New Light on Snake Plants
You long ago mastered the classic snake plant. No doubt, this indestructible go-to was probably one of the very first plants in your collection. You may even consider it old hat, today. The next step in your houseplant journey: explore the broader snake plant genus Sansevieria and its cool group of architectural plants. We think you’ll fall for their shapely leaves in sword, columnar, dwarf forms as well as their varied leaf colors and patterns. Pretty soon, you’ll be building a whole collection of these sculptural plants and posting them on #SanseveriaSunday.
According to The Sansevieria Book (1983), there are more than 70 Sansevieria species and most are native to Africa with a few from India and Asia.
“Ever since Sansevierias were discovered over 200 years ago, the horticultural world has been underwhelmed by them. Not a year goes by that anyone who is capable of writing a book about them doesn’t,” muses author Hermine Stover nearly four decades ago. Wouldn’t she be delighted by their resurgence today?!?
Sansevierias were named for the Prince of San Severo of 16th century Naples, Italy. We find it fascinating to know the plants were originally grown for the hemp fibers in their tough leaves. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Florida nurseries started growing them as ornamental plants.
Another fun fact -- in recent years, plant taxonomists reclassified snake plants into the Dracaena genus. While the scientists use this new name, we still call them by their familiar synonym Sansevieria at our online and retail stores. For a nerdy yet fascinating dive into the plant’s taxonomy, check out this video by Summer Raynes Oaks.
In a 2020 article, Gardens Illustrated magazine called snake plants the “Bear Grylls” of the houseplant world. It’s true they are survivors and thrive on neglect. Allow soil to dry between watering and take extra special care to not over water in winter. Also, avoid getting leaves wet when watering, and remember thicker leaved varieties need less water than thinner leaved ones. Fertilize snake plants during the growing season with an all-purpose plant food.
Although snake plants tolerate a variety of light conditions including low light, we find they grow faster when placed in bright, indirect light. Don’t get us wrong, they do adapt to famed low-light conditions, but just don’t expect them to grow as fast in the lower light.
Many also don’t realize snake plants don’t like temperatures below 50 degrees. So, if you live in colder climates, take care when transporting new plants home from a store and don’t forget to bring them back indoors from a summer patio break before temperatures drop too low.
In addition, be aware snake plants are mildly toxic to pets and can make them sick (nausea or diarrhea) if ingested. Thankfully, their bitter taste makes them not so enticing.
Five years ago, Barry Yinger of the United States and Robert Sikawa of Tanzania started collecting known and unknown Sansevieria species in East Africa especially in areas targeted for agriculture, commercial and residential development. They now have assembled 752 unique collections including plants, field notes and photos at Robert’s farm and are raising funds for a permanent site for conservation and research. Learn more about their important conservation work.
Snake plants are super easy to multiply, either by division or leaf cuttings. Check out our houseplant propagation blog post to learn more.
If you’re ready to explore more Sansevieria, here are some of our favorites at Groovy Plants Ranch.
- Sansevieria trifasciata is the most popular species with its hard, gray-green leaves and darker green crossbands. Within this broad group, there are many cultivars including variegated 'Laurentii' with gold-banded leaves, ‘Futura Superba’ which is a shorter gold-banded version, ‘Moonshine’ with broad silver gray leaves, and ‘Black Coral’ with darker green leaves and light green markings. There also are adorable birdnest cultivars with rosette shapes and a variety of colors. Check out 'Hahnii', 'Golden Hahnii', 'Star Power', ‘Sunny Star’, 'Black Star' and ‘Black Jade’. They’re so fun to collect!
- Sansevieria zeylanica features the classic sword-shaped leaves with mottled coloring in silver and green
- Sansevieria ehrenbergii features thick alternating leaf pairs that fan out. We love ‘Samurai’, a rare dwarf cultivar with dark green foliage and brown edges.
- Sansevieria cylindrica has cylinder shaped leaves that resemble spears. The leaves emerge from the soil in a crown like formation. ‘Boncel’ has fat, round, silver-banded leaves that are compact and eventually fan out. ‘Starfish’ has thick cylinder-shaped leaves that emerge from the center of the plant giving it a star shape.
- Sansevieria francisii is an incredibly cool and spikey snake plant with densely packed rows of leaves on its stem.
- Sansevieria masoniana is nicknamed ‘Whale Fin’ snake plant because of its wide, paddle-like leaves. Though slow-growing, Whale Fins can eventually reach impressive sizes compared to other snake plants. The leaves are beautifully mottled with patterns of dark and light green, and the leaf margins are often a pink-ish red. For rare plant collectors, there’s even a variegated Whale Fin.
- Sansevieria boncellensis is a dwarf snake plant with compact thick leaves. It stays pint-sized reaching no more than 3" tall.
- Sansevieria kirkii, also known as Star Sansevieria, is recognized for its tough leaves that sprawl out in somewhat star shapes. ‘Cleopatra’ is one of our favorites with its intricately patterned leaves.
- Sansevieria ‘Fernwood’ is a hybrid of S. Parva and S. Suffruticosa and developed at Fernwood Nursery in California. It features long, cylindrical leaves with green tiger-striped markings.