Snake Plant Sansevieria Care: Mother-in-Law’s Tongue [Care Guide]

The snake plant or Sansevieria pronounced (san-se-vi-ee’-ri-ah) – A genus of perennial herbs with stiff, very thick leaves, often mottled with white, and clustered flowers on slender stalks.

A member of the Asparagaceae Family, popularly goes by other common names. The very “politically correct” Mother-in-Law’s tongue, snake tongue, mothers plant, and viper’s Bowstring-hemp.

snake plant Sansevieria mother in laws tongue in pots
The bowsting hemp plant makes and excellent potted plant indoors as a houseplant or outdoors.

What is a snake plant?

Sansevieria is undoubtedly one of the most easily recognized plants in the world.

Honestly, “Who, doesn’t know about snake plants?” I soon discovered, surprisingly enough, except for a few academic papers, very little has been published about this group of plants.

Sansevieria – Snake Plant Quick Growing Guide:

Family: Asparagaceae
Origin: Africa, Madagascar and southern Asia

Common Names: snake plant, mother-in-law plant, bowstring hemp, devil’s tongue, jinn’s tongue, snake tongue

Uses: Excellent as a houseplant in both bright and low indirect light areas. Used in the landscape as a potted plant or directly planted in the ground.

Height: 6 inches to 42 inches
USDA Hardiness Zones: Grows outdoors in USDA Hardiness Zone 9 – 11
Flowers:  greenish-white clustered flowers on slender stalks
Foliage: stiff, very thick leaves, often mottled with white and yellow striping

Snake Plant Care Requirements: As a houseplant, it does best in bright light but tolerates low light levels indoors as well. In fact, it is one of the BEST succulents for low light indoors. Outdoors bright direct sun to full sun. Handles dry and poor soil conditions but appreciates good well-drained soil inside or outside. Lightly fertilize with a liquid 20-20-20 fertilizer 1/2 strength. DO NOT over-water or overpot. Temperatures below 40 may cause damage to leaves. Relatively pest free.
Miscellaneous: Approximately 50 “recognized” species and varieties. Potted plants can be heavy to move. Propagate by division.

On the off-chance that some of you may have just recently returned from a prolonged stay in Tibet, and thus may not be acquainted with sansevierias, let’s start at the beginning.

The Snake Plant: Sansevieria A Well Known Stranger

The genus was named after the Prince of San Severo born in Naples in 1710.

The primary plant of the genus Sansevieria trifasciata, originates from tropical Africa, Madagascar and Asia. The plant was originally prized for the useful fibers obtained from its leaves.

This is where the common name of “bow string hemp” came from. Where the common name mother in law’s tongue plant came from, I have no idea.

The plants are often called, perhaps only colloquially, “snake plant”, although most people know it by that name, this name is more properly applied to a totally different genus.

The confusion which results from one common name being applied to several unlike plants is one reason why many shy away from using common names.

The snake plant has been in cultivation for over 250 years. But grown in the US foliage trade since the 1920’s.

A tender evergreen perennial with stiff, erect, thick, spearlike leaves with a glossy texture about 2 ft. long. Distinctly marked white-and-green or yellow-and-green foliage.

Sansevieria laurentii is always at the top of any list as being one of the most tolerant (like zz plant care) of all decorative plants. They survive the most unsuitable growing conditions, abuse and neglect a plant could receive.

It’s recommended to and those interested in feng shui and to improve indoor air quality for structures with “sick building syndrome.”

Although this houseplant will stand more neglect than almost any other plant, overwatering is harmful.

Caring for a snake plant comes down to basically this – the plant is easy to care for, you have to work really hard to kill a sansevieria.

Types Of Sansevieria

The genus boast about 70 varieties but roughly 15 varieties find themselves grown commercially.

Snake plants come in basically two types: Tall, upright growers and bird nest type

Upright growing snake plant showing the bloom, rhizomes and roots
Upright growing snake plant showing the bloom, rhizomes, and roots

The Upright Snake Plants

The well-known tall, upright snake plant varieties include:

  • Sansevieria trifasciata – grows tall, with bold stiff, glossy, leather-like gray-green leaves with dark green crossbands.
  • Sansevieria trifasciata laurentii – A variegated and much showier cultivar of Sansevieria trifasciata introduced by Emile Laurent. The plant looks just like trifasciata – except for the yellow banding on the outside edges of the leaves.
  • Sansevieria zeylanica – According to the University of Florida  – “Most plants sold as Sansevieria zeylanica are trifasciata. True Sansevieria zeylanica has little appeal as an ornamental.” [source]

… of which you’ll find several forms.

