If you like having plants around the house, but don’t have the proverbial ‘green thumb’, then it’s time to grow a snake plant or two. Talk about indestructible – these plants should probably be called ‘cat plants’, because they have at least 9 lives. (Anyway, cats generally ignore them, and can be made a little sick if they do eat one.) So, sticking with ‘snake plant’, these really are super-tough, and definitely among the easiest houseplants to keep alive, and even make grow.
Although sometimes called ‘cactus’, they don’t have spines – just a sharp leaf tip – so they belong more broadly to the plants called ‘succulents’, plants with thick, fleshy leaves. If you want plants that won’t care if you forget about them for a few weeks, then decorate your house with succulents, and make sure to include plenty of different snake plants, more correctly called Sansevieria.
There are differences, and some Sansevieria are a little harder to grow, but mostly these plants thrive in places where other plants don’t. The tolerate dry air and dry soil, and lower temperatures than most houseplants enjoy. They like bright light, but are renowned for their ability to sit for years in a dark corner, without complaining.
Let’s start by looking at some tips on how to grow them, and then take a look at some of the more interesting types – you will be surprised at the range of species and varieties available.
How to Grow a Snake Plant
Soil – these plants will grow in any kind of houseplant soil, but being succulents they do best in a well-drained soil suitable for cactus. Don’t worry about changing the soil if your plant is new, but after a year or so, in spring, repot it into cactus soil. Do this when the soil around the plant is moist, so that excess will fall off without damaging the roots. Many people like to grow these plants in clay pots, because they keep the roots drier, and their weight helps to prevent falling over, a common problem when snake plants grow taller.
Water – this one is super-easy. Let the soil dry completely before watering. Then water thoroughly. Of course you are growing it in a pot with drainage holes, as you need to, so let the water drain away completely. Never stand it in a saucer of water. If the soil has been completely dry for a long time, you might need to stand it in water, but only until the soil becomes wet again. You can leave it in dry soil for some time too. How long? That varies with the season and light levels. In bright places in spring or summer, water as soon as the soil is dry, as the plant will be growing actively. In winter, or in dark places, leave it dry until you feel the leaves becoming just a little bit soft, or starting to look dull. Then water. That could be several weeks, so if you are going away for a while, water the day before you leave and your plants will be great for as long as you are gone, even if the leaves are soft when you get back.
Light – snake plants have amazing tolerance of different light levels. Despite what you have read, they will take direct sun, all day long if necessary, but of course you will need to pay more attention to watering, as dry leaves may become sunburnt. They love bright spots out of direct sun too, but they will also survive, if not grow much, in dark places where most other houseplants will soon wither away.
Temperature – although they look like plants of hot deserts, most snake plants will tolerate lower temperatures than most other houseplants. 50 degrees is not a problem, and if the fall in temperature is gradual over some weeks, they can go even lower than that. This makes them great for colder rooms in your house, and for porches too. Just make sure they don’t actually freeze, and keep the soil dry, and they will survive just fine.
Pests and Diseases – the biggest killer of snake plants is over-watering, so if you get that right, everything else should be cool. Sometimes you can get unlucky and find your plant with white, wooly stuff around the bottom of the leaves, or fuzzy white dots on the leaves. These are mealy bugs, and can become a persistent pest. Neem oil is the safest solution, a natural oil that smothers them. You need to apply it regularly over several weeks to be effective. A small number can be removed with a Q-tip dipped in alcohol. Also, if you stand your plant outside during warm weather, birds and other natural predators will soon clean up those nasty little bugs.
Types of Snake Plants
Almost all the many varieties of snake plant belong to just one species – Sansevieria trifasciata. The original ‘mother-in-law’s tongue’, this plant is also called St-George’s sword, and viper’s bowstring hemp. The last name references the use of the long leaf fibers in these plants to make bowstrings. The natural plant is a cluster of long, narrow leaves that are stiff, thick, and straight, with a slight curve from edge to edge, especially at the base. They taper to a point, usually with a sharp tip, and vary in length. Wild plants have leaves that are typically several feet long, glossy and hard, and with a khaki green surface covered in horizontal zig-zag bands of darker green. The leaves rise directly from the ground, growing off a short, horizontal underground stem.
Different varieties differ in two ways. Some have much shorter, broad leaves that are more pyramid-shaped, and often clustered into rosettes. There are several different forms like this, all called Bird’s Nest Sansevieria. ‘Hahnii’ is the most common, but others like ‘Black Star’, ‘Night Owl’, ‘Whitney’, and ‘Frozen’ are similar in form, although very different in leaf coloring.
Most varieties have the more typical long, upright leaves, which vary in their leaf coloring. Two kinds of variations can be found. Some accent or change the background color and the zig-zag color, often with pale, silvery backgrounds, or near-white backgrounds. Others start from the most common of all varieties – ‘Laurentii’, which has a yellow band along both edges of the leaf. In others, such as ‘Bantel’s Sensation’, that banding covers the whole leaf, with stripes of white, yellow and green from top to bottom.
As with all variegated plants, the yellow or white parts are doing no work making food for the plant, as they contain very little chlorophyll for photosynthesis. This means they tend to be slower-growing, and do best in bright places. So keep the bright spots for them, and use darker forms for darker places.
Snake Plants with Narrow Leaves
The other group of snake plants that have become super-popular in recent years are ones with different shaped leaves. These give us a much more architectural look, and some are so minimalist as to make us wonder if they are plants at all.
Fernwood Snake Plant – (Sansevieria parva x suffruticosa ‘Fernwood’) This hybrid variety forms an upright plume of narrow, curving leaves, with a really unique look that is fabulous standing on a table. The very similar-looking Sansevieria bacularis ‘is often confused with it, and often called Mikado Snake Plant. Names like ‘Fernwood Mikado’ often wrongly appear, but although similar, these are actually two different plants. See the picture below.
Pencil Snake Plant – if you love minimalism and simplicity, you will adore this Sansevieria cylindrica. The leaves really are perfectly round, and slowly taper to a point. Standing perfectly upright, the leaves of soft green will in time grow several feet long. Sometimes these are sold braided together, and you can continue the braiding as they grow, forming a solid rod. For the most amazing look of all, check out the variety called ‘Boncel’. It forms a fan or short, fat, rounded leaves, and does indeed look like a starfish half buried in the sand. Fool your friends and grow it in an empty goldfish bowl.
A Unique Snake Plant
Finally, for the ultimate in minimalist planting, consider the Shark Fin Plant, or Whale Fin Plant, Sansevieria masoniana ‘Victoria’. It forms a single broad leaf growing several feet long. When young it looks exactly like the fin of a shark protruding from the water. In time secondary leaves will grow around it.