James H. Schutte
Plant Common Name
Mother-in-law's Tongue, Snake Plant
The genus Sansevieria contains 60 species of tropical and subtropical plants best known for their attractive, sword or strap-shaped evergreen leaves. All are distributed in areas of Africa, Madagascar, India and Indonesia. Those from southern Africa and Madagascar are most drought and sun tolerant while those from equatorial climates exist in jungles and are adapted to full to partial shade and moister growing conditions. Some African species are known as bowstring hemp because their strong leaf fibers are used to make bow strings, cordage and baskets.
Leaf shape and size varies from species to species but all are somewhat sword-shaped and rise from the ground in dense, upright rosettes. Most spread via thick, fleshy underground rooted stems called rhizomes. The foliage may be flat and upright or rounded and set in fan-like sprays. Leaf color may be solid green or feature variegation and/or mottling. Mature rosettes flower but gradually die after flowering only to be replaced by offsets produced at the base of the mother plant. Lots of narrow, white or greenish blossoms are produced on short, branched, upright stalks or rise from the base of plants. Berry-like fruits are produced after pollination.
The very well known Sansevieria trifasciata, or mother-in-law’s tongue, first became popular in Victorian parlors and is still popular today. The tallest species, Sansevieria zeylanica, has distinctive mottled leaves and a bold look, and the most expensive species is Sansevieria cylindrica, a Madagascar native coveted by modern designers for use in landscapes and containers.
All Sansevieria species are generally easy to grow but specific cultural needs are species dependent. Most thrive if provided bright, filtered light and grow in well-drained soil with average fertility and moderate to low moisture. Intense direct sunlight can burn the leaves of many.
These evergreen ornamentals are popular in Mexico where they are often container grown and arranged in rows to delineate walking areas or other outdoor spaces. They tend to be such strong, vigorous plants they can crack ceramic pots as they outgrow them, so be sure to divide plants as needed.