The snake plant (Sansevieria), also known as mother-in-law’s tongue because of its up to one meter high and pointed leaves, is one of the most popular houseplants in many living rooms.
Already established on windowsills for decades, the plant has once again gained strong popularity due to many positive characteristics.
The different varieties are extremely easy to care for and have few requirements. And like the peace lily (Spathiphyllum), the snake plant is also considered a biological air purifier.
In fact, placing the plants in the bedroom or living room is quite a good idea. They filter toxic substances from the ambient air and instead release more oxygen.
Origin and Distribution
The snake plant has been a popular and easy-to-care-for houseplant in living rooms for decades. Its botanical name, Sansevieria, is a reference to the famous Italian nobleman and promoter of science Pietro Antonio Sanseverino (1724-1772).
Sanseverino cultivated these exotic plants in his garden as early as the 18th century. Today, the snake plant is still widespread in many gardens in warmer regions.
Originally, the plant, jokingly called mother-in-law’s tongue because of its pointed leaves, comes from the dry, warm climate of the tropical regions of Central and East Africa.
It is at home there in numerous species, especially in the deserts of Kenya and Tanzania. A few of the total of 67 species also occur in tropical Asia, especially in India, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.
Many Sansevieria species have fiber-rich leaves. For a long time, they were an important raw material for making baskets, mats, and other wickerwork, as well as ropes, bowstrings, and clothing.
Today, from a botanical perspective, the genus Sansevieria is classified in the asparagus family (Asparagaceae). It is closely related to the dracaena, although it does not belong to it.
Another popular member of the asparagus family is the hosta.
In the past, the snake plant was considered to belong to the genus Agavoideae because of the superficial visual similarity. But science could not confirm that classification.
As a tropical desert plant, Sansevieria is not frost-hardy. Therefore, in regions with a cold winter, you can only cultivate it as a houseplant.
In climatically more favorable regions, however, for example in the south of the USA or in the Mediterranean countries, the plant is also very popular in the garden. Here, for example, its use as a kind of property border is widespread.
In Africa, the fibrous leaves of some species of snake plants are still used to make baskets, mats, bowstrings, ropes, and even clothing.
This is also referred to by the alternative name “African sisal”. This name still refers to certain handicraft products.
Other species, such as Sansevieria ehrenbergii, have been and still are used in folk medicine in some regions and countries of Africa. Because of its antiseptic ingredients, it is used to treat e.g. ulcers and skin rashes.
Appearance and Growth
The most common houseplant species Sansevieria trifasciata and Sansevieria cylindrica do not form a stem. Instead, they are perennial, evergreen succulents whose fleshy leaves arise directly from underground rhizomes.
Over time, the plants form increasingly extensive clumps that can even burst the planter. Therefore, it is important to report it regularly.
The above-ground formed stolons, through which the snake plant practically self-propagates, are also typical for this plant.
Typical for the leaves of the species Sansevieria trifasciata is the more or less broad, pointed, and thick-fleshed leaves. They either arrange like a rosette or grow tightly upright.
The different varieties of Sansevieria cylindrica, on the other hand, form rounded leaves that grow up to 60 inches (150 cm) long.
With regard to the numerous variations in leaf patterns, the approximately 70 cultivars are very diverse.
Many cultivars have monochromatic dark green leaves. But there are also numerous forms with yellow, light, or dark green transverse bands. And also those with mottling in various shades of green.
Flowers and fruits
If the snake plant is well cared for according to its needs, it sometimes develops a flower after a few years.
The sweet-smelling, greenish-white flowers are arranged panicle-like on a short stem and always open only at night.
In nature, moths carry out pollination, which, of course, do not decay here. For this reason, seeds do not usually develop, which otherwise form in the orange to red berries of the Sansevieria.
After flowering, the flower-bearing shoot dies, but not the plant. Flowers on the snake plant are very rare in indoor culture and therefore always a special attraction.
In particular, Sansevieria cylindrica, which has become increasingly popular as a houseplant in recent years, contains toxic saponins.
Therefore, you should keep it away from small children and pets. Especially cats, dogs and rodents such as guinea pigs and rabbits should not get in contact with the plant.
Poisoning, such as that triggered by eating the thick leaves, typically manifests as nausea associated with cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. In case of poisoning, give the affected person plenty of non-carbonated water to drink.
It is best to consult a doctor or veterinarian immediately. And do not give the person milk to drink under any circumstances.
Which Location is Suitable for a Snake Plant?
