Larry Hodgson has published thousands of articles and 65 books over the course of his career, in both French and English. His son, Mathieu, has made it his mission to make his father’s writings available to the public. This text was originally published in Canadian Garden News in December 1987.
Commonly called snake plant or mother-in-law’s tongue for its long, pointed leaves, the sansevieria (Dracaena trifasciata) is an old standby which has recently been regaining a certain amount of popularity. That’s good news, for you couldn’t imagine a more tolerant plant. It can survive for years, although not thrive, neglected in a comer with little more than an occasional watering. At one time, it seemed as if every dentist office and barber shop had one whose principal purpose was to serve as a decorative ash tray. Some people have heirloom sansevierias that come from their grandmother and have never been repotted in 20 years or so. It all goes to show that this plant can really take just about any mistreatment you care to throw at it.
Don’t Mistreat Me
You don’t have to mistreat it, of course. In fact, this can be one of the most beautiful of all houseplants if given the care it really needs. It will even produce beautiful sprays of wonderfully perfumed flowers once it reaches maturity… under the right conditions. What does it need to perform so well? First of all. bright light, including, if possible, several hours of direct sun per day. Plants grown in the shade will often simply stop growing and remain in a near-dormant state for years.
If yours has been grown in a dark corner, let it adjust slowly to stronger and stronger light so the leaves won’t be damaged by the change. Sansevierias prefer warm temperatures (they have been known to survive frost on occasion, but the foliage can be severely damaged), moderate watering (only when the soil begins to dry out) and regular but reduced feedings of plant fertilizer. Be careful never to damage the foliage in any way.
They will grow well in just about any potting soil, but are easier to grow in a rather heavy mix. if for no other reason than this keeps these top-heavy plants from tipping over. They are among the rare houseplants that really grow well in clay pots, as they don’t mind drying out and, once again, clay pots add the extra-weight which helps keep them upright.
Every few decades (well, maybe a bit more often!), the plant will need repotting. It may even announce this need by pushing on its pot until it cracks. Repotting is also the ideal time for division. With the soil removed, you’ll soon see the pot contains many individual plants (even rhizomes with only buds on the ends can be potted up separately) or plant them as clumps. Since sansevierias grow so slowly, the latter tactic will give more attractive results.
Even leaf sections two inches long will root. Since each leaf can be 3 feet tall (36″ divided by 2″ gives 16 cuttings, according to mv reckoning), you don’t have to sacrifice many of them to get a lot of new plants. When cutting the leaf into sections, make a tiny notch on the bottom part, as it is important to plant them with the bottom side down. Pot up the sections leaving 1 inch of leaf above the soil. New plants may take several months to appear.
There are many species of sansevieria, but Dracaena trifasciata and its varieties are best known. The species has dark green leaves mottled paler green. Almost as common is Dracaena trifasciata var. laurentii, which has broad yellow bands along both sides of the leaf. Variegated plants such as Laurentii must be reproduced by division, as leaf cuttings will produce plants that are all green.
Recently, many new cultivars have become available, inducting ‘Bantel’s Sensation’ with numerous white stripes lengthwise throughout the leaf. There are also dwarf varieties which look considerably different from those mentioned so far. They produce short, wide leaves (up to 6 or 7 inches) in a rosette pattern and are often called bird’s nest sansevierias.
The best known is ‘Hahnii’. which has the same mottled green pattern as the species and its variegated varieties ‘Golden Hahnii’ and ’Silver Hahnii’, with golden stripes and white stripes respectively. The rosette-type sansevierias are not quite the survivors their full-sized cousins are and are likely to do poorly in shady spots. It is important to avoid letting water accumulate in the center of the rosette as this can cause rot. There are many other varieties of Dracaena trifasciata but they are harder to find. In fact, many varieties are collectors’ items and may cost several hundred dollars per plant.
Besides the D. trifasciata group, there are numerous other sansevierias, including D. angolensis, my own personal favorite, which produces a fan of perfectly cylindrical leaves reaching up to 3 feet in length. It makes quite a conversation piece, becoming almost an indoor sculpture. I grow another curiosity. D. singularis, which, in its youth, produces a low rosette of very thick leaves but, at maturity, loses them all to produce one giant leaf and an equally impressive flower stalk.
Tough, yes, but also beautiful! Sansevierias may be just what you need to decorate your home.