Naming a Mystery Plant

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Pots of rooted sansevieria leaf cuttings as found in so many garden centres… but what is this plant’s real name? Source: http://www.florastore.com

You’ve certainly seen this plant around. In fact, it seems to be in every garden center these days. What you’ll see is a pot of short, tubular, pointed dark green leaves with lighter transverse bands and a shallow groove down the middle on one side, only about 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) tall, popping out of a pot. The leaves are usually densely clustered together, although sometimes placed so as to form a fan. And the pot isn’t always labeled … and even when it is, it’s almost never labeled correctly.

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The cylindrical snake plant (S. cylindrica) is a close relative, but has thicker, paler green leaves with numerous narrow channels running lengthwise. Those channels are absent from Sansevieria bacularis. Source: plantzy.com

What you’re seeing are leaf cuttings of a snake plant called Sansevieria bacularis, a close relative of the similar, but much thicker-leafed cylindrical snake plant (S. cylindrica). In fact, I personally confused the two when I first saw S. bacularis cuttings for the first time. I really did take them for some sort of miniature S. cylindrica.

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A mature specimen of S. bacularis looks nothing like S. cylindrica… but you can see why you might want to call it the rod-leaf snake plant! Source: Ha Keat Lim, http://www.llifle.com

Since bacularis is from the Latin word baculum for rod or staff, this new plant could be called the rod-leaf snake plant.

The rod-leaf snake plant is being sold under such trade names as S. Mikado, S. Mikado Fernwood*, S. Fernwood Mikado*, S. Musica (or Musika), even spaghetti sansevieria. And it’s often being offered as belonging to one of two different Sansevieria species: S. cylindrica and S. sulcata (now S. caniculata). However, my sources (listed at the end of the article) insist that the plant in question is instead S. bacularis. If you place S. cylindrica and S. bacularis side by side, you’ll easily see the differences.

At a Glance

The “plant” I usually see is in fact simply a pot of rooted leaf cuttings and will eventually produce offsets leading to very different-looking plant with much taller leaves. Indeed, the rod-leaf snake plant can eventually attain 4 feet to 6 feet (1.2 m to 1.8 m) in height … after many, many years.

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The purple leaf sheaths show that these sprouting leaves belong to Sansevieria bacularis, not S. cylindrica. Source: laidbackgardener.blog

In many stores, you’ll find pots that haven’t sold and are transitioning from cuttings into actual plants. You can be sure the plants are S. bacularis by the purple leaf sheaths at the base, something you don’t see on other sansevierias.

Each specimen of the rod-leaf snake plant bears only one or (rarely) two very upright leaves surrounded by five to six short purplish basal sheaths. At maturity, the plant will even bloom, with stalks of purple-lined white flowers shorter than the leaf, if given bright enough light.

S. bacularis is a recent introduction: the Central African native was only officially described in 2010, but seems to have gained popularity very rapidly.

Confusing Nomenclature

I’ve been trying find out if the cultivar names Mikado or Musica are legitimate (i.e. if they are special selections of S. bacularis) or if they are just commercial names for the plain species, but with no luck. If anyone has more information on the history behind this plant and its multiple names, please let me know. I’ll gladly update this article to include any accurate information.

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The arching, clustered leaves show this plant to be Sansevieria ‘Fernwood’, not S. bacularis. Source: laidbackgardener.blog

*Then comes the confusing situation of sansevieria plants labeled Fernwood Mikado or Mikado Fernwood. There is a real S. ‘Fernwood’ (S. parva x S. suffruticosa), developed by the late hybridizer Rogers Weld of Fernwood Nursery in California, but it’s is a very different plant, with narrow leaves that are arching rather than straight and upright and flattened at the base rather than cylindrical, plus each plant produces several leaves, not just one or two. You could mistake a pot of ‘Fernwood’ leaf cuttings for S. bacularis, but certainly not an established plant.

Growing S. bacularis

What could be easier? Avoid frost and water it occasionally and it will probably grow!

OK, that was a bit simplistic, but still fairly accurate. Here’s more detail:

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This plant needs more light than sellers have been generally recommending. Source: http://www.gardentags

Salespeople seem to be telling customers that the rod-leaf snake plant is a shade plant, but don’t believe them. True enough, while it will “hold” in shade, it certainly won’t thrive there. It prefers bright light with some full sun. In fact, full sun all year is just fine, at least at higher latitudes. Under poor light, the leaves on mature specimens will be bendy and will require staking.

The rod-leaf snake plant is highly drought tolerant. Water well, then let dry. If you have to go away for a few months, just water it before you leave. It will be parched, but alive when you get back and will soon recover with judicious watering.

It tolerates both dry and humid air and any temperature above freezing if the soil is dry. If the soil is moist, keep the temperature above 45 °F (7 °C). Plant it in a well-drained mix (you might want to add ¼ parakeet gravel to your usual houseplant mix for extra weight). A heavy pot will likely be necessary to keep mature specimens from keeling over. Outside, it will grow best in arid, tropical climates, although indoor specimens will do fine outdoors for the summer in colder climes.

You can fertilize this plant or not: it doesn’t really seem to care.

And you can multiply the rod-leaf snake plant by division or leaf cuttings. In the latter case, just chop the top off a leaf (that will put an end to its growth, though!) and stick it in a pot of growing mix, watering very occasionally. It will root and eventually produce a new plant, although this can sometimes take a year or more.

The rod-leaf snake plant (Sansevieria baccularis). You’ve seen it and maybe even grow it, and now you can finally put a name on it!


Sources of Information: www.llifle.com/Encyclopedia/SUCCULENTS/Family/Dracaenaceae/32497/Sansevieria_bacularis
www.sanseverix.com/bacularis

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Strange Cuttings

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Rooted cuttings of Sansevieria cylindrica.

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!

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Braided leaf cuttings.

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.

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Plant with a burgeoning offset: note its fan-shaped growth habit.

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.

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Leaf  cuttings dipped in paint: people actually buy these!

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.

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Growing this plant will make your smarter: who knew?

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?

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Your plant will eventually bloom… if you grow it in bright light or full sun.

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!