(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 18, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Sansevierias are Old World relatives of Agaves, found primarily in the deserts of Africa and Asia. They currently belong to the family Ruscaceae, a family that also includes the Beaucarneas, Dracaenas and some seemingly unrelated plants. At one time they were put in the Lily family, and then moved to the Agaves. 10 years from now they may be in their very own family. Culturally however, they are closest to the agaves.
Sansevierias are succulent plants- they have strong, stiff, almost plastic-like, succulent leaves that erupt right out the ground from the roots or rhizomes. There are no stems or trunks. Flowers are whitish to pale yellow-green and some are nicely scented. However, Sansevieria flowers are not known for their ornamental qualities. Many species, if not most, are naturally variegated being banded, striped or mottled to varying degrees. Some have thin, flat, upright leaves while others have nearly cylindrical, arching or straight, spear-like leaves that end in sharp points. They vary in size from less than 6” tall to over 8’ in height.
This unidentified species growing in Thailand looks like dangerously sharp, clumps of thick tubular spines erupting out of the soil
This is a fairly hardy species, Sansevieria supspicata, flowering in August, southern California
In nature most of the Sansevieria live in hot, dry climates in very well draining soils and most live in bright sunny locations. However there are several Sansevierias that grow very well in moister, cooler conditions. Most do best in filtered light or on the north sides of rocks or other plants where they are protected from the burning direct rays of the sun. They grow by suckering/spreading via rhizomes- roots that travel under the soil surface and develop offshoots some distance from the original plant. These roots are quite strong enabling them to work their way through rocky, dry soils and tight cracks. In pots, these rhizomes will sometimes climb over the edges and form new plants in mid air. Sometimes rhizomes will also find the lower drainage holes in pots and make their way through there.
This Sansevieria francissii has long stolons/rhizomes that have 'crawled' out of its pot and are making new plants in the air (these plants are searching for more soil to root into)
In captivity (pots) it is recommended to keep them in somewhat similar situations as they exist in the wild. Use well draining soils (lots of pumice is good), careful not to overwater them, particularly in winter. Never allow roots to stand in water (if using a dish to keep the pots in). Soils should not be too rich in organic material, as this can promote rot if overwatered, and also promote too-rapid growth, requiring more frequent repotting. As much heat as one can provide will keep them in a constant growing condition. These plants, in general, need very little fertilization, and it is best to use less than recommended for most house plants. Water-based fertilizers should be used at half-strength, or less. Dry long acting granular fertilizers need to be used carefully, applied only after soil recently wetted, and used quite sparingly. Light should be indirect unless one has a particularly sun-needy species. Direct sunlight will sometimes bleach these plants, particularly the more variegated, flat-leaved species, making them less ornamental. Too little light will make plants etiolate (stretch) and turn a brighter, lighter green. Many species will tolerate low light, but eventually can become weak and unhealthy.
Both of these are Sansevieria cylindricas- plant on the left raised in bright light and plant on the right in less light
These plants have a lot of excellent qualities that make them one of the premiere house plants available:
-As mentioned already, they require little care- little water and even less fertilizer.
-They also are quite durable physically. Sansevierias have tough, leathery to plastic-like, succulent leaves that look like they are erupting straight out of the ground. The leaves tolerate a modest amount of trauma/handling without any visible damage. If a leaf, for some reason, loosens, or falls over, it can just be cut off and a new one will replace it.
-Since they come from dry climates they are well adapted to the relative low humidity in most home and business environments. This is not a wimpy fern one has to spritz and mist all the time to keep happy.
-Though most Sansevierias prefer bright light, they tolerate for long periods, darker situations as one would encounter in most homes. Few require direct sunlight to be happy.
-They have tough, durable roots- (sometimes too tough as they can split plastic or crack ceramic pots in time) a plant accidentally knocked to the floor or tipped out of its pot is very unlikely to be seriously damaged. Just place it back in its pot, put in more cactus soil and leave them to adjust.
-Sansevierias look good in all stages of health, until they suddenly look bad. So many house plants need perfect care and perfect health to look perfect. Sansevierias look perfect in almost any condition unless actually dying. If too dry they may look a tad shriveled, but tend to respond rapidly to some watering.
