Are you a houseplant killer? Do yours either turn brown and crispy or black and soggy? If so, consider growing the never-die house plant that has graced American homes since the 1800s. Sansevieria, known as snake plant or mother-in-law’s tongue, began here as a problem-solver for nature-loving Victorians. They lived in dark houses with voluminous drapes on the windows, so they couldn’t get house plants to survive. With so little natural light, they needed a plant that could live under such conditions and still look good every day.
The British gathered plants like crazy and sent them to Kew, then to America. From southern Africa they brought a new fiber plant that had been traditionally called the Zulu bow string plant. The leaves are like a perennial iris in habit and shape, but wider and flat. Their tough fibrous nature is a lot like yucca or agave, both similar North American fiber-bearing succulents.
Sansevieria grows a lot like marginal plants that can tolerate inundation as well as very dry conditions. That explains why you can overwater and underwater these plants and they’re still happy. Each plant develops thick traveling rhizomes much like cattails that spread underground, sending up new sprouts around the mother. Eventually whole colonies may result because very few forms of wildlife will eat Sansevieria, even in drought. Their tissues contain unpalatable toxins to protect from big game browsers.
In the wild, these plants are understory species found in savannah plant communities of very hot, inland South Africa. Sansevierias like to dwell under the canopies of trees amid grasses and shrubs in woodlands of varying density. The commonly grown species, Sansevieria trifasciata, demonstrates this tolerance as it was the Victorian drawing room favorite that vanished, then reappeared a century later in post-war ranch houses all over the West.
Now that you know how little light and water these plants demand, you can feel good about using them to accent your home this year. Since the 1950s, breeders of Sansevieria have developed a huge range of unique hybrids that offer new colors such as silvery blue, a very popular choice for highbrow modern rooms.
Most hybrids fall into one of two groups: upright forms like the species and “bird’s nest” dwarfs that are very short and fill a wide pot or bowl nicely. High contrast variegations give the plants more presence in shaded locations where cream or yellow edges and stripes stand out in gloom. It’s not uncommon to find some of the newer forms reverting to type, particularly when grown outdoors in frost-free climates such as New Orleans. Elsewhere Sansevieria is sold in the house plant section of the home improvement store or garden center away from freezing temperatures.
Sansevieria, like so many other succulents, is eager to reproduce asexually because dry climates limit seed germination. The original plant sends out thick roots the diameter of your thumb that travel outward to sprout leaves at intervals. These are all clones of the mother that may be severed and easily transplanted elsewhere. Dividing the rhizomes is essential to repotting root-bound plants. The rhizomes are so strong they can literally crack a terra cotta pot or tear a plastic nursery pot. They also send out roots from drain holes when fully pot-bound to continually search for more earth and water.
When the popularity of a plant ebbs and flows over centuries, we know it’s had to kill and here to stay. When breeders change them for the better, we learn to grow one plant with many different versions. There is no better choice for the black thumb gardener, a first-time house plant grower or office manager to instantly green up a room. We all want living plants in the house, but for the millions of novices out there: No other choice is so hassle-free.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at email@example.com or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.