Snake plants thrive best in locations that are as sunny and warm as possible. For example, a place directly by a south-facing window is ideal.
The striking leaf patterns of many varieties only form with sufficient light. The leaves quickly turn dark green in darker locations.
However, be sure to acclimate the plant to the direct sun slowly. Otherwise, leaf burn is likely. However, the frugal Sansevieria also thrives in shadier and cooler places but then grows much slower.
As a desert dweller, the snake plant tolerates drought and cooler temperatures very well. The temperate must not fall below 54 °F (12 °C), though.
However, the plant feels most comfortable in a warm and humid environment. This is why many people like to place snake plants in the bathroom or kitchen.
During the warm summer months, you can cultivate the plant on the balcony or terrace. Of course, make sure to acclimate the plant appropriately and slowly to the new location.
Make sure to bring it back indoors in time in early autumn and in cold and rainy weather conditions.
As a desert plant, the snake plant prefers a rather dry, well-drained, and mineral substrate.
Cactus soil is very suitable, as well as a self-mixed mixture of compost and one-third sand or gravel. For better permeability, add Perlite, expanded clay, or another clay granulate to this mixture.
Less suitable, on the other hand, is commercially available potting soil or green plant soil. Even though the snake plant will grow in it. Garden soil is also not suitable.
Sansevieria, however, are grateful candidates for hydroponics, for which you should choose a small to medium grain size.
Planting Snake Plant Properly
Because the leaves of snake plants can grow between 40 and 60 inches (100 and 150 cm) tall, they often reach a corresponding weight.
These tall varieties become quite top-heavy over the years. So you should place them in planters made of heavy materials to protect them from tipping over. Clay or ceramic work well for this purpose.
In addition, the pots should have as wide a diameter as possible, as the thick rhizomes of the sansevieria spread out just below the surface of the substrate. For this purpose, the vessel can be rather shallow.
When planting the snake plant it is essential to ensure good drainage in the pot. The desert dweller does not tolerate permanent moisture and especially waterlogging.
The planter must therefore have a sufficiently large drainage hole at the bottom. And it is also a good idea to place it on a saucer. Excess water can drain into it, from which you can remove it quickly after watering.
Cover the drainage hole with a few shards of clay to prevent clogging due to silting. And also place a thin layer of gravel or clay granules on the bottom of the planter. Only on top of this fill in the substrate.
Repotting Snake Plant
You can recognize the right time for repotting snake plants not only by the roots growing out of the pot but also by the occasional bending of the leaves. The leaves break because their rhizome is no longer sufficiently anchored in the substrate for a firm hold.
If the plant does not yet need a larger container or is already in a large pot, still replace the top layer of substrate annually. The best time to repot is in the spring between March and April.
Watering Snake Plant
Snake plants have thick, fleshy leaves that store a lot of water. This makes the succulent plant perfect for extended periods of drought.
For this reason, the snake plant tolerates drought excellently. But they tolerate persistent moisture or even waterlogging only with difficulty or not at all.
Therefore, water the plants only a little and let them dry thoroughly in between. During the growing season, water the plant enough to keep the substrate well moistened.
After that, the root ball can calmly dry out. This does not harm the plant at all. In the winter months, on the contrary, only water the plant in sips.
At any time of the year, measure the appropriate time for watering with the help of your index finger. Simply stick it into the substrate and feel its moisture. If the soil is already well dried at a depth of a few inches, you can give the plant water again.
When watering, be sure not to moisten the leaves. In particular, if the water collects in the leaf rosettes, it will quickly develop rot.
By the way, overwatering quickly shows up in softening leaves and/or rotting spots. A moldy smell coming from the pot indicates that root rot has already set in.
Fertilizing Snake Plant Properly
You should be restrained not only when watering, but also when fertilizing.
Too much fertilizer causes soft leaves, which then quickly snap off and/or break off. Yellowish to brownish discoloration is also not uncommon in this case.
Fertilize the snake plant between April and August at most once a month. Use a low-dose cactus fertilizer for this.
Halve the amount specified in the manufacturer’s application instructions. Snake plants do not have high nutrient requirements and can manage with much less.
Use a liquid fertilizer that you administer along with the watering. Never fertilize on the dry substrate, as this can cause root damage.
In the remaining months between September and March, do not fertilize the plant. It is sufficient to water it a little.
Prune Snake Plant Properly
Some species and varieties of snake plants can grow quite tall leaves. Their 40 to 60 inches (100 to 150 cm) tall leaves make them too large for the windowsill.
