The mother-in-law’s tongue plant, also known as the snake plant or viper’s bowstring, is one of the most popular house plants around. They’re easy to grow, thrive on neglect, and are really quite stunning. Learn all about how to grow and care for them in this complete guide.
Mother-in-Law’s Tongue Plant
This well-known house plant is in the Sansevieria botanical genus, which contains around 70 species of flowering plants. This family originates from Africa, Madagascar, and Southern Asia, and is a relative of the Asparagus (Asparagaceae) family. Although they do flower, it’s primarily the foliage that attracts us to this superb, architectural house plant.
Why Choose a Sansevieria Plant?
The mother-in-law’s tongue plant is incredibly popular as a tender house plant. There are a growing number of varieties available, all very easy to maintain. They also have a unique structure that sets them apart from any other house plant.
This ornamental, evergreen succulent ticks an awful lot of boxes and is renowned as being exceptionally tough. As a genus, Sansevieria are tolerant of neglect and little watering. Basically, they’re happiest in conditions that duplicate that of their native environment. After all, their hard leaves have adapted to survive in the desert’s hot, dry conditions by storing water.
There’s always a perfect spot for this plant. Grow them in either shade or indirect sunlight, and enjoy the fact that they tend to suffer from far fewer pests and disease than most other house plants. Not only are they easy to care for, they’re also among many indoor plants well known for their air purification properties. Research shows that these plants remove toxins like formaldehyde, xylene and toluene from your home environment. All in all, this makes them a joy to own.
Today, we’re going to touch upon the subject of the mother-in-law’s tongue plant varieties available. Some are old favorites and are widely available, whilst others are much rarer and harder to get hold of. We’ll also look at the best sort of growing medium to use, feeding and watering, and propagation. Let’s get started!
- Sansevieria trifasciata – A tall variety with upright leathery, hard, lance-shaped, point-tipped leaves. The leaves are dark green in color with a white mottle, similar to that of a snake-skin print. Hence the common “snake plant” name.
- Sansevieria trifasciata “Laurentii” – Similar to the trifiasciata (meaning “3 bundles” in Latin). This plant has a golden yellow leaf margin with the same dark green leaves with white mottle. Will grow to around 1.4 meters when fully mature.
- Sansevieria cylindrico – Also known as the “Spear Sanseveria”, this variety has dark green, cylinder-shaped leaves that grow upright and outwards in a fan-like structure. Quite different to the other varieties, and a very attractive addition to any contemporary space.
- Sansevieria kirkii – Sometimes known as the “Star Sanseveria”, and a relative newcomer to the house plant market. “Kirkii” has the leaves as our first listed variety, but is slightly smaller. It will grow to around a meter when fully mature.
- Sansevieria metallica – This is a very rare variety with the same lance-shaped leaves, but these are mid-green with a beautiful silver variegation. The leaves’ variegation pattern goes from the base to sword tip, almost in lines. (Opposed to the other varieties’ variegation mottle which is horizontal).
- Sansevieria volkensii – A stunning tall variety originating from Eastern Africa. It has long, thin arching leaves which are dark green with a light mottle. Will grow to 1.3 meters in maturity and has the perfect form for a lone specimen plant.
Planting your Sanseveria
Use the Right Compost
All of the plants in this family tend prefer a slightly sand-based compost with a touch of vermiculite. This keeps the potting medium well-drained, and aids in enhanced oxygen levels within the soil structure.
Their roots are happy to be kept well contained—meaning tight in the pot. Repot them only when the roots are almost bursting out from their current container.
When you start to repot them, you’ll see that they’re clump-forming plants. They spread by way of rhizomes (which in Ancient Greek means “mass of roots”) or Stolons. This depends on which variety you have.
A rhizome is a main plant stem that sends out roots and shoots horizontally from its nodes. They go outwards and not downwards. A stolon is similar to a rhizome. These are stems also known as “runners”, which grow at the soil’s surface and form roots at the plant nodes.
All Sansevieria plants are repotted in the same way, and need to be left to dry out beforehand. I am basing the amounts I use here on a 5 – 7.5 liter pot. Should your pot be bigger than this, adjust the amounts of each medium accordingly.
First, mix together your compost with a few handfuls each of horticultural sand and vermiculite. By adding these soil conditioners you’re ensuring the soil will be free-draining.
