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What is Sansevieria?

By Britt Archer
Updated May 17, 2024
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Plants in the sansevieria genus grow in shrub-like clumps with broad, strap-shaped leaves. Also called mother-in-law's tongue, devil's tongue, jinn's tongue and snake plant, sansevieria plants possess variegated green and greenish-yellow foliage that makes them an attractive choice to many hobby gardeners. There are about 70 species included in the genus.

The appearance of each plant is slightly different, affording snake plant enthusiasts a variety of choices when picking the right plant for their household. When they are comfortable in their environment, the plants all produce greenish-white flowers, which grow on long stalks called racemes. Sansevieria plants produce red or orange berries after flowering.

These ornamental plants can grow up to 7 feet (2.133 meters) in height. Sansevieria plants thrive in well-drained soil and prefer full, indirect sunlight but can adapt to tolerate some shade. While snake plants tolerate and, at times, thrive on neglect, they are prone to root rot when overwatered. Letting the soil dry slightly between waterings can combat this problem.

Perennial in habit, sansevieria plants are considered evergreen in their native tropical climates. While snake plants function as perennials when grown in a tropical or subtropical climate year round, snake plants die off like an annual if left outside during cold weather. Temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) harm most snake plants.

In addition to their use as ornamental plants, mother-in-law's tongue plants also have practical uses around the world, not all of which are backed by popular scientific thought. In Africa, these plants are used for fiber. Some folk remedies recommend sansevieria sap as an antiseptic. Traditional medicine advises the use of snake plant leaves for bandages. The Asian art of feng shui recommends these plants to counter negative or draining emotions and energy.

Mother in-law's tongue has some scientifically proven benefits to health. The devil's tongue plant was named in a study conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as one of the top plants to counter indoor air pollution. As an air-purifying plant, sansevieria is known to reduce concentrations of the chemicals benzene and formaldehyde in indoor spaces.

Not all attributes of this plant are positive. Jinn's tongue is considered toxic when ingested. Humans only experience mild salivation. Animals, including dogs and cats, experience nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Skin irritation from the sap is also possible. A person should seek professional medical help if he, his child or his pet ingests any part of the mother-in-law's tongue plant.

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Discussion Comments
By Mykol — On Aug 13, 2011

I know a handful of family members who have had a mother-in-law's-tongue for a long time. Some of them might be from the same plant because my grandmother has split her several times and given them to anyone who wants it.

I don't have much of a green thumb and have never had one, but they must be pretty easy to grow. One of my friends says she isn't very good about watering hers, but it continues to grow every year.

Once you have seen the unique shape of these tall, variegated green plants, they are easy to recognize. I think the story behind their name is also quite interesting, and I am sure there have been many references made to this particular plant!

By honeybees — On Aug 13, 2011

For as long as I can remember by mom has had the same mother-in-law's-tongue plant. I think this plant must be about 25 years old now. She has planted it in bigger pots several times because it gets very tall.

I don't ever remember seeing blooms on it, but when I asked her if it ever bloomed, she said it has bloomed about 6 times over the years. The blooms were light purple in color and reminded her of a honeysuckle scent.

By shell4life — On Aug 12, 2011

My aunt has always been big into traditional herbal medicine. She grows snake plants for their antiseptic qualities, and she uses the leaves to wrap around wounds and speed the healing process.

When her son got all cut up by a big briar bush, she plucked a few snake plant leaves and wrapped them around each big cut. The leaf bandages help prevent microorganisms from infecting the wounds.

They must work, because his cuts healed up rather quickly. Come to think of it, he has never had a wound get infected, and he has had plenty of lacerations in his life.

By seag47 — On Aug 12, 2011

My friend who lives in Hawaii is able to grow sansevieria outdoors all year. She has a very tropical looking garden accented by snake plants at the edges. They provide a spiky contrast to the soft hibiscus plants in the center.

She sent me a snake plant as a gift, and she told me to keep it indoors in the winter. We usually set our thermostat at about sixty-eight during the cold months, and that is a safe temperature for the sansevieria.

We left our home for one week to go on vacation. When we returned, we found that our heat had quit working. The house felt like an icebox, and the snake plant had died. The temperature inside had dropped to 40 degrees.

By cloudel — On Aug 11, 2011

My mother-in-law has quite the sense of humor. She got me a mother-in-law’s tongue plant for my birthday.

I love the spiky, stark appearance of it. The leaves look like swords. They have horizontal dark and light green stripes, and they have a light yellow border that runs along the entire outer edge.

I was able to get a couple more plants from the new shoots that emerged. I simply dug them out and repotted them, and they grew quickly once they got used to their new environment. I may give some as gifts to my plant-loving friends, because there will always be more developing.

By OeKc05 — On Aug 11, 2011

My snake plant has stiff, banded leaves that grow three feet tall. It reminds me of a cactus plant, and the nursery I got it from actually recommended using mild cactus fertilizer on it.

I used a mixture of sand and potting soil when potting the snake plant. This helps prevent rot. In the winter, I don’t fertilize the plant, and I only water it once a month. It requires much less care than in the summertime.

Since it grows very quickly, I repot it every spring. It has a clump of shoots that needs to spread out to keep from splitting the pot.

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