Sansevieria: The November 2020 Houseplant of the Month

Standard

Photo: Thejoyofplants.co.uk, Styling by Elize Eveleens, Klimprodukties

The Story of the Sansevieria

The snake plant or sansevieria (Sansevieria trifasciata) is one of the world’s easiest and most widely grown houseplants and is also a common garden plant in tropical climates. The stemless plant produces thick upward-pointing, sword-shaped leaves with succulent properties. 

Sansevieria trifasciata
The common snake plant in its original form: Sansevieria trifasciata. Photo: @plant_wizard

The plant is called the snake plant because of its snakelike shape and markings and also mother-in-law’s tongue, because of its sharp tip, theoretically like sharp tongue of a critical mother-in-law. You may also hear the name bowstring hemp, because the tough leaves contain a fiber used in bowstrings, cordage, ropes, mats and nets.

Description

The coarse, fibrous leaves of the snake plant usually measure 28–35 in (70–90 cm) in height and 2 to 2 1/3 in (5–6 cm) wide, although under exceptional circumstances, they can reach over 6 ft (2 m) in height. Although flat towards the tip, at the base they are semicircular, fitting together in a tight rosette of usually 6 leaves. The leaves are dark green with distinctive light gray-green cross-banding. 

The plant spreads by producing new rosettes at the tip of thick rhizomes. Indoors, it fills its pot; outdoors in the tropics, it forms an ever-expanding mass of spiky greenery.

Sansevieria trifasciata flowers
The flowers are beautifully scented, but only at night. Photo: Lukáš Mižoch, Wikimemdia Commons

Flower are rare indoors and only appear on plants that receive abundant light. They appear on upright stalks and are whitish or greenish. They’re also highly perfumed, but only at night. The flowers are sometimes followed by small orange berries. Each rosette will only bloom once, but doesn’t die afterwards, but rather produces offsets that will flower in their turn.

Did You Know?

Side by side photos of Sansevieria trifasciata and Dracaena fragrant
Sansevieria trifasciata is now a dracena, like Dracaena fragrant. Who’d a thunk it? Photos: greenbayfloral.net & interiorfoliage.com

That the genus Sansevieria has been transferred to a new genus, Dracaena? This surprising change doesn’t make any sense to the average gardener, as the upright-growing, treelike or shrubby dracenas with their soft leaves (many people will know the corn plant, D. fragrans, for example) and the hard-leaved, rhizome-producing sansevierias, most with no visible above-ground stem, look nothing alike. But they share very similar flowers, both in appearance and in delicious nighttime perfume. And it goes to say that both are in the Asparagaceae family. 

For the purpose of this article, I’m sticking to the name Sansevieria, as on the market, they are only sold under that name, and hope that taxonomists will revise their reckoning. However, if you’re a hybridizer, maybe the two types could cross: imagine the possibilities!

Origin of the Snake Plant

The common sansevieria (S. trifasciata) is native to tropical Africa, from Nigeria to the Congo. The name Sansevieria honors the 18th-century scientist and inventor, Raimondo di Sangro, Prince of San Severo in Italy. It has been grown as a greenhouse plant for over 250 years, but only caught on as a houseplant in the 1920s when the famous department store chain, Woolworth’s, began offering it at only 5¢ per plant. Since it’s incredibly easy to grow and will put up with conditions that would kill most other plants, the snake plant has remained popular ever since.

Sansevieria Range

Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Laurentii’, with its yellow banded leaves
Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Laurentii’, with its yellow banded leaves, is one of the most popular cultivars. Photo: Mokkie, Wikimedia Commons

The snake plant has given a wide range of cultivars over the years, most starting as mutations from the original plant. The best known is Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Laurentii’, with long green leaves with a golden-yellow edge. ‘Bantel’s Sensation’, abundantly striped with white is fairly popular, as are ‘Moonshine’, with broader, shorter, silvery-green leaves, ‘Nelsonii’, with solid dark green leaves and no markings and ‘Black Gold’ with dark green leaves and transversal markings. Plus, there are many, many more of these “tall” sansevierias.

Bird's nest sansevierias ‘Hahni’ and ‘Golden Hahni’
Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Hahni’ (left) and ‘Golden Hahni’ (right) are bird’s-nest types. Photos: crocus.co.uk & logees.com

However, there is also another very different category: the bird’s-nest sansevierias. These derive from a mutation found in 1939 in New Orleans. Rather than tall, spearlike leaves that mostly grow straight up, these produce short, squat ones that arch a bit outwards, like a bird’s nest.

