No need for a green thumb with sansevieria


No need for a green thumb with sansevieria

Janet B. Carson

There are many folks out there who struggle growing houseplants, while others have trouble keeping their plants from taking over the house. But for both novice and expert, there is a family of plants that pretty much takes care of itself, and can be a beauty in the interior landscape. Commonly called such unappealing names as mother-in-law’s tongue or snake plant, the family of sansevieria has some fabulous choices.

Sansevieria is a plant that is almost impossible to kill. In fact, if you can’t grow a sansevieria, you may need some serious plant help! These plants have been around for years and seem to come and go in popularity. This member of the agave family is native to Africa and the East Indies.

Sansevieria are easily propagated by division or by leaf segments.

The plants grow in height from small dish garden plants to four feet. They grow from a rhizome, or fleshy root, similar to an iris. The leaves are sword-shaped and smooth, thick and fleshy.

Depending on variety, they come in a multitude of variegated and solid-leaf patterns. The thick, fleshy leaves are a sure sign that this plant doesn’t need a lot of water. In fact, these plants will take about any abuse you throw at them, other than too much water.

While there are more than 60 species of this plant, there aren’t quite that many choices in local outlets.

One of the many species of sansevieria.

“Hahnii” or “Golden Hahnii” are great small choices, and are commonly called the Bird’s Nest sansevieria for their short rosettes of foliage. “Laurenttii” is the standard strap-like foliage, growing up to four feet in height. Common sansevieria plants are usually available at all plant outlets, but if you really want to grow some of the obscure forms, you may need to order via mail or the internet. Even the common ones may still be a new plant for your home, so start with what you can find.

Interestingly enough, the leaves of sansevieria contain tough elastic fibers that were used by the ancient Hindus in making bowstrings, giving them another, older, common name — bowstring hemp. Mats and ropes were also made from the fibers.

Sansevieria is commonly called mother-in-law’s tongue or snake plant.

Sansevieria will grow in bright light, but seem to do fine in relatively low-light conditions as well. They don’t appear to be growing very much, yet they can fill up a pot without your knowing it. These plants are easily propagated by division or by leaf segments. Simply cut a leaf into one-to two-inch sections and set these in a sandy soil mix, making sure to keep them oriented the same way they were growing because they won’t grow if you plant them upside down. To keep humidity high during this process, you can put the pot and cuttings inside a clear plastic bag. In time, young plants will form at the base of these cuttings. Leaf cuttings of sansevieria take a long time to “root” because they actually do not. Instead, they form a rhizome from a cutting, and from that, a new leaf emerges, with the old leaf eventually disintegrating. Keep them in small pots to begin with, gradually increasing pot size. One tip to keep in mind, if you are propagating a variegated form and want to keep variegation, you must propagate by division, not leaf cuttings. Leaf segments produce green-leafed plants, since the variegation is a chimera, which is a type of mutation.

While many houseplants have the capability of blooming, few actually do in the low-light conditions that occur indoors. Sansevieria are plants that may bloom indoors. Plants usually need fairly good growing conditions to bloom, but if pot-bound, and old enough — usually five to seven years — they can produce a thin spike of white flowers. The flowers add more in fragrance than showy beauty, since they are relatively small.

These plants make an interesting addition to the outdoor landscape in the spring and summer, but must be brought indoors each fall. Repot as needed as they grow. Make sure you don’t increase the pot size too much. All containers should have a drainage hole to avoid overwatering.

Sansevieria is a great family of plants to start with if you are new to gardening. They thrive on benign neglect and are a great way to build up your gardening confidence. Grow these for a year or two, and then branch out with other houseplants. Before you know it, a greenhouse addition may be needed for all your excess greenery.

Janet B. Carson is an extension horticulture specialist for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. photos