Snake Plant – Mother-in-Law’s Tongue: Caring For The Sansevieria Plant

The snake plant or Sansevieria pronounced (san-se-vi-ee’-ri-ah) a member of the Lily Family, popularly goes by other common names. The very “politically correct” Mother-in-Law’s tongue, snake tongue and Bowstring-hemp.

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.

snake plant Sansevieria mother in laws tongue in pots

The snake plant makes and excellent potted plant indoors as a houseplant or outdoors.

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 Sanseviero 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.

It’s where the common name of bowstring hemp came from. Where the common name mother-in-law’s tongue 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 I’m not wholly in favor of 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 is always at the top of any list as being one of the most tolerant of all decorative plants to survive the most unsuitable growing conditions, abuse and neglect a plant could receive.

Although, this houseplant will stand more neglect than almost any other plant, overwatering is harmful. Snake plant care comes down to basically this – you have to work really hard to kill 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 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 – A variety sold in the trade but believed to be a sport of Sansevieria trifasciata .

… of which you’ll find several forms.

The Bird Nest Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Hahnii’

The cast-iron qualities of the sansevierias or snake plants have merit, but not everyone likes their tall stiff appearance.

Several “rosette” varieties of a smaller and more graceful design are available. These “squashed-down” types known as bird nest varieteies are just as tough as any of the older, upright types. Whoever gave them the name, I don’t know, at least it’s a catchy common name.

The bird nest snake plant looks like a heavy-textured, open rose that grows slowly, requires little light and can stand almost any sort of abuse.

The Discovery Of Sansevieria trifasciata 'Hahnii'

Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Hahnii’ from the book The Sansevieria Trifasciata Varieties by B. Juan Chahinian

The first dwarf cultivar and direct parent of most of the other dwarf varieties, this plant was discovered in New Orleans, at Crescent Nursery Company, by W. W. Smith Jr. and patented as an “improved variety” of Sansevieria. Plant bears patent No. 470 and was dated June 3rd, 1941.

The dwarf grew off a Sansevieria trifasciata var. Laurentii plant. This dwarf develops like a rosette, the leaves growing from the tip of the stem, extension of the underground stem or rhizome, The leaves are spirally arranged around it and their sides are curved upwards and they are erect when young, gradually adopting a more slanted posture and turning flat and recurving backwards as they become older.

The leaves taper towards their bottom, forming a petiole which widens at the joint to the stem. The leaves, averaging eight to ten, are wide and ovate, ending in a tip of variable length but always short and soft. The width of the leaf may be up to 7.5 cm (3 in.) and the length as much as 15 cm. (6 in.), although these dimensions may be exceeded with the various clones and cultural treatment.

This plant offsets freely, producing at times, new growth of upright appearance.

The bird nest type, usually Sansevieria Hahnii, a dense rosette of dark green leaves with gray-green crossbands, and its relative, Sansevieria golden Hahnii, having two or three broad bands of yellow and several longitudinal yellow stripes.

Sansevieria golden Hahnii planted in a bowl in Cuba

These bird nest snake plants make choice “dish-garden” and terrarium plants, not only due to their compact shape but also because of their durability.

Check out the Bird Nest Type Snake Plant in the video below

Potting & Repotting The Mother In Law’s Tongue

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

The plants are easily increased by division; since most sansevierias sucker freely, 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.

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.

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 Sansevieria?

Be cautious when watering, especially during the winter. The wintertime is when most people experience root rot. 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 to dry out well, before watering again.

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

Sansevieria – 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 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 like a bathroom.

This plant can hang with the best of all low light plants. However, the plant will do best in bright light. The Mother In Law tongue plant, the spider plant and others were Top plants NASA found for absorbing carbon dioxide and relasing 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-809

One Sansevieria 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.

Our Favorite "Tools" For Houseplant Care

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.

This video from Nell at JoyUsGarden provides lots of details on repotting your snake plants. Check out Nell’s YouTube Channel here.

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.

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.

Uses of Sansevieria

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 snake 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.

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

snake plants displayed in rustic planters

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

Admittedly snake 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

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 “snake plant.” If you’re looking for other tough plants to keep as houseplants also consider the ZZ plant, Cast-Iron plant, and Aglaonemas.

Image: Top source

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