The Bird Nest Trifasciata ‘Hahnii’

Many enjoy the tough, cast-iron qualities of sansevierias but not the stiff upright appearance. To the rescue is the ‘Bird’s Nest Sansevieria Hahnii.”

This appealing little dwarf sansevieria issued a plant patent in 1941, has sword-shaped leaves 6″ inches long, randomly mottled in green and grey. The leaves grow upward from a rhizome, or underground stem, in a funnel-shaped rosette.

These smaller “rosette” varieties carry a more graceful design. These “squashed-down” bird nest varieties hold the same “tough qualities” as the upright types.

Sansevieria golden Hahnii, has two or three broad bands of yellow and several longitudinal yellow stripes.

bird nest Sansevieria golden Hahnii planted in a bowl in Cuba

The bird nest types plants make excellent “dish-garden” and terrarium plants. compact in shape durable.

For more check out our article on the Bird’s Nest Sansevieria Hahnii including it’s “discovery” in a New Orleans nursery.

Potting & Repotting The Mother In Law Plant

Dividing snake plants at any time during the year, however, spring is the best.

The plants are easily increased by division; since most sansevierias sucker freely from the base of the plant, this is usually the preferred method of propagation. They may also be increased by cutting the leaves into three-inch lengths, and inserting the lower third of these in damp sand.

With this method, however, the yellow banding or marginal stripes may be lost, with the new plants reverting to type.

How to repot snake plant and whats the best soil for snake plant?

Remove the plant from of the pot. Using a knife or sharp clippers cut it up as much as you want. Plant each piece along with their roots in a container with a well-drained soil like this at Amazon.

Note: When repotting plants such as sansevieria, it is not always necessary to transfer them to a larger pot, unless you want to increase the size of the plant.

The plants grow actively during the summer, dividing in spring will produce the quickest results. Each division will soon grow and produce a nice plant.

Snake plants do well in a good potting soil as they are not very demanding. Sansevierias are very “succulent“; “heavy plants” which hold lots of water in their leaves. It is often recommended to create a “heavy soil” by amending the potting mix with some sand.

How Often Should You Water In Sansevieria Care?

Be cautious when snake plant watering, especially during the winter. The wintertime is when most people experience root rot.

TIPS: Better to err on the dry side. Watering is usually a matter of personal judgment. I water my snake plants whenever they seem to need it, about every 2-3 weeks. I always allow the plant root area and soil dry between watering, before watering again.

Few plants should be kept constantly wet, fewer should ever be allowed to suffer from lack of moisture.

The Snake – One Tough Indoor Plant

sansevieria plant displayed as houseplants in containers in a sunny window

Plants as with fashion seem to come and go and come back again. Over the last few years Sansevieria started to make somewhat of a comeback.

No discussion on hardy house plants would be complete without some comments on the Sansevieria or viper’s bowstring hemp.

This well-known genus has many friends and some enemies.

The critics call attention to the snake plant’s stiff, upright growth habit, and they are apt to name it mother-in-law’s tongue or snake plant. Devoted friends, on the other hand, praise its hardy constitution and ability to thrive under exceedingly difficult conditions.

Others approve the modernistic form of the plant and select it for backgrounds calling for vertical line.

Sansevieria hahnii super marginata

These plants make great house plants due to their versatility in both size, use and growing conditions.

You’ll find Sansevieria used in small dish gardens all the way up into 14″ containers 42″ inches in height. They handle full sun, look great on a patio during the spring and summer, but also can go inside into very low light.

In fact, the toughness of this low-light makes the snake plant one of the Best Bathroom Plants for low or no light areas.

This plant can hang with the best of all low light plants. However, the plant will do best in bright light.

The Mother’s Tongue plant, the spider plant and others were Top plants NASA tested and found for absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen at night.

Sansevieria does this through the crassulacean acid metabolism process.

Temperatures below 45 degrees for extended periods is one climatic condition it will not tolerate. When the plants become damaged it can show up slowly over a 1- 4 week period.

sansevieria moonshine 6" - inch pot

One “Mother In Law” Downside

Everything seems to have a downside and the Sansevieria is no different. Their downside – weight.

Because of their relationship to the succulent family they hold a lot of water.

As plants reach 10″ and larger in pot size the weight goes up dramatically. I’ve seen 10″ plants that weight 25 pounds or more.

If You Want A Houseplant That:

  • Is tough indoors
  • Can be placed just about anywhere
  • Takes up little space
  • Goes a long time between watering
  • A good starter plant for the house
  • Can start outside in spring and move inside
  • Has no real pests problems. Spider mites even have a difficult time with their succulent plant leaves.