However, the plants grow very slowly, so it may take a few years to reach an appropriate size. If you still want to play it safe, choose a low-growing variety such as Sansevieria trifasciata Hahnium.
Cutting back the leaves is definitely not recommended for snake plants. The corresponding shoots will not sprout again if you cut them. Instead, an unsightly edge remains, which turns brown.
Also, such a cut represents a gateway for fungi and other pathogens. However, instead of leaf pieces, cut off entire leaves just above the substrate base to remove brown and dried leaves or to obtain cuttings.
Propagating Snake Plant
It is quite easy to propagate snake plants by leaf cuttings. In the case of large plants, you can also propagate them by division.
Snake Plant Propagation by Cuttings
When propagating snake plant cuttings you need patience. Due to the slow growth of the plant, it takes several years to create a decent plant.
However, it is also a lot of fun to grow the tiny plant yourself from the beginning. Here’s how it works:
- Cut off a whole leaf just above the ground.
- Divide this evenly into sections about 4 inches (10 cm) in size.
- Make a mark for “top” or “bottom” with a pencil.
- Dip the bottom cut edge into a rooting powder.
- Place the cuttings with the bottom edge several inches deep in a growing medium.
- Place the growing pot in a bright and warm, but not directly sunny, location.
- Keep the substrate evenly moist, but not wet.
- Foil cover or similar is not necessary.
After a few weeks, the cuttings will develop the first roots. And a little later the first offshoots will appear.
Now you can remove the leaf piece, as the actual plant grows out of the resulting rhizome. By the way, you should always propagate variegated varieties by division, because their cuttings usually develop monochrome green leaves.
Snake Plant Propagation by Division
If a specimen has become too large, you can divide it without hesitation. It is best to do so in connection with a repotting that is due anyway.
Have a separate pot with suitable substrate ready for each new individual plant. Here’s how dividing works:
- Lift the snake plant out of the planter.
- Carefully remove the substrate from the roots.
- Look for small side shoots or offshoots or side rosettes. Divide these preferably.
- If necessary, cut them off the mother plant using a sharp and disinfected knife.
- If the plant is still too large, you can also divide it completely.
- In doing so, each rhizome piece should have at least one sprout, preferably more than two.
- Plant the partial pieces separately immediately after dividing.
- You can use cactus soil or a soil-sand mixture for this purpose.
A rooting powder is not necessary in this case. After all, the partial pieces are already rooted. Otherwise, take care of your new Sansevieria as you would for the adult snake plant.
Wintering Snake Plant
Since the snake plant is not winter-hardy, it must be overwintered frost-free. It does this preferably at about 55 to 61 °F (13 to 16 °C) and very sparing watering.
Of course, you can continue to cultivate the succulent in the warm living room. But the plant survives the low-light period best in a cooler room.
During this time, the snake plant stops growing. As soon as the days become longer again in spring and the hours of sunlight increase, gradually increase the temperature as well as the watering.
Diseases and Pests
Sansevieria are very robust plants, which only fall ill due to grosser care errors. A pest infestation, on the other hand, is rare but can occur.
Especially mealybugs and spider mites occur occasionally, but you should avoid showering affected plants if possible.
You can tell the type of infestation by looking at the leaves:
- Brown discolored / soft leaves: root rot due to waterlogging, but also too low temperatures
- Yellow discolored / limp leaves: overwatering or overfertilization
- Brown spots on the leaves: drought
- Damp, soft spots on the leaves: fungal attack
If the snake plant is affected by a fungus and its leaves become soft as a result, the plant is usually beyond saving. However, you can cut off the leaf tips and use them as cuttings for new plants.
Species and Varieties
The species Sansevieria trifasciata has been cultivated as a houseplant for many decades. There are numerous ornamental forms of it in different growth heights, growth types, and leaf colors.
In addition to the green-leaved forms, the subspecies Sansevieria laurentii, which has broad, light-yellow edged leaves, is particularly popular. This species can grow quite tall with growth heights of more than 3 ft (1 m).
Te varieties of the subspecies Sansevieria trifasciata hahnii remain comparatively small. They only have an average height of up to 8 inches (20 cm). Sansevieria trifasciata hahnii also come in very different colors.
Still relatively new as a houseplant is Sansevieria cylindrica with its rounded, columnar upright growing leaves. This cultivated form also remains quite compact. It is therefore ideal for the home windowsill.
The leaves of this species are often offered in braided form. However, this does not correspond to its natural growth form.
There are also some interesting ornamental forms of the rare Sansevieria kirkii, which has very narrow and rather short leaves.