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Spotlight on Sansevieria: The Striking Snake Plant

snake plant spotlight

Visually pleasing and aptly named due to its appearance, the snake plant rules the houseplant wishlist. From the genus, Sansevieria, there are around 60-70 species of the ‘snake plant’. And not all species are made the same— they vastly differ in terms of origin, soil preference, and outward traits. Sansevieria’s range from desertous, sandy-soil loving, thick leafed succulents to that familiar tropical tongue-shaped plant with thin, flat, upright leaves. Focusing on the latter species, we’ll pay particular attention to the ever-popular Sansevieria trifasciata— the snake plant that you see in magazines, on Instagram, at your local yoga studio, yeah, it’s everywhere! You may also know it by one of its other names: mother-in-law’s tongue, viper’s bowstring hemp, or St. George’s sword. 

Origin: Tropical West Africa

About: An ornamental staple, snake plants have adorned households for decades. Best known for their unmistakable allure and easy-going demeanor, these evergreen perennials are quite durable and can live for 50 years! While they have very basic needs, snake plants do have a little surprise up their sleeve… they can flower, seemingly overnight! It’s rare, but if conditions are right—warm, humid, without too much water— these plants can produce a leggy stalk. These whitish-green fragrant blooms mostly occur in summer months.

While unable to sustain the outdoor climate in much of North America, Sansevieria trifasciata does grow in southern US. It is very successful here in south Florida and has been growing wildly here for about 200 years (since Spanish colonization and introduction). The snake plant will grow as far as USDA hardiness zones 10-12. But check before planting this one outside, as there may be restrictions. In some regions of the world, the snake plant is considered an invasive species (a stunning weed though if we do say). 

Indoor Care: These stemless plants are drought tolerant, making them a perfect houseplant for beginners, busy people, or frequent travelers. Since they store water naturally, snake plants do not require much moisture. Check the soil about once every two weeks, allowing the plant’s soil to completely dry out between the next dose of water. During winter season, cut back. It’s hard to say exactly how much the plant will need based on your unique environment, but in many cases the plant may only need water once a month. A popular misconception, snake plants should not be watered in the center rosette, as you may do with Bromeliads. Water the surrounding soil.

Just remember, these tough plants are sensitive to one thing... too much water! Sansevieria is prone to root rot, especially if any moisture is left lingering in the soil or pot. Which brings us to the next point— make sure you use a pot with drainage holes and use a well-draining potting mix. Since snake plants are succulent-like, a cactus soil would work well. Snake plants have low needs when it comes to nutrients. Stick to a cactus fertilizer in the growing season, and let the plant rest during winter. 

As for your indoor environment, this is where snake plants are a godsend. You can basically plop it anywhere since these tenacious plants tolerate a multitude of conditions, even a dull corner. That said, they’ll grow faster in a well-lit spot. And if you have variegation (aka the leaves display different colors, like in the ‘Laurentii’ cultivar) then coloring will be more pronounced with light exposure. 

Extra Care: Snake plants are prone to collecting dust and dander from your home, so wipe the leaves with a damp cloth every couple of weeks. 

sansevieria plant variations

Interesting Tidbit: Most plants stop releasing oxygen at night as the stomata (aka pores) close— but with the snake plant, the stomata open to absorb carbon dioxide, and oxygen is released even in the dark. This unique function, called CAM (Crassulacean acid metabolism), makes the plant a great bedroom addition as extra oxygen in the air can be beneficial for sleep. CAM is also responsible for the snake plant’s retention of moisture since it’s a mechanism the plant acquired to survive arid climates. Specifically, the pores close during the hottest, driest times of the day, reducing water loss. 

Not only does the extra oxygen help in making the snake plant a good bedroom plant, but it is believed to exhibit air-purifying qualities. Through studies conducted by NASA as well as the University of Georgia, Sansevieria reduced levels of present formaldehyde and benzene in the air. While more research is necessary, these results are promising for naturally or safely filtering indoor environments of hazardous pollutants. 

And that striking name? Viper's bowstring comes from the use of the plant’s fibers to create bowstrings. It goes without saying how the name Mother-in-law’s tongue was derived.

The plant is considered toxic (upon ingestion) to cats and dogs due to the presence of saponins and glycosides. 

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