You’ve probably seen them in a garden center or even a supermarket: pointed tubular stems perfectly aligned in a pot, all of the same height. They look like dark green candles! Or maybe you saw them braided together. They’re obviously plants of some sort, but what kind exactly?
These strange plants are actually cylindrical snake plants, also called spear sansevierias (Sansevieria cylindrica). To be more precise, they’re actually leaf cuttings of cylindrical snake plants. Yes, the “stems” are actually thick, succulent leaves. Cuttings not plants… and they’re not always even rooted when you buy them!
For months, perhaps even a year, your pot of cuttings won’t change in the slightest. It neither declines nor grows: there is no obvious sign of life. You’d be forgiven for coming to believe that you bought a plastic plant. Then all of a sudden you notice a small plant growing at the base of one of the leaves, then another, and another. Each leaf, assuming it indeed it did take root rather than rot, will produce one offset.
The offsets too will grow slowly (the cylindrical snake plant is never in a hurry), but they’ll never take on the form of the original potted cuttings. That’s because the cylindrical snake plant actually grows in a fan, a flattened rosette with each leaf growing alternately, first to one side then the other. Younger leaves are fairly upright at first, but as new leaves appear, they get pushed further to one side and are soon growing at an angle. Eventually some of the older leaves will literally be growing horizontally.
Note too that none of the leaves will be braided, either. That really would be too much to ask!
Eventually the original leaf cuttings themselves will rot away, leaving you with a series of green fans instead of the original upright candles. And the offsets will continue to grow, with leaves reaching up to 3 feet (90 cm) long. Over time, the plants will completely fill their pot, as they will produce even more offsets. Maybe your cylindrical snake plant will even begin to bloom, producing a spike of white flowers that are fragrant at night only. But that will take several years.
Money, Money, Money
Cylindrical snake plants are grown on a massive scale in Asia, all to produce cuttings to sell to naïve gardeners. The growers have discovered that they can take a dirt-cheap product and sell it for a good price if they just present it properly. They’ll literally stop at nothing to make money on the back of ill-informed consumers.
We’ve already seen that growers are selling you leaf cuttings while making you believe you’ve bought a mature plant (and cuttings that are not necessarily even rooted!). And they’ll braid the leaves together and even attach them with gold thread to make the product even more enticing. But have you seen the latest? Yes, they’re now selling leaf cuttings dipped in paint. Apparently, people can’t get enough of the new color-coded sansevierias! I find that kind of plant abuse out and out sickening.
Another way to boost sales is to give the plant enticing names. One supplier now calls the cuttings “Spear Orchids”, ignoring the fact that the plant is in the Asparagaceae family, not the orchid family and will never produce anything even close to an orchid flower. After all, who doesn’t want a nice orchid at a reasonable price?
Or maybe you find the name “African Spear” more attractive? At least that name makes some sense: the plant does come from Africa and the leaf is indeed spear-shaped.
The most horrifying name has to be “Wisdom Horns”! Yes, some growers claim that growing this plant in your home will make you smarter! And I quote ” As your own wisdom expands, more horns grow.” They really do take consumers for idiots!
One Tough Cookie
Despite all these artifices, the fact remains that the cylindrical snake plant makes an excellent houseplant that will take almost any conditions you throw at it.
The potted cuttings you bought are actually the most fragile stage, very subject to rot if the soil remains wet for long. So, at this stage especially, keep the plant almost dry, watering only when the soil is really dry to the touch, perhaps every two weeks.
The plant that emerges from the cutting, though, is much tougher. In fact, it is almost indestructible. It will:
- tolerate sun or shade;
- withstand both skimpy watering and heavy watering (as long as you don’t leave the pot soaking in water for days on end);
- put up with dry air;
- take any temperature above freezing;
- grow whether you fertilize regularly or not at all;
- thrive even if you never repot it.
Do you travel a lot? Just water yours well before leaving: when you get back 6 or 7 months later, it will be a little wrinkled, but still alive!
That said, you do need patience: the cylindrical snake plant grows very slowly, in fact almost imperceptibly, but it does grow.
Making It Happy
So your cylindrical snake plant will take almost any condition and any treatments. But what does it really like?
It helps to understand that the plant is a succulent native to Angola where it grows under arid conditions. So what it really likes is full sun, being watered only when the soil is dry to the touch and very little fertilizer. Flowering, especially, can only be expected if the plant receives at least bright light.
You can multiply your sansevieria by leaf cuttings, of course: just cut off a leaf and insert it into a pot of soil (don’t try rooting it in water, there is too much risk of rot!). Keep the mix nearly dry, especially at first. The cutting will probably take months before it forms a few roots and a year or more to produce an offset.
That said, it is much easier to produce the plant by division. Just unpot the mother plant and separate one or two offsets with their rhizome intact, then pot them up.
My own S. cylindrica, a huge monster of a plant I haven’t repotted in 5 years, was actually grown from seed. It was slow going, but nevertheless easy to do.
And there you go! Fill your house with offsets of this plant and you’ll certainly become the wisest person in your neighborhood. After all, if 1.5 billion Chinese people believe that, it must surely be true!