These plants are almost impossible to kill. Here’s how to make them thrive.


Are you thinking of growing indoor plants? If so, you may want to start with snake plants (Sansevieria species) since they are virtually impossible to kill. The only way you kill them is by planting them in a container without drainage holes or using a soil mix that drains poorly. In either case, standing water will cause their roots to rot. However, on the plus side, as long as the water delivered to snake plants can drain through, they will thrive no matter how much light may reach them and can survive for weeks, if not months, without any water at all.

Snake plant gets its name from its leathery leaves that resemble snakeskin and come to a sharp point like a viper’s tail. Never cut off this pointed tip since, if you do, the leaf to which it was attached will die. The plant is also referred to as mother-in-law’s tongue due to its indefatigable ability to thrive under any circumstances. Although the snake plants you typically see are no more than three feet tall, there are 70 Sansevieria species and some of them grow up to 12 feet. There is also a dwarf (Sansevieria ‘Hahnii’), first spotted as a mutation in a Louisiana nursery, that grows only eight inches tall. It serves admirably as a spreading ground cover for large interior planters but is apparently a sterile cultivar since it has never been observed in bloom. The most commonly seen type is Sanseveiria trifasicata var. Laurentii which has leaves edged with a gold stripe, while Black Coral features marbled dark green to black foliar markings and Moonshine displays luminescent, curvaceous, silvery green foliage. African spear (Sansevieria cylindrica) has cyclindrical leaves up to one inch in diameter that can reach a height of seven feet. It has a distinctive look, a clumping collection of dark green pipes that fan out as they grow.

I am writing about snake plants after receiving a communication from George Fischer, who gardens in Hemet, as follows: “My Sansevieria put out one flower stalk last year and is now sporting three of them. I have no idea why it bloomed last year, but this year it may have been affected by my watering pattern. The pot is about one foot in diameter and is jammed with plants. I had been giving it about one and a half cups of water a day, but I discovered that the plants in the middle were rotting, so I reduced it to maybe one-half to three-quarters of a cup per day. I think this cutback may have triggered the blooming. The flowers smell like honeysuckle but no insects have shown any interest except a few ants on the flower stalks.” These ants are interested in the nectar, it should be noted, which Sansevieria flowers exude in copious amounts.

Mr. Fischer’s account is fascinating, first and foremost, due to the fact that his Sansevieria has bloomed since the flowering of this species is a rather rare horticultural event. In the words of the Sunset Western Garden Book, Sansevieria “bears erect, narrow clusters of fragrant greenish-white flowers in Hawaii, but seldom on the mainland.” Upon further investigation of this unlikely flowering occurrence, I learned that one of the reasons Sansevierias don’t typically bloom is that they are considered low-light plants, yet will not produce flower buds in the absence of a solid daily dose of sun. Indeed, if you want your snake plant to flower, you must provide it with at least four hours of bright light per day. In speaking to Mr. Fischer, I learned that his Sanseveria is growing outdoors, faces east, and would thus receive the necessary allotment of light required by this plant to produce flowers. Incidentally, according to the same, widely revered book quoted above, Mr. Fischer has no business growing snakeplant outdoors in Hemet since the plant is not supposed to be cold-hardy enough to survive a winter there. And yet, earlier this year, I received an email from Susan Savolainen, who gardens in Banning, and who also seems to have managed to coax flowers from a Sansevieria grown outdoors. Banning is only 20 miles from Hemet so there must be something in that area which, contrary to expert opinion, promotes flowering of this plant. 

Another condition for Sansevieria flowering which is met in Mr. Fischer’s case is the dense growth of his specimen, a crowded clump that entirely fills a 12-inch diameter container. He thus has fulfilled another important requirