Plant Profile: Sansevieria

Family: Agavaceae

Common names: Snake plant; Mother-in-law's tongue

Want a carefree indoor houseplant? Got a black thumb? Live in a dorm or work in a dark office?

Try Sansevieria (sanz-uh-VEER-ee-uh).

Perhaps the hardiest of all indoor plants, hence the nickname Mother-in-law's tongue, it can exist under indestructible conditions that would kill otter plants. A succulent in the agave family, native to Africa and India, snake plant tolerates any level of light, dry air, uneven temperatures, and drought. The leaves are thick, patterned, grow in clusters, and radiates up and out from the base and range from short, blunt triangles to long swords.

It is listed as one of the top ten plants most effective in removing formaldehyde, benzene, and carbon monoxide from the air. Unfortunately because of its cast iron disposition, it is taken for granted and most are neglected and unattractive. A healthy and beautiful plant is easy: place in a brightly lit room, water when the soil is dry (mine are watered when I remember-sometimes that occurs only once a month!), fertilize any time of the year (I have never fed mine), use basic potting soil or cactus mix, and they are are not picky about the container they grow in (I like them in clay pots with a gravel mulch over the soil). They are rarely attacked by pests and diseases. When plants become pot bound they will produce offsets or pups (like the agave). These can be divided and repotted. When plants become older and really pot bound they will bloom small sprays of greenish-white, fragrant flowers.

Snake plant can also be propagated by leaf cuttings. Cut a leaf into sections about three inches long and insert into sand, bottom side down. This is one of the few plants which the cuttings may not follow the parent's coloring-maybe you will discover a new mutation!

The original wild African species, S. trifasciata, is said to be gourmet food for elephants and is the most commonly one found today. Mutations began to appear in cultivation and now are gaining popularity to create a demand for less common types.

S. 'Black Coral' is tall, narrow with green and grey leaves with dark green bands. 'Black Gold' has green-black centers with bright gold margins. S. Hahnii' is a compact, low-growing form, whose short leaves form a funnel-shape rosette resembling a bird nest. Often mistaken for a Bromeliad, do not pour water into the rosette as this will cause rotting. S. 'Zeylanica' is tall with narrow green leaves with silver/grey bands. S. 'Laurentil' has yellow banded margins with green-grey centers. Sansevieria-a houseplant you should get to know.

Cheri Melton
July, 1997