Sansevieria, the Beginner's HouseplantBy Gwen Bruno (gwen21)
February 3, 2014
Tolerant of a wide range of light, temperature and soils, Sansevieria makes the ideal starter plant. Its nicknames, snake plant and mother-in-law’s tongue, bear reference to the plant’s sinuous upward-growing leaves that end in sharp points. Its Latin name (pronounced either san-se-veer-ee-uh or san-seh-vee-eer-ee-uh) honors an 18th century Italian prince named Raimond de Sangro of Sanseviero.
This West African native is placed by some in the Dracaenaceae and by others in the Asparagaceae family. Virtually all forms found in the nursery trade derive from the common snake plant, Sansevieria trifasciata.
Numerous cultivars have been developed. Some of the most popular choices are variegated, with yellow or gold leaf margins, or feature dark green leaves with a silvery cast. Dwarf forms, quite different from the spiky, upright cultivars, resemble a rosette of flattened leaves. Frequently used by florists in potted plant arrangements, these small types reach only about 4 inches high.
At two to three feet high, sansevierias make a distinct vertical statement with a small footprint. Their bold leaves add texture and fit in well with a variety of decorating styles. A NASA study revealed another important benefit of maintaining sansevieria in the home, when scientists deemed it among the ten best houseplants for scrubbing pollutants from indoor air. Gardeners in zones 10 and 11 can also enjoy this subtropical species as a year-round outdoor plant.
Sansevieria isn’t picky about where you place it, tolerating exposures varying from dim interior light to bright sunlight. It exhibits its best leaf shape and color when given ample light, however. This plant does well in average home temperatures and prefers low humidity. Plant it in a well-drained regular potting soil, or a soil formulated especially for succulents.
Drought-tolerant sansevieria's need for both water and fertility is low. In fact, if there’s a sure way to kill this otherwise easy plant, it’s by overwatering. Allow the soil to dry out completely in between waterings. Droopy, falling leaves can be an indication that the soil is too wet. During the colder winter months, in particular, the plant requires scant moisture, and you can likely allow several weeks to elapse in between waterings. Avoid getting water on the plant’s crown, as this practice can induce rot.
Although sansevieria is remarkably tough, it's important to protect leaf tips and edges from breakage. Because each leaf is quite long-lived, any damage will be apparent for a long time.
Given the right conditions, this plant can grow so vigorously that it cracks or breaks its pot, and will likely demand regular division. Propagation is easily accomplished by splitting clumps, or by leaf cuttings (in the case of small varieties, use an entire leaf). For a long-leafed variety, you can cut it into approximately 5- or 6-inch sections to make numerous new plantlets. Stick the cuttings into potting mixture to a depth of about one inch. Pay attention when you are cutting the leaf as to which side is up and down -- if planted upside down, the leaf portion will not root. Keep in mind that sansevierias propagated from cuttings will not come true, so if you want a plant with the same variegation or color characteristics, divide the crown instead.
The species’ white flower scapes are unlikely to appear on an indoor sansevieria, but may sometimes be found on an outdoor specimen during the summer months.
Thank you to DG photographers:
Thumbnail photo of Sansevieria trifasciata by jamlover
Leaf closeup by Xenomorph
Dwarf sansevieria 'Jade Dwarf Marginata' by Flicker
Blooming sansevieria by trackinsand