the toughest of all houseplants—they can withstand virtually any conditions, from dark to bright. The only way to surely kill them is to overwater or never water at all.

Sansevierias have a rich history of folklore and new science. These plants have a rich history of cultivation. In China, it was kept as a treasured houseplant because the Eight Gods bestowed their eight virtues on those who grew them. These virtues include long life, prosperity, intelligence, beauty, art, poetry, health and strength. The plants were kept near the entrances inside the home so that the eight virtues could pass through in a manner pre-Feng Shui. These plants also were placed in fine restaurants, herbalists, acupuncturists, doctor's offices, accountant's offices, banks, shrines, monasteries, and even in rice paddies. Sansevierias were grown and cherished well before the Chinese ti plant (Dracaena spp.) also known as the Good Luck Bamboo.

An interesting research program has been done by NASA using a few selected plants (one is Sansevieria) for air purification and to curb "Sick Building Syndrome." 

Growing Conditions

Here are some tips on growing snake plants:

  • Light: Although they are very forgiving, the sansevieria prefers bright light with some sun. They can adapt to full sun.
  • Water: Let the soil dry between waterings. During winter, reduce watering to monthly, or whenever the soil is dry to the touch. Err on the side of underwatering.
  • Temperature: They prefer warmth and will suffer if exposed to temperatures below 50 F.
  • Soil: A loose, well-drained potting mix. They will do well in sandier soils.
  • Fertilizer: Feed a mild cactus fertilizer during the growing season; do not fertilizer in the winter.

Propagation

Sansevieria can be divided easily during repotting. Alternatively, new shoots, which emerge from the soil as spikes, can be taken and potted independently. They are rapid growers once established. Cuttings can also be taken, but it's much easier to rely on division.

Repotting

Repot in the spring. Sansevieria are rapid growers and may need repotting or dividing annually. A well-grown sansevieria can split a clay pot with its mass of underground shoots. When repotting, always use fresh potting soil.

Growing Tips

These are one of the best houseplants for beginners and for striking displays.They will thrive in very bright light to almost dark corners of the house. They are excellent in a grouping and will grow equally well on the floor or on table-top displays.

Native to tropical Africa, the biggest danger is overwatering, especially in the winter. There are two low-growing varieties, but these are rarely seen in garden centers.