One of the most popular of houseplants also has a most unusual appearance. Sansevieria trifasciata goes by a variety of common names, including snake plant, mother-in-law's tongue, viper's bowstring hemp, and Saint George's sword (in Brazil). This member of the Asparagacea family (a relative of garden asparagus) is native to tropical West Africa, from Nigeria east to the Congo.
Whether you know it as snake plant or mother-in-law's plant, this is an architectural species of houseplant featuring stiff, upright leaves that range from 1 to 8 feet tall depending on variety. The variety known as snake plant usually has green banded leaves, while the variety called mother-in-law's tongue typically features a yellow border. These plants are among the toughest of all houseplants—they can withstand virtually any conditions.
Sansevieria in History and Science
Sansevieria has a rich history of folklore and new science. First cultivated in China, it was kept as a treasured houseplant because the Eight Gods were thought to bestow their eight virtues on those who grew snake plant. 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 circulate through the home in a manner that presaged feng shui practice. They were also were placed in fine restaurants, herbalists, acupuncturists, doctor's offices, accountant's offices, banks, shrines, monasteries, and even in rice paddies. Sansevieria plants were grown and cherished or their ability to bestow good fortune well before another Chinese plant, Dracaena spp., also known as the good luck bamboo.
Sansevieria is among several selected plants chosen by NASA for a study on how plants can be used for air purification and to combat "sick building syndrome." According to joint studies run by the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia and the Institute for Environmental Research at Yonsei University in Seul, Sansevieria has a demonstrated ability to remove formaldehyde from the air.
These natives of tropical Africa are one of the best houseplants for beginners and anyone seeking a striking display. Snake plant will thrive in very bright light to almost dark corners of the house. It is excellent in a grouping and will grow equally well on the floor or on table-top displays. There are two low-growing varieties, but these are rarely seen in garden centers.
Sansevieria is an extremely forgiving plant that is hard to kill. Here are some tips on growing snake plants:
- Light: Although they are very forgiving, Sansevieria plants prefers indirect but steady light with some direct sun. They can adapt to full sun conditions, and will also survive quite dim situations.
- 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 with snake plant; too much water can kill the plant.
- Temperature: This plant prefers warm conditions and will suffer if exposed to temperatures below 50 F.
- Soil: Sansevieria plants prefer a loose, well-drained potting mix. They will do well in sandier soils.
- Fertilizer: Feed with a mild cactus fertilizer during the growing season; do not fertilize in the winter.
Sansevieria plants can be divided easily during repotting. Alternatively, new shoots that 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.
Repot these plants in the spring. Snake plants 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.
- Sansevieria trifasciata 'Hahnii' (bird's nest snake plant) grows to only about 6 inches tall. Its clusters of leaves form a cluster resembling a bird's nest.
- Sansevieria cylindrica (cylinder snake plant) has round, stiff leaves that can reach several feet in length. The leaves arch outward from a central crown.
- Sansevieria trifasciata 'Laurentii' (variegated snake plant) has creamy yellow leaf margins. To propagate this plant, it must be divided rather than propagated from leaf cuttings.
- Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Twist’ has twisted leaves that are striped horizontally, with yellow variegated edges. It grows to about 14 inches tall.
- Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Bantel’s Sensation’ grows to around 3 feet tall and has narrow leaves with white vertical stripes with white vertical stripes.
- Sansevieria desertii, sometimes called rhino grass, grows to around 12 inches with succulent red-tinted leaves.