This first clone was called S. trifasciata ‘Hahni’ and has the same mottled coloration as the normal S. trifasciata, but many others followed, including ‘Golden Hahni’ with yellow bands along the leaf edges, ‘Silver Hahni’, with leaves heavily marbled in gray-green and ‘Black Dragon’, entirely dark green with no mottling whatsoever. 

Composite photo of Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Futura Simplex'
‘Futura Simplex’ is one of the most popular intermediate varieties. Photo: etsy.com

Then came the intermediate varieties, with broad leaves (up to 4 in/10 cm) half as long as the species, but still forming a sort of elongated, spreading bird’s nest. This includes the original, ‘Futura’, with gray-green marbling and a thin yellow edge, and a whole host of others, often mutations of ‘Futura’, such as ‘Futura Simplex’ with a broader yellow edge, or of ‘Robusta’, which is similar to ‘Futura’, but shorter.

You can usually find at least a few choices of all three groups (tall, intermediate and bird’s-nest) in most garden centers that sell houseplants.

Other Species to Try

Some 70 different species of Sansevieria are found throughout Africa, Madagascar and southern Asia. Many are grown as houseplants, but only a few have achieved any real popularity.

Sansevieria cylindrica, showing how leaves fit together in a fan at the base.
Cylindrical snake plant (Sansevieria cylindrica). The alternate leaves are inserted one into the other at the base, forming a fan. Photo: World of Succulents

Since around 2004, a different species, the cylindrical snake plant (Sansevieria cylindrica, now more correctly Dracaena angolensis), and also called African spear, has also become very popular. Its pointed leaves are tubular rather than flat. They are green with lighter transverse bands and set in a fan-shaped rosette. It’s generally a more compact plant that S. trifasciata, but still, some specimens have been known to reach 6 feet (2 m) in height. I find it easier to bloom than S. trifasciata.

Leaf cuttings of cylindrical snake plant, showing different forms, including braided and painted ones.
These aren’t plants, but just leaf cuttings of cylindrical snake plant. some possibly not even rooted at the time of sale. Photo: hillegom.nl & amazon.co.uk

The cylindrical snake plant is often sold in the form of leaf cuttings either placed symmetrically or braided. These curious forms are produced on an industrial scale in Thailand and other Asian countries. Of course, the cuttings eventually produce normal plants and the abnormal shape, whatever it was, will be lost. 

Sansevieria baculata leaf cuttings with offsets.
This pot of rooted Sansevieria baculata leaf cuttings is sprouting offsets. Photo: fromthegardenshed.ca

There are other species of sansevieria with cylindrical leaves, usually much thinner than those of S. cylindrica, including S. bacularis (sold as S. ‘Fernwood Mikado’).

Sansevieria ehrenbergii ‘Samurai Dwarf’
Sansevieria ehrenbergii ‘Samurai Dwarf’. Photo: secretgardenrareplants.com

And it doesn’t stop there! Some species are short and squat, others tall, some with broad leaves, others cylindrical, even more distinctly keeled. All seem easy to grow. Among those currently seen are S. ehrenbergii ‘Samurai Dwarf’ (‘Banana’) with a rosette of thick, short, boat-shaped leaves, the star sansevieria (S. kirkii), forming a flattened rosette of heavily marbled leaves, the whale fin or Mason Congo snake plant (S. masoniana) with often only one giant leaf flat leaf and one commonly called baseball bat (S. hallii) for its huge, thick, blue-green leaves that look like… you guessed it.

A Little Bit Poisonous

Sansevierias contain saponins which are mildly toxic to humans and pets (about as toxic as kitchen soap) and can lead to gastrointestinal upset if consumed, so keep them out of reach of pets or train them not to nibble on them. Serious poisonings are unlikely: the leaves are just too tough to ingest!

What to Look for When Buying Sansevierias

Variety of sansevierias including Sansevieria masoniana
A bit of a family portrait. The big leaf in the back is Sansevieria masoniana. Photo: @mulhalls
  • Size: Look carefully at the pot size and the thickness and length of the leaves. On some plants the pot may be somewhat distorted by the enormous strength of the underground rhizomes. This can sometimes even cause the pots to tear open. In that case repotting is an urgent necessity.
  • Leaves: On some varieties the way in which the leaves are trained or braided may be important to you. 
  • Health: Check that the plants are free of scale insects and mealybugs, corkiness or damaged leaf tips and that the roots are healthy. 
  • Rot: If sansevierias have been kept too wet for a long time they can suffer from rot. So, check that they are stable in the pot

Care Tips

Sansevierias are definitely low-care plants, ideal for beginning indoor gardeners.

