Snake Plant - A Guide to Growing SansevieriaOne of the best houseplants for beginners, this old-fashioned succulent is making a comeback
Sansevieria trifasciata ‘Laurentii’. Photo by: Aquarius Studio / Shutterstock
In recent years, succulents have become one of the hottest trends in home décor because they look exotic, yet are super-easy to grow. One old-school succulent enjoying a resurgence in popularity is Sansevieria, more commonly called snake plant because of its long, sinuous foliage. Not only is it one of the few succulents that doesn’t require a sunny windowsill to thrive, it’s also one of the best houseplants for improving indoor air quality.
“When sansevierias started their steady climb in the popularity polls, new varieties started emerging. As for care, they are all bulletproof. I have never met anyone who has killed a sansevieria,” says Tovah Martin, author of The Indestructible Houseplant.
Today, there are more varieties than ever before, from short and cylindrical to tall and elegant, with variegated leaves displaying streaks of silver, gray, yellow, or white. Once you’re introduced to the versatility of these tough and forgiving houseplants, you’ll want to include at least one in nearly every room of your home.
Snake plant, mother-in-law’s tongue, viper’s bowstring hemp
Nearly effortless. Can tolerate long periods of neglect without complaint.
6 inches to 4 feet
Will thrive in everything from bright light to dimly lit corners. Don’t place in direct sunlight, which can scorch the leaves. An east- or west-facing window is optimal.
Slow to moderate.
The only visible portion of a snake plant are its leathery, sharply pointed leaves, which often have a variegated pattern resembling the coloring of an exotic snake. Usually the foliage is tall and upright, but there are also dwarf “bird’s nest” varieties that form squat rosettes of leaves. The foliage is typically flat or slightly concave, but you can also find interesting cultivars with twisted and tubular leaves.
When grown indoors, they will seldom flower, but a mature plant may surprise you by sending up a slender spike of small lily-like flowers. The blooms are usually white or pale pink and very fragrant. Most plants will go many years between bloom cycles.
Twenty years or more; indefinitely, if propagated by division every five years or so.
The leaves can cause gastrointestinal upset if ingested, so keep out of reach of children and pets. See more Common Poisonous Plants for Dogs and Cats.
Snake plant benefits:
NASA research shows that Sansevieria is one of the best houseplants for indoor air purification. Unlike the leaves of other plants, which release carbon dioxide at night, snake plant pumps pure oxygen into the air while filtering out formaldehyde, benzene, and other harmful VOCs, making it a great bedroom plant.
Photo by: alenysk / Shutterstock
Where to plant:
Almost anywhere that has some sort of light source. The room temperature should be between 65° to 80° F, since sansevierias are sensitive to cold temperatures. They can also be grown outdoors as potted plants or planted directly in the ground in warmer climates (Zones 9 to 11).
Usually not an issue. Can tolerate a wide range of humidity levels.
Thrives best in a well-drained, general-purpose potting soil mixed with sand or perlite to improve drainage.
Because snake plants spread by rhizomes, they can muscle their way out of flimsy plastic containers. A heavy clay pot is a better home because they don’t crack as easily and is less likely to topple over under the weight of the tall leaves. Whatever type of pot you use, make sure it has holes in the bottom for drainage.
One of the easiest house plants to divide and share. Simply break away new shoots from the parent plant, using a sharp knife to cut through the thick roots and rhizomes. Replant the individual shoots in new pots, making sure each clump has some roots attached. You can also propagate by leaf cuttings allowed to root in moist potting soil. However, cuttings from variegated cultivars will not necessarily produce variegations true to type.
SNAKE PLANT CARE AND MAINTENANCE
Because Sansevieria is a succulent, its leaves are thick in order to store water, much like a cactus. Plants only need watering once every week or two, or whenever the soil feels dry. It’s always better to err on the dry side, since overwatering can lead to root rot. Pretty much the only thing you can do to kill a snake plant is to give it too much water. If the leaves begin to turn yellow or get soft and mushy at the base, that’s usually a sign of overwatering and poor soil drainage.
Although they’re fine with little or no fertilizer, they will be more robust if given an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer diluted to half the recommended rate. Do not fertilize in winter.
Dust the leaves occasionally with a damp cloth to maintain their glossy sheen.
Snake plant doesn’t mind being snug in its pot, but it’s still a good idea to repot it every two or three years to refresh the soil and improve drainage. If the pot size is adequate, simply place your plant back into the same pot filled with fresh soil.