-They are quite low on the toxicity scale, maybe causing mild dermatitis in extremely sensitive individuals, or mild stomach irritation in those people or pets silly enough to try to eat one. Many other house plants far exceed the toxicity of the Sansevierias.
-They are slow growing and rarely need pruning or cutting back. Plants will look the same week after week, month after month.
-They are very easy to propagate, either by dividing their roots/rhizomes, or from making leaf cuttings.
-They live a very long time. In fact, many plants end up being handed down from generation to generation. As long as they are not completely abused, these plants seemingly live forever.
-They are all works of art- neat, tidy, often wonderfully variegated, with artful curves and ornamental twists. Sansevierias are one of the best natural sculpted plants that also perform well as house plants.
-And possibly their best quality: they are remarkably efficient air purifiers. For some reason, they are one of the best of all indoor plants at naturally filtering out toxins in room air, while providing pure oxygen in return.
As outdoor plants, they vary quite a bit in terms of cold hardiness. Most are quite cold sensitive and will not tolerate life outdoors except in the mildest climates. If warm all the time, many Sansevierias will tolerate a lot more water than most recommend they get. Hawaiian growers of Sansevierias are quite familiar with this ability. Many varieties of Sansevierias grow vigorously and happily in the wet humid Hawaiian climate (though most Hawaiian soils are extremely well draining). And if grown in a frost free arid climates, almost all species will perform easily as garden plants.
The plant on the left, Sansevieria ehrenbergii is growing in a botanical garden (Huntington Gardens, southern California) and has had no signs of cold damage for years, despite some pretty severe frosts. My plant on the right is an unknown species I picked up from Florida and has tolerated massive amounts of abuse, from overwatering, to underwatering, low light, direct sunlight... and yet it still looks great. The tallest leaves on this plant are now 5' tall. It is happily living in a planter bed with palms I water all the time.
But in more temperate climates, growing Sansevierias outdoors, even in pots, can be a bit more risky. Some species do much better than others. In general, Sansevieria trifasciatas do remarkably well in climates like Florida or Southern California outdoors. They tolerate moderate frosts and cold winter rains years on end. Some of the other less hardy species also perform fairly well outdoors, at least in southern California. Many of the same principles apply as with the house plant cultivation- well draining soils (preferably extremely well draining) are essential to all but the hardiest species. Bright light is also important- most outdoor plants require full sunlight locations (except the variegated S trifasciata cultivars- many cannot tolerate full sun), particularly in winter. Warmth is crucial to outdoor survival, particularly in winter- it is best to plant these species in front of rocks or other large, heat-absorbing objects (walls, large caudiciform plants). Fertilize carefully and sparingly.
This is a large field of Sanseviera trifasciata growing like weeds in south Florida. Photo by Thaumaturgist
And try new species. Every year more and more species/varieties become available that were rare or non-existent before. We are constantly learning. Don’t just accept your plant will die if you try to grow it outdoors. Divide it, make a cutting, or get several and try it. We may all learn something!
One of the more popular Sansevierias for both indoor and outdoor use is S cylindrica. This is a stout, pale-colored, naturally variegated, tubular, firm plant that has leaves that come to a strong, sharp point. The leaves project out from the soil surface in a fan shape that is so symmetrical it looks as if someone purposely planted separate spear-shaped leaves in a row.
Sansevieria cylindrica on left in a cactus show, and dozens for sale in southern California nursery
Sansevieria fischeri is one of the more commonly grown smaller tubular plants. It has a somewhat haphazard growth pattern of short, thick, stiff, curved, nearly cylindrical leaves with very dark and light mottling.
Potted plants, about ready to move up a pot size (photo by kniphofia) and my own plant, growing outdoors in zone 9b for 3 years in partial shade
One of the smaller species, great for smaller pots, but also one that eventually likes to ‘leave the pot’ is Sansevieria gracilis. It is a highly mottled, short, tubular-leaved plant that forms small, stiff, sharp-tipped rosettes.
Sansevieria gracilis in cactus show, blooming in December, southern California
The Baseball Bat Sansevieria, Sansevieria hallii, is a relatively hardy species, forming very thick, grooved, tubular, arching, mottled leaves up to 2’ long. This is one of the species that can survive outdoors in marginal 10a climates as long as the soils are well draining and there is plenty of sunshine.