Floppy sansevieria
In low light, sansevierias become floppy, messy and need staking. Photo: PhasmaUrbomach, reddit.com
  • You’ll hear all sorts of things about the light needs of sansevierias, but the truth is that they prefer very bright light and are not afraid of full sun. Bright light will always give the healthiest, happiest plants. And only in bright light will they bloom. That said, they are incredibly tolerant of negligence, including poor light, and will grow for years in spots so dark few other plants can survive. Growth will be slow and the leaves may be weak and need staking, but hey! At least they survive low light and that has to count for something!
  • Let the soil dry out between waterings, especially in the winter. Sansevierias definitely prefer to be too dry than too wet! Watering frequencies will necessarily vary according to conditions, from once every two weeks in bright light in summer to as little as once every 3 or 4 months under low light and cold conditions. When the soil is dry, do water, but do so thoroughly, moistening the entire root ball.
  • Sansevierias with thick leaves, like S. cylindrica and S. ehrenbergii, need even less water than those with fairly thin leaves, like S. trifasicata.
  • Do not pour water into the rosette of bird’s-nest sanseverias: they’re not bromeliads!
  • Their succulent leaves mean that sansevierias cope well with dry air. 
  • The plant does not require a dormant period in winter, but can take temperatures down to 40˚F (4ºC) if kept very dry, although a minimum of 55ºF (13ºC) is safer. 
  • The underground rhizome is incredibly strong and can distort and even crack the pot. Ideally, you’d repot it before it gets to that stage. 
  • Little to no fertilizer is required.
  • Repot as needed into a well-drained potting mix. Standard potting mix or cactus mixes are fine.

Multiplication

Variegated snake plant divided into sections for repotting.
Variegated snake plants can only by multiplied by division or rhizome sections. Photo: flowerpatchfarmhouse.com
  • Sanseverias are best multiplied by division of plants with multiple rosettes, usually done spring through fall. Sections of rhizomes will also produce more offsets. Only these two methods will allow most cultivars, especially variegated ones, to be true to type.
Leaf cuttings of variegated snake plant. All baby plants are without variegation.
Variegated sansevieria leaves will root, but the offsets won’t be variegated. Photo: Adela B.
  • Almost all will grow from leaf cuttings (even sections of leaves will do!) set into fairly dry soil, although the traits of many cultivars (especially variegation) will be lost, as many are chimeras and only come true from division. Cuttings may take months before showing any signs of life, but as long as the leaf remains green, offsets are likely to appear.
  • Sanseverias can readily be grown from seed, but this method is rarely used, because most will not be true to type (most cultivars will revert to the wild species). Also, it’s also a very slow method, taking years to produce a sizeable plant.

Did You Know?

That sanseverias are useful at filtering the air. The NASA Clean Air Study found S. trifasciata to be efficient in removing 4 of the 5 main toxins involved in the effects of sick building syndrome.

Display Tips for Sansevierias

Various sansevierias in similar white cache-pots.
A stunning collection of sansevierias in the same style of pot. Photo: blog.leonandgeorge.com 

People are increasingly seeking out nature and tranquility. Sansevieria fits perfectly with this with its simple clear shape. This can be emphasized by placing the plant in a mat cache-pot of a white or pale natural shade. Surprisingly enough, the effect is actually reinforced if the sansevieria is displayed as a “family” in the same style of pot. 

Feng Shui ( 風水)

According to Feng Shui principles, sansevierias bring good fortune into the home and ward off evil spirits. I find that to be only partly true. I’ve grown sansevierias for over 40 years and I still haven’t found fortune. However, I have not noticed any evil spirits hanging around either.

But do you really need Feng Shui as an excuse for growing sansevierias? I say just grow them because you like them!

Text partly based on a press release by Thejoyofplants.co.uk.

5 thoughts on “Sansevieria: The November 2020 Houseplant of the Month

  1. Debbie

    I live in Sarasota Fl. My mom planted her house plant when she moved down here. They are growing happily on the west and south sides of my home. I do nothing to take care of them..okay.. I pull the weeds. Lol.
    They get beautiful flowers yet seem to me able to spread without the flower. They have an integrated root system and create a root looking similar to a sweet potato root.
    I didn’t realize the flowers were rare. Mine seem to bloom annually
    For me, worlds laziest gardener, they are a perfect plant

    ( I’m the same person with the 12ft tall 40+ year old corn plant.)

  2. Rachel Carnes

    Hi, can you bring these outside in the summer, like other indoor plants? I can’t believe they actually flower. who knew!!?? Thanks, love your work. 🙂

  3. Yucca endlichiana grows like that, which is nothing like other Yuccas. Some form trunks, but even those that do not, grow in rosettes. Yucca endlichiana grows with horizontal rhizomes. New foliage emerges next to older foliage, rather than from the center of it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.