Plant Palette

Plant Palette

Sansevieria (Snake Plant)

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
jaschult@illinois.edu

One of my favorite catalogs of tropical plants has a section entitled "Indestructible Houseplants". Five species of Sansevieria, commonly known as Snake Plant or Mother-in-Law's Tongue are listed in this section. I know from personal experience that Sansevieria are extremely durable plants. My mom has one that was purchased before I was born, and I remember the family dog yanking it out of its pot and running around the house with it when I was a little girl. She just stuck it back in its pot, and it was as good as new. The plant is still alive today, despite being neglected and sometimes downright abused over the years.

There are about 70 different species of Sansevieria. They are native to tropical and sub-tropical regions of Europe, Asia, and Africa. In Africa, these plants have been used for fiber production. Their leaves are evergreen and strap-like, anywhere from eight inches to nearly ten feet long! These plants spread via rhizomes along the ground or just under the soil surface.

The most common species of Sansevieria offered for sale is Sansevieria trifasciata, a native of tropical Africa which yields a strong plant fiber once used to make bow strings for hunting. Its leaves are dark green with light grayish green horizontal striping leaves. Leaves are two to three inches wide and up to three feet tall. Some cultivars have white or yellow variegation at the edges or tips of the leaves.

Sansevierias will flower occasionally during the summer months, especially if the plant is under stress, as when it's potbound. I have only seen flowers on my Sansevieria trifasciata one time in the ten years I've owned the plant. The flowers are nice, but not why you grow this plant. Flowers are borne in clusters on a spike that is usually about as tall as the leaves. The flowers themselves are greenish-yellow, not particularly attractive, but they are fragrant and they last for several weeks.

Sansevierias are very tolerant of low light and drought, making them the perfect house plant. They also have very few if any insect problems. NASA research has shown that Sansevierias are effective at cleaning the air, removing toxins such as formaldehyde and benzene from indoor environments. Residuals of these chemicals are found in many manufactured items. There are so many great reasons to grow this plant—and about the only thing that will kill them is too much water, which will cause root rot.

The roots of this plant are very strong, and some varieties will fill a pot rapidly with their quickly spreading rhizomes, sometimes breaking the pot. In frost-free areas, Sansevierias are often quite invasive because of their vigorous and spreading rhizomes.

Propagating Sanseviera is most easily done by simple division of the rhizomes, cutting out a section containing both leaves and roots. Leaf cuttings in damp potting soil will also work well, however if propagating a variegated cultivar it is likely that the variegation will be lost using this method. Also, leaf cuttings will take several weeks to root and produce a new plant, and they must be oriented as they were on the plant, i.e. the edge of the leaf section that was towards the ground must remain towards the ground. If the leaf section is turned upside down in the potting media, it will never root or produce a new plant.

Giving Sansevierias bright indirect light and occasional watering will result is a vigorously growing plant that will reach its full potential in height and coloration. Although these plants are tolerant of poor conditions, remember that tolerating is not the same as thriving. Without adequate light, variegated cultivars may not develop much variegation, instead making more green tissues with the chlorophyll needed to harvest what little light is available for photosynthesis. Too little light may also result in weakened leaves that are stretched, too skinny and flop over instead of standing upright.

For some people, Sansevieria trifasciata may seem too common and even boring. There are more and more unusual species and cultivars available for purchase, such as:

Cylindrical Snake Plant, Sansevieria cylindrica—Each dark green striped leaf is round, about 1.5" in diameter and pointed. Reaches heights of 2 to 3 feet.

Sansevieria 'Golden Hahnii' – Leaves are variegated along the edge in buttery yellow, leaves only grow 6 to 8 inches long.

Rhino Grass, Sansevieria desertii— Native to the Kalahari Desert in Africa. Thick succulent leaves have a reddish hue and grow sideways when young. Grows to about 12 inches tall.

White Snake Plant, Sansevieria trifasciata 'Bantel's Sensation'—Narrow, 1-2 inch wide leaves have distinctive white vertical stripes and grow to about 3 feet tall.

Sansevieria trifasciata 'Twist'— Horizontally striped leaves with yellow variegated borders. Leaves grow to 14 inches tall with a pronounced spiral twisting of each leaf.

Sansevierias are one of those plants that even someone with a black thumb would have a hard time killing. This is a great time of year to consider using houseplants in your home, as the holiday decorations are put away and the house looks a little more empty than usual. "Indestructible" houseplants like Sansevierias are a great way to add some life to your home and improve air quality without a lot of extra care and expense.

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