Take a look at the Sansevieria.

Propagation – Dividing & Leaf Cuttings

In south Florida, stock plants grow in beds out in full sun. One very unusual production method of these plants; growers actually mow down the tops of the plants forcing them to produce new growth.

Sansevierias propagate easily by division; since most varieties sucker freely producing rhizomes, this is usually the preferred method of propagation. Snake plants propagate from leaf cuttings, clumps or rhizome cuttings.

Propagate by cutting the leaves by cutting leaves into three-inch lengths, and inserting the lower third of these in damp sand. With this method, however, the yellow banding or marginal stripes may be lost, with the new plants reverting to type.

snake plant propagation cutting rooting in bowl of water.
snake plant propagation cutting in a bowl of water. image: via madaise

This video from Nell provides lots of details on repotting snake plant.

Sansevieria Cylindrica – The Popular Oddball

sansevieria cylindrical the snake plant with cigar like leaves.
Sansevieria cylindrica the snake plant with cigar like leaves.
Sansevieria cylindrica

One odd sort you may discover when searching for a “different” or rare sansevieria species is Sansevieria cylindrica. The plant has dark green leaves marked with faint light green bands.

A native to Angola, sometimes called the African spear, Cylindrical Snake Plant, Spear Sansevieria, used as an ornamental plant because of its unique features.

The difference? The leaves are cylindrical instead of being flat or concave. This somewhat fan shape plant is also found in Sansevieria Ehrenbergi, a much more colorful plant with red and white pencil stripes on the upper margins of its bluish leaves.

Another unusual type I’ve become mildly fond of is Sansevieria arborescens, a sort of tree-like plant wholly unlike the customary stemless varieties. This, by the way, has white edges on dull green leaves.

It is a fan shape plant but some gardeners and growers have experimented with braiding.

Braided Sansevieria cylindrical at Whole Food, Winter Park Florida 2014
Braided Sansevieria cylindrical at Whole Food, Winter Park Florida 2014

Sansevieria cylindrica is a low-maintenance houseplant, versatile and drought-tolerant. In fact, it seems to thrive best with little water.

Almost like the ZZ plant or cast-iron plant and other of the best indoor houseplants they do fine when watered once or twice a month or less when if used indoors as a houseplant.

Uses For The “Snake”

The durability of Sansevieria makes it an excellent choice for apartment dwellers who often have limited success with houseplants due to lighting issues. They should take a good look the bowstring hemp plant.

Sansevierias adapt to almost any temperature and light conditions. True, the plants will freeze if it gets too cold, and sunburn if it is too hot, and no plant will grow in absolute darkness.

But they will tolerate very dim light for long periods, and can be used in many places where other plants would scarcely survive a week.

Sansevieria - snake plant - planted in large decorative planter Volusia Mall, Daytona Beach, Florida May 2018
Sansevieria aka Mother in Law’s Tongue – three 10 inch pots planted in one large decorative planter Volusia Mall, Daytona Beach, Florida May 2018

Display Them Attractively

Too many people lose half the beauty of their plants (not only sansevierias, but others, too) by not displaying them properly. Some varieties of sansevieria, notably those whose silhouettes are unusual, deserving to be grown as individual specimens; others look better when used in group plantings.

snake plants displayed in rustic planters
‘Snakes’ displayed in rustic planters

An attractive pottery container greatly enhances the appearance of these plants.

Admittedly Sansevierias plants are not most very graceful plant. The compact birds nest species Sansevieria Hahni are more interesting in their smaller size and also tolerant of dry hot rooms and poor light.

The bird nest varieties are perhaps of the greatest value to the window gardener, with their amiable disposition, which allows them to persist under the most adverse conditions.

Keep leaves clean and free from dust and grease. Other care consists of keeping the plants moist but not wet, and feeding occasionally.

Sansevieria Hahni with short leaves arranged in a rosette. Hahni makes and excellent low plant for use on a coffee table where little light may be available.

3 Sansevieria Hahnii house plants displayed in attractive decorative planters
3 Sansevieria Hahnii bird nest snake plants displayed in attractive decorative planters

Q&A: How To Care For Snake Plants

Does Sansevieria Bloom or Flower?

Primarily used as foliage plants but when conditions suit them Sansevierias will burst suddenly and unexpectedly into glorious bloom. The psychological reaction for most sansevieria owners is comparable to finding a peacock on their front lawn!

A friend describes the plants as “inelegant” either never saw one in bloom or else needs new glasses.

Granted, individually the flowers do not look like much, but borne in racemes on tall, foot long, stout scapes, making a lovely display. The blossoms usually white or cream, sometimes greenish (those of Sansevieria cylindrica have a pinkish color), are often fragrant.

