Sansevieria (2020)

By Bob Williams (March 2020)

Sansevieria francisii is a hard-leaved species that originates from an arid climate. Photo by Bob Williams.

Plants with nicknames like Devil’s Tongue, Snake Plant and Snake Tongue could make you wonder if they are plants you would want to raise. It sounds like those who were describing the plants were also giving a warning to stay away. With the more common nickname of Mother-in-Law Tongue, you know without a doubt that this is a plant to avoid.

Sansevieria plants are easy-care, readily available, attractive and inexpensive. They are perfect for beginners in our hobby or a person looking for a plant to grow in a not-so-perfect spot.

The genus name Sansevieria honors Italian scientist and inventor Raimondo di Sangro (1710–1771), prince of Sanseviero. There are between 60 and 70 recognized species of Sansevieria, as well as many cultivars. These plants are found in the drier areas of Africa, Madagascar and Southern Asia.

There is great variation within the species placed in the genus. They range from succulent desert plants such as S. pinguicula to thinner-leafed tropical plants such as S. trifasciata. The plants form dense clumps from spreading rhizomes.

People tend to picture the leaves of sansevierias as tall and slender. The leaves of Sansevieria species are typically arranged in a rosette around a growing point, although some species are similar in structure to an aloe or gasteria. There is great variation in foliage. Sansevierias can be divided into two basic categories based on their leaves: hard-leaved and soft-leaved species.

Typically, hard-leaved species originate from arid climates, while soft-leaved species come from tropical and subtropical regions. Hard-leaved species have a number of adaptations for surviving dry regions. These include thick, succulent leaves for storing water. S. masoniana is a prime example. The leaves of this plant are not small – they can be 2 to 3 feet tall and 12 inches wide – yet they feel like hard cardboard.

Native to South Africa, S. cylindrica has developed an entirely different leaf. Instead of a thin, fan-type leaf, it has a tubular leaf that still may grow 2 feet tall or more. The leaves grow in a fan shape from the rosette. The common name is the hemp or rope plant. It can be found in some garden centers, where the leaves are wrapped around each other, creating a ropelike effect.

Like any succulents, sansevierias should be planted in well-draining soil. Overpotting these plants is not a bad thing, as the plants can grow fairly fast. As they become established and start sending out rhizomes or runners, rosettes will appear at the surface. New plants are now established, and you will have a full pot in short order.

These plants are drought-tolerant. A good watering once a week in the summertime will keep these plants happy. From the information I gathered, fertilizing at the beginning of summer and once in mid-summer will keep these plants happy.

Sansevierias can generally take full sun in the morning, but the leaves may burn if subjected to full afternoon sun. They can thrive in full or partial shade. They can take temperatures in the 90s and survive temperatures in the 30s. When bringing the plants inside for the winter, cut back to a light watering once a month. It is nice that they can be placed in a low-light part of the house and still survive and grow.

The delicate, white flowers of S. cylindrica are typical of plants in the Sansevieria genus. Photo by Bob Williams.

Sansevieria species can flower at any time of the year. The flowers are small and mostly white in color. Younger plants tend to flower more than older ones. Potted plants tend to flower less often than those grown in a flower bed or in the wild.

Sansevierias are not winter-hardy in St. Louis. Once a plant has flowered, the rosette that produced the flower will not send up any additional leaves. The rosette will not die as a century plant (agave) will, but there will be no more growth.

These plants can be propagated by seed, by separating the rosettes and by leaf cuttings. Since propagating by separating is so easy, propagation by seed is rarely if ever done. If you are propagating a variegated plant by leaf cutting, be sure you have some roots attached to the leaf. If no roots are attached, the new leaves will not be variegated.

Sansevierias are slightly toxic. They are more toxic to household pets than humans. Typically, ingestion causes mouth and stomach irritation, possible vomiting and, in some instances, diarrhea.

These plants are readily available at any garden center or big box store, or online. If you are ever in Key West, Florida, I recommend a visit to the Key West Botanical Garden. It is the only botanical garden in the lower 48 states that has never experienced a frost.

During a visit, my wife, Marge, and I were walking around the small, 17-acre garden and came across a work area where leaves of S. masoniana were stacked 2 feet high. We asked the gardener if they were for sale. Since the plants are non-native and reproduce by rhizomes, they’re considered an invasive species at this garden. The gardener looked at us funny and told us we could take as much as we wanted. Our only regret was that we flew instead of drove to Key West.