My Sansevieria hallii in the ground outdoors, zone 9b and growing well (started with that largest leaf 3 years ago)
One of the flat-leaved plants that is becoming more popular is Sansevieria horwoodii. This plant forms irregular rosettes of flat but wavy rhomboid leaves and is one of the most ornamental medium-sized Sansevierias for pot culture.
Sansevieria horwoodii in cactus show
Another popular flat-leaf Sansevieria for pot culture is Sansevieria kirkii. This species now comes in several colors, including a very popular bronze leaf form
Regular form and bronze form (photo on left by kniphoffia and on right by mgarr)
But on a much larger scale with a similar leaf shape is Sansevieria masoniana, or the Mason Congo Sansevieria. This is a plant with leaves over 2’ long, flat, wavy, highly mottled and with remarkable sun and cold tolerance for a Sansevieria. Perhaps too large but for the largest pots, this plant is becoming more popular among landscapers in frost free to just barely frost free arid zones.
Mason Congo Sansevieria growing in private garden, southern California showing a flower several inches away, in winter; my own plant growing in zone 9b with moderate sun protection
Sansevieria parva is a non-mottled species with lime-green leaves. It is somewhat less ornamental, but still an excellent potted plant.
Sansevieria parva in cactus show, and a variegated form called Golden Parva
Sansevieria patens is a fantastic potted plant, particularly for larger pots and forms large, slightly curved, fan-shaped rosettes in various orientations. Older plants are wonderful natural sculptures.
My plant in a pot and in the garden nearly 3 years later, southern California
One of the most highly sought after Sansevierias is S penguicula, the Walking Sansevieria. It lifts itself out of the soil, balanced on several woody, smooth stems as though it was walking across the surface on skinny, smooth legs. The leaves are thick, stiff and triangular ending in a very sharp point.
Two examples of this highly ornamental species, Sansevieria penguicula, showing the plants growing on little 'stilt-roots'
Sansevieria singularis forms a mass of seemingly unrelated grooved, arching 1’-2’ mottled spines closely spaced and is highly ornamental.
two show plants in southern California cactus shows
One of the less ornamental, but relatively hardy species is Sansevieria subspicata, a flat-leafed plant that forms massive colonies of 1’ long slightly twisting tongue-shaped leaves. This plant can be grown outdoors in arid climates down to about zone 9b.
outdoor plant, southern California, and show plant (obvious taken really good care of)
Sansevieria suffruticosa is a rosette-forming plant with pot-leaving stolons and basically a larger version of Sansevieria gracilis.
Two show plants of Sansevieria suffruticosa, and a cultivar known as Frosty Spears in a greenhouse
Last but certainly not least is Sansevieria trifasciata. This is by far the most common and popular of all the Sansevierias, and the plant named the Mother’s in Law Tongue due to its long, upright, tongue-shaped flat leaves that end in a sharp point (like a Mother-in-law’s tongue?). The reason this species is so popular is because it is so hardy, and there are so many ornamental cultivars available. The ‘normal’ form is a densely clustering, mottled plant with bands or bars of white on dark green, with or without yellow borders along the leaf edges. But there are striped, variegated forms of this plant, pale, nearly white cultivars (Moonshine is one) and short-leaves varieties or the ‘hahnii’ forms. This plant is remarkable tolerant of moisture as well as cold and sunlight, growing happily and aggressively in humid, subtropical climates such as southern Florida and the drier sides of the Hawaiian Islands. The hardier cultivars are aggressive growers and quickly fill a pot, or even a flower bed.
Mother's in Law tongues in cultivation as indoor plants. Middle photo by Ichris and photo on right by Xenomorph
two popular cultivars: Sansevieria trifasciata Bantel's Sensation, and Moonshine (the latter being a popular cultivar easily found in many nurseries)
3 cultivars of Sansevieria trifasciata Hahnii. On the left is Hahnii Gold, in the middle is an unknown cultivar in my garden, and on the right is a popular cultivar known as Hahnii Silver Frost (photo by lov2wrench)
This is a hybrid of Sansevieria trifasciata that is strikingly variegated
There are many many more species of Sansevierias available and some growers live to collect and keep these plants. As you can tell, they are beautiful sculpted forms of life that wonderfullyl work at well as one of the best house plants available
Sansevieria erythraea and Sansevieria caniculata
two unknown Sansevierias growing outdoors in concrete pots in Thailand