Next, remove your plant from its existing pot. This can be difficult sometimes as it can be quite pot-bound, so have a pair of scissors handy to cut the pot off, should you need to.
Ensure that your new pot will hold the plant with a couple of cm space all the way around. Put some soil into the bottom of the pot and place your plant into it. You want there to be a couple of cm space between the pot rim and the soil. When you’re satisfied, fill the remaining space with soil. Don’t pack it in too much: keep it a little loose. Water in place and voila! Job done. It’s as easy as that.
The mother-in-law’s tongue plant can be grown from seed, but it’s more commonly grown by leaf cuttings or plant division. This is a much faster way to get results. Plant division can happen when you can see the root rhizome off-sets. Just detach these from the main plant and put them in a small pot with some of that lovely mixed compost. Don’t forget to give them a little drink.
Growing from leaf cuttings is a very popular and effective propagation method. First, choose a good, healthy mature leaf from your plant. Cut the leaf off at the base using a clean knife or scissors. Cut this leaf into 3-inch pieces. Make a note of which is top and bottom of the cutting: these need to be planted the right way up!
Leave the cuttings to dry out for 24 hours, while you get your soil ready. You can use the same mixture as detailed above.
The following day, fill some small (9 cm) pots with some of the mixed soil. Push a cutting into each pot (top end up) to around 1 inch deep. When all of the cuttings have been planted, give them a light water and wait to see them take hold.
The Sansevieria family seriously dislike the cold weather, and are not winter hardy at all. They’re only suitable as a conservatory or house plant. They’ll temporarily survive down to temperatures of 5C, but their ideal is between 18 and 27 degrees C/65 to 80 F. By trying to replicate their native environment, we stand more chance of raising happy and healthy plants.
On the subject of positioning, they’re just as happy to be in a site with good indirect sunlight as they are in a partly shaded spot.
Caring for your Mother-in-Law’s Tongue Plant
Watering and Feeding
Throughout the growing season from March to September, your plant will need to be watered more than in the winter months. When the plant is active, I’d recommend giving it a good drink every week. It’s important to let the compost thoroughly dry out before watering it again as they don’t like to be kept moist.
Water the plant sparingly while it’s dormant during the winter months. This is the time of year that they’re most susceptible to being over-watered, which causes damage and eventually death. Only water when the compost is really dry—maybe once every 3 weeks.
I’d recommend using a diluted house plant feed (as per instructions), once a month through the growing season. Just mix this into your water and give it a good drink. Fertilizing at this time of year will provide stronger, healthier growth. Don’t feed the Sansevieria in the wintertime because the extra nutrients aren’t needed during dormancy.
This species doesn’t really suffer any problems, other than overwatering, and leaf scorching if kept in direct sunlight. Any split or damaged leaves can be removed at the base of the plant using a clean knife or snips—new leaves will form in due course.
Mother-in-law’s tongue plant leaves contain poisonous toxins, (saponins), which can cause serious gastric problems if eaten. They’re toxic to cats, dogs, rabbits, and birds, so ensure they’re kept at a distance to avoid unfortunate mishaps. Remember to always wash your hands after handling your plant or soil, especially when preparing cuttings and removing any damaged leaves.
Pests and Diseases
Luckily, because of their hard leaves and tight base, there aren’t too many pests to worry about. Just keep a look out for vine weevils and mealy bugs. These can get into the leaves’ base, usually when there’s too much humidity. A suitable insecticide can be sprayed to eradicate any critters.
Best Companion Plants
There are so many house plants to choose from now, all of which work well with Sanseveria. I personally think that a collection of palms, such as the Kentia palm (Kentia forsteriana), Areca palm (Chrysalidocarpus Lutescens), and Parlour Palm (Chamaedorea elegans) are ideal. They offer diversity, create a tropical feel, and soften the aesthetic. Try adding the cast iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) and Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema christina) and you have yourself a miniature tropical oasis!
It’s also great to have a succulent collection. These could include the money plant (Cressula ovata), aloe vera (Sempervirens), Hobbit Jade (Crassula) and the fabulous ZZ plant (Zamioculous zamifolia). All of these will prove to be great companions to your mother-in-law’s tongue plant and are pretty easy to look after.
Have a go at creating your own plant collection, or even a Sanseveria grouping. Along with those plants listed above, they really are a pleasure to own, and easy to maintain. They create a living focal point that not only looks great, but also helps to remove harmful toxins from the air, keeping you healthy and happy.