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Gardening 101: Sansevieria

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Gardening 101: Sansevieria

January 19, 2021

Sansevieria, S. trifasciata: “Mother-in-Law’s Tongue”

Some disgruntled son- or daughter-in-law, now unknown to history, facetiously nicknamed this plant Mother-in-Law’s Tongue for the sharpness of its leaves. And this tall, flame-like plant has some dark connotations (beyond opinionated semi-relations who drop by uninvited and comment on your cleaning abilities): It’s also associated with snakes, swords, and is used as a charm against evil in Africa, its native land.

Despite these dark mythologies, however, Sansevieria is a virtually indestructible and rather benevolent addition to any room—an easy-to-care-for starter houseplant that will impress any mother-in-law.

Above: The Sansevieria Moonshine variety, in this blush planter, is $55 at The Sill.

Sansevieria is an evergreen, perennial plant native to tropical West Africa. It features dark green leaves with lighter green cross banding. Also called Snake Plant, Saint George’s Sword, and Viper’s Bowstring Hemp, the fibers of the plant were once used to make strings for bows and arrows.

Due to its snake- or flame-like appearance, Sansevieria is often associated with evil—or protection from it. In Africa and Latin America, potted Sansevieria is placed at the entryway to the home, or around the four corners, to protect against evil spirits; in Brazil, it’s associated with the spirit of war and traditionally used in rituals to remove the evil eye.

Above: The cylindrical Boncel variety, available for $15 via Etsy, is especially sturdy.

The many varieties of Sansevieria include Snakeskin (which has dark green leaves with a light green zigzag pattern); the shorter, stunted Golden Bird’s Nest; and Cylindrical, whose sturdy, solid leaves are sometimes braided into architectural shapes.

Sansevieria grows bolt upright, making it ideal for small spaces: it has a small footprint and can also emphasize the height of a room.

Cheat Sheet

Above: This 4-inch pot of Sansevieria Trifasciata is $26 on Etsy.
  • For look that’s on trend, place one Sansevieria alone on a windowsill or in a corner as a striking focal point.
  • Alternatively, group a few Sansevierias together as a backdrop for other plants and succulents, or place them in a line as a quasi room divider.
  • When the conditions are right (temperatures between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit), Sansevieria can also be planted outdoors in a desert-like scape. (It’s suitable for warm, dry zones 10B through 11.)

Keep It Alive

  • Sansevieria will grow in anything but dark shade but for best results, keep in bright light for at least part of the day.
  • Keep Sansevieria in a narrow pot; it thrives when its roots are slightly crowded.
  • Most important, don’t overwater Sansevieria: Like other succulent plants, its rhizomes store water, so it needs only occasional watering. Advises Tassy de Give, owner of Brooklyn garden shop Sprout Home: “Sansevieria is extremely drought tolerant, which means you should soak it, then allow it to dry thoroughly between waterings. In an average home, this means watering every seven to 14 days”—and every couple of months in the winter.
Sansevieria is happy to go outdoors in warm weather. Photograph by Mimi Giboin for Gardenista.
Above: Sansevieria is happy to go outdoors in warm weather. Photograph by Mimi Giboin for Gardenista.

Sansevieria can be grown from cuttings: Slice off segments from the bottom portions of the leaves (the rhizome), let dry, and insert into fresh soil in the direction of the original growth.

And, if its striking silhouette and can’t-be-killed resilience aren’t enough, consider this: A study by NASA found Mother-in-Law’s Tongue to be among the best plants for air purification, so you can breathe easy.

See more of our favorite hard-to-kill houseplants:

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