Golden Fringe Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata var. Laurentii) with silver-green Sansevieria var. twitter. (Photo by Joshua Siskin)
Are you thinking about growing indoor plants? If so, you may want to start with snake plants (Sansevieria species) since they are nearly impossible to kill. The only way to kill them is to plant them in a container with no drainage holes or use a poorly draining potting mix. Either way, standing water will cause its roots to rot. However, on the plus side, as long as the water delivered to snake plants can drain, they will thrive no matter how much light reaches them and can survive for weeks, if not months, without any water at all.
The snake plant derives its name from its leathery leaves that resemble snakeskin and reach a sharp point like a snake’s tail. Never cut off this pointy end, because if you do, the leaf to which it is attached will die. The plant is also referred to as mother-in-law’s tongue due to its tireless ability to grow under any conditions. although The snake plants you see are usually no more than three feet tall, and there are 70 species of Sansevieria with some reaching up to 12 feet tall. There’s also a dwarf (Sansevieria ‘Hahnii’), first spotted as a mutant in a Louisiana nursery, that grows just eight inches tall. It serves as an impressive spreading ground cover for large indoor growers but appears to be a sterile cultivar because it has never been observed in bloom. The most common type is Sanseveiria trifasicata var. Laurentii has leaves edged in gold, Black Coral features dark green to black marbled leaf markings, and Moonshine displays luminous, sinewy silver-green foliage. African spear (Sansevieria cylindrica) has cylindrical leaves up to one inch in diameter and can reach seven feet in height. It has a distinctive appearance, a clumpy collection of dark green tubes that elongate as it grows.
I write about snake plants after receiving a letter from George Fisher, a horticulturist in Hemet, as follows: “My sansevieria put out one flower stalk last year and is now growing three. I have no idea why it bloomed this year.” last year, but this year it may have been affected by my watering pattern. The pot is about a foot in diameter and is full of plants. I was giving it about a cup and a half of water a day, but I discovered that the plants in the middle were rotting, so I reduced it to a half to three-quarters of a cup daily. I think this reduction may have resulted in flowering. The flowers smell like honeysuckle but no insects have shown any interest except a few ants on the flower stems. It should be noted that these ants are interested in the nectar which the Sansevieria flowers secrete in abundant quantities.
Mr. Fisher’s account is remarkable, first of all, in view of the fact that his Sansevieria has flowered because the flowering of this species is a rather rare horticultural event. In the words of the Sunset Western Garden Book, sansevieria bear “narrow, upright clusters of fragrant greenish-white flowers native to Hawaii, but rarely found on the mainland.” Upon further investigation of this unlikely flowering event, I learned that one reason sansevieria plants do not usually flower is that they are considered low-light plants, but will not produce flower buds in the absence of a strong daily dose of sun. In fact, if you want your snake plant to bloom, you must provide it with at least four hours of bright light per day. In conversing with Mr. Fisher, I learned that his sansevieria grows in the open air, facing east, and will therefore receive the necessary allotment of light which this plant needs to produce flowers. By the way, according to the same widely esteemed book quoted above, Mr. Fisher has no business growing the snake plant outdoors at Hemet, as the plant is not supposed to be cold-resistant enough to survive the winter there. However, earlier this year I got an email from Susan Savolainen, a horticulturist in Banning, who also seems to have managed to attract flowers from outdoor sansevieria. Banning is only 20 miles from Hemet, so there must be something in that area that, contrary to expert opinion, promotes the flowering of this plant.
Another condition for Sansevieria to flourish which was met in Mr. Fisher’s case was the dense growth of his specimen, a crowded clump that completely fills a 12-inch diameter container. It thus fulfills another important requirement for the snake plant flower, which is crowding stress. Stressed plants are more likely to bloom than non-stressed plants since the former receive a signal that their continued health is at risk and they now bloom better to ensure their survival. So, if you’re patient and wait until the snake plant is ready to come out of its container — because of the roots that make it easier to spread — you may be rewarded with flowers, too, as long as your specimen benefits from a half-day of sunshine.
I also find it amazing that, as Fisher told me, he waters the sansevieria every day, even in winter. While last year’s over-watering is believed to have caused some of the interior parts of his collection to rot, the plant has responded by giving extra blooms this summer with only a slight reduction in daily watering. I imagine it must have a soil mixture that drains quickly as container plants that don’t need a lot of water will not be affected by regular water as long as the medium they are growing in is light and well-aerated. When it comes to choosing a soil mix for sansevieria, any bagged product labeled “cactus mix” will work..
Snake plants, whose habitat ranges from Nigeria to Congo, are a tropical species, yet their ecological niche is that of “dry forest” so they are comfortable with an intermittent irrigation regime. Consequently, they may spend several weeks, if not much longer, without any water at all, even if they would look better when moisturized regularly. You can propagate snake plant in three ways: Divide the plant clumps into smaller clumps and place them in separate pots; take the individual offsets that grow around the mother plant and plant them individually in their own pots; Take a leaf, cut it into horizontal sections, bury the bottom of each section in a 50:50 mixture of perlite and peat moss, and watch the roots and leaves develop from the base of each cut section.
California Citizen of the WeekCalifornia Four O’Clock (Mirabilis laevis var. crassifolia) is widely seen in Southern California, along the coast and also inland. It is also known as desert wishbone bush which refers to its drought tolerance and the fact that its angular stems resemble poultry bones. It grows one foot tall and eight feet wide and shows pink flowers from January to June. Like the more common annual four o’clock (Mirabilis jalapa), which blooms pink or yellow as it spreads with desertion of weeds, its flowers bloom in the afternoon and remain that way until the next morning, when they close. The desert wishbone bush is a wonderful eye-catching specimen but keep in mind that it undergoes summer dormancy so its soil must remain completely dry in hot weather. While searching for nurseries that carry this material, I found a nursery called simply Plant Material (Materials Factory.com). It has branches in Glacier Park, Silverlake, and Altadena, and has a few desert wishbone specimens in stock. The nursery is unusual because it grows a wide range of hard-to-find, drought-tolerant plants including many plants native to California as well as obscure species from Australia and South Africa that you won’t find in most nurseries. Plant Material also offers fruit trees, indoor plants, and a large selection of stylish plant containers as well as various garden accessories.
If you have a story to tell about the snake plant (Sansevieria), please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We always welcome your tips or successes in gardening, questions about any plant problem, as well as photos.