By now you probably know how tough and durable qualities of the “Mother-in-law plant.” If you’re looking for other tough plants to keep as houseplants also consider the ZZ plant {zamioculcas), Cast-Iron plant, and Aglaonemas.

When Is The Best Time To Repot or Transplant?

How to take care of a snake plant?

I have a pot of sansevieria that has so many young ones coming up the plants are very crowded. When is the best time to transplant some of these into another container? Kaleigh, Memphis, Tenn.

Divide Sansevierias at any time during the year, and each division will soon grow into a nice plant. Dump the plant out of the pot, break it up as much as you want and plant each. The plants grow actively during the summer, so spring is the best time to divide the plant to obtain quick results.

Is The Mother In Laws Plant Poisonous?

The Mother In Law’s Tongue plant is low in toxicity to people but according to the ASPCA – all parts of the plant are poisonous or toxic to cats and dogs.

Read our article to learn more about the Snake Plant poisonous properties.

Can You Root Them In Water?

Can you tell me how to start another bowstring hemp sansevieria plant? I’ve tried rooting leaves in water, but this method doesn’t seem to work. Nina, Michigan State University

Nina, the common variety of Sansevieria roots readily from cuttings. Cut a leaf into four-inch sections and plant each in sandy soil, one inch deep.

How often to water snake plant?

Firm the soil so that the leaf will not fall over when watered. Water sparingly and keep the cuttings in a warm bright place. Each piece of the leaf will produce a new plant.

The Sansevieria with the yellow margin on the leaf propagates only by division, each piece with roots will soon produce a new one.

If the leaves with yellow margins are used as leaf cuttings, the plant, if it grows, will revert back to the green leaf and lose its yellow margins. Generally, Sansevieria cuttings in water get too much moisture and decay.

Where Can You Buy Types of Mother In Laws Tongue Plant?

The “Mothers Plant” is available at most home improvement stores and garden centers. The small birdnest types of snake plants are often found in dish gardens, the larger varieties are usually available in 4-inch and 6-inch sizes.

Below is a list of 50 species and Sansevieria varieties recognized by The World Checklist of Selected Plant Families at Kew as of August 23, 2017.

  • Sansevieria aethiopica (1794)
  • Sansevieria arborescens (1903)
  • Sansevieria ascendens (2010)
  • Sansevieria bacularis (2010)
  • Sansevieria bagamoyensis (1913)
  • Sansevieria ballyi (2004)
  • Sansevieria bella (2000)
  • Sansevieria burdettii (2000)
  • Sansevieria burmanica (1915)
  • Sansevieria conspicua (1913)
  • Sansevieria downsii (2000)
  • Sansevieria dumetescens (2009)
  • Sansevieria ebracteata (1988)
  • Sansevieria ehrenbergii (1875)
  • Sansevieria fasciata (1903)
  • Sansevieria fischeri (1986)
  • Sansevieria forskaliana (1983)
  • Sansevieria frequens (2000)
  • Sansevieria gracilis var. gracilis
  • Sansevieria gracilis var. humbertiana (2007)
  • Sansevieria gracillima (2005)
  • Sansevieria hargeisana (1994)
  • Sansevieria hyacinthoides (1913)
  • Sansevieria kirkii var. kirkii
  • Sansevieria kirkii var. pulchra (1915)
  • Sansevieria lineata (2013)
  • Sansevieria longiflora var. fernandopoensis (1915)
  • Sansevieria longiflora var. longiflora
  • Sansevieria longistyla (2004)
  • Sansevieria lunatifolia (2015)
  • Sansevieria metallica var. nyasica (1915)
  • Sansevieria newtoniana (2014)
  • Sansevieria nilotica (1875)
  • Sansevieria parva (1915)
  • Sansevieria patens (1915)
  • Sansevieria pearsonii (1911)
  • Sansevieria pedicellata (2004)
  • Sansevieria perrotii (1901)
  • Sansevieria phillipsiae (1913)
  • Sansevieria pinguicula (1964)
  • Sansevieria pinguicula subsp. disticha (2012)
  • Sansevieria pinguicula subsp. pinguicula
  • Sansevieria powysii (2010)
  • Sansevieria senegambica (1875)
  • Sansevieria sordida (1915)
  • Sansevieria subspicata (1889)
  • Sansevieria suffruticosa (1915)
  • Sansevieria suffruticosa var. longituba (1981)
  • Sansevieria suffruticosa var. suffruticosa
  • Sansevieria volkensii (1895)

Image: Top source