Pests and problems:
Rarely will you encounter any serious pest or disease problems, but be on the lookout for white mealybugs, which can easily be removed with cotton swabs dipped in 70% rubbing alcohol (not 99%—this strength will kill plants).
Removing dead or damaged foliage:
Although it’s hard to kill one by underwatering, chronic neglect can result in brown, crispy leaf tips. If the damage is unsightly or the leaf dies completely, simply cut the entire leaf off at the soil surface. If you prune off only part of a leaf, it will not regenerate from the cut point.
SNAKE PLANT PICTURES
Sansevieria trifasciata ’Laurentii'
Although there are many trendy new cultivars, this old-fashioned variegated variety remains the most popular and most recognizable. It features the classic upright growth habit and snakeskin-like foliage, but the leaves are outlined by broad, showy brush strokes of golden yellow. If you love the look of ‘Laurentii’ but don’t have space for a 4-foot plant, you can also find a small-scale version (S. trifasciata 'Laurentii Dwarf') that has the same color profile but grows to a height of only 10 inches.
Height: 4 feet
Width: 30 inches
S. trifasciata ‘Hahnii'
Also called bird’s nest snake plant, this dwarf variety forms perfect rosettes of low-growing leaves, creating a shape similar to a nest. Typically, the leaves are dark green mottled with grayish-green cross bands, but you can also find varieties with green leaves and golden-yellow vertical stripes (‘Golden Hahnii’) and silvery gray leaves with dark green cross bands (‘Silver Hahnii’). Growing to a height of only 6 inches, these compact plants fit in confined spaces that the taller upright sansevierias can’t, such as on windowsills and desktops.
Height: 4 to 6 inches
Width: 6 to 8 inches
S. trifasciata 'Moonshine'
‘Moonshine’, also sold as `Moonglow', is one of the newer cultivars and is distinguished by broad silvery gray foliage and a slender vase-like form. The leaves often change color from silver to gray-green to dark green as they mature, adding to the shimmering effect. “The overall look is several notches above the standard fare, if not downright head turning,” says Martin. “It's an excellent sentinel for a location that is not really capable of supporting most plant life. No matter how hot, dry, or dark the conditions, 'Moonglow' can take it.”
Height: 10 to 12 inches
Width: 6 to 8 inches
S. trifasciata 'Twisted Sister'
As the name implies, this delightfully quirky cultivar has leaves that twist and turn in all directions as they emerge from the soil, looking like a snake plant with a crazy perm. It grows to a height of about one foot and to approximately the same width, so it’s not as linear in form as the typical snake plant. The low-growing habit and vivid green and yellow variegated foliage make it a great specimen for brightening up a tabletop or bookshelf.
Height and width: 12 to 15 inches
Cylindrical Snake Plant (S. cylindrica)
Unlike the typically flat or slightly twisted foliage of snake plant, this unusual variety has thick, tubular leaves sometimes reaching several feet in length. Other apt names given to this Angolan native are dragon’s fingers and African spear plant. The cylindrical leaves, which have the characteristic light green cross-banding, arch outward from a central crown. To give the plant a Zen-like vibe, growers will often sell it with the leaves braided and secured with a rope or band at the top. Or look for the less common starfish sansevieria (S. cylindrica ‘Boncel’), a compact hybrid with leaves that fan out from the center like the rays of a starfish.
Height: Up to 5 feet
- Snake plant's tall, linear look makes it a strong vertical accent, either alone, flanking an entryway, or grouped with other foliage plants. Because they tolerate relocation well and are not fussy about light requirements, they are great plant to move about the house wherever you need a striking architectural element.
- Use tall types to create a privacy screen in front of a bedroom or bathroom window. Or set multiple pots in a row on a long table or shelf to create a natural room divider.
- If you want to pack a lot of plants into a narrow space, fill a slim vase with “a smorgasbord of sansevierias,” suggests Baylor Chapman, author of Decorating with Plants. “Include a standard snake plant as well as more interesting varieties of Sansevieria such as shark’s fin, bird’s nest, starfish, and ‘Superclone’. Just like a box of assorted chocolates, it’s bound to draw you in and keep you coming back for more.”
- The bird’s nest types (S. trifasciata ‘Hahnii') are ideal tabletop plants, especially in low-light areas where little else will grow. Because they are compact and slow growing, they also work well in dish gardens or terrariums.
- Place pots of snake plants near an aquarium to mimic seaweed. The tall, twisty leaves resemble a kelp garden, with the branches swaying in the current.
- Use tall sansevieiras placed in a decorative plant stand (like this one from Amazon) to enliven empty, drab corners. Such spots are perfect havens for these shade-tolerant plants.