Master Gardener Volunteer Program team member
Remember your grandma’s impossible-to-kill parlor plant, the “mother-in-law’s tongue”? You might know it as “snake plant” or “viper’s bowstring” or even “African spear plant.”
However you remember it, whatever you call it, this plant actually is called sansevieria. And it’s widely popular… again.
The soaring sansevieria
There has been an amazing resurgence in popularity for many sansevieria varieties as a Florida landscape favorite. This new boom has paralleled the rebirth of the contemporary-style home building trend we have seen over the last few years.
For a couple of reasons, that’s not surprising. Sansevieria are some of the toughest plants you can find indoors, on your balcony or garden. These linear and often spear-like beauties can put up with almost anything. And, that linear shape makes them a perfect complement to the angular lines found in many modern buildings.
Native to Africa, Madagascar and southern Asia, sansevieria is now included in the genus Dracaena based on new molecular phylogenetic studies (for those of you with a need to know!)(6).
This plant was first introduced to Florida in the 1800s as a fiber crop. And, believe it or not, sansevieria was one of the plants utilized in NASA’s Clean Air Study, and was shown to be the most effective house plant for cleaning pathogens from indoor atmospheres.(1, 2)
Now that we have established the ease of growing and the ability to clean and process fresh air, here are some caveats!
Some sansevieria varieties have been known to live for 20-25 years. Add in the offspring traveling, and you could say they live for ever.
Once you get the snake plant out of its pot, you likely will see new shoots, called pups, connected to the plant. The white part of the pup is where the soil level sits. The orange part, below the soil line, is the rhizome, that underground portion of the stem that produces roots and actually perpetuates and spreads the plant.
No matter what variety of sansevieria, the runners don’t quit! If you put this plant in your soil without a barrier, it will overgrow and can consume your yard(5). And therein lies the rub. For example, I am on a 75-year-old property and am still pulling out plants from the original landscaping.
Is it invasive?
According to the latest UF/IFAS north-central-south Florida zone assessment (Sarasota County is considered in the central zone), this group of plants presently is considered a high invasion risk, and is predicted to be invasive and not recommended by IFAS. In particular, the well- known mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria trifaciata)(3) and, further south, S. hyacinthoides(4, 5) are the two varieties cited as invasive. Note that IFAS reassesses and updates this list every 10 years, with the last assessment issued in 2011.
Most cultivars are offspring of S. trifaciata(6) and may be considered a nuisance plant. Strictly managed, though, you can still enjoy them. In fact, there are 70 different sansevieria species, and many are not presently on the UF/IFAS invasive list.
So, spots, speckles, stripes, large or small: there likely is a sansevieria for everyone!(6, 8). Some delightful varieties include: whale/shark fin, dragon fingers, marsha anjani, fernwood mikado, Danish crown, marga, samurai, cleopatra, koko crater, black coral, and many more!(5, 6) And while prices start around $4 for some varietals, they can range up to $400 for other exotics.
Can I (safely) grow sansevieria?
With a little planning, a bit of patience, and a few precautions, you can easily add sansevieria to your landscape or in your home without any worries.
- Plant your variety of sansevieria in a pot/planter/or enclosed bed.
- Pair with plants that work well together, like succulents, air-plants and cacti, all having reduced watering needs. These combinations make spectacular container garden combinations.
- Control and thin out enclosed beds on a regular basis. These are beds surrounded by the house and walkways, and will not allow the plant to travel to the lawn or throughout a flower bed.
- Share with environmentally responsible friends cautiously; explain how they reproduce and the importance of keeping the plant in a controlled environment.
Don’t want to dip your toes in the sansevieria pool, but still want something that brings that ultramodern flair? You do have options, of course.
Think spiky with an easily maintained/controlled size for bed planting. Dare to be different with a Strelitzia juncea, an almost leafless small bird-of-paradise which makes a voguish statement in an enclosed bed. Iris, flax lily varieties, soft agaves, small yuccas, and horsetail floorgrass(7) can all add a contemporary theme to your garden replacing bedding sansevieria.
If you want to become a “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” though, stick with the oh-so-easy-to-grow sansevieria. Add this contemporary element to your container garden, and enjoy.
- ntrs.nasa.gov/citations/19930073077 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NASA_Clean_Air_Study
- Manatee Master Gardener: The Garden Bench Newsletter; Article January 2021, Vol. 20, Issue 1
About the Author
Karen Pariser is a UF/IFAS Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Sarasota County, a graduating member of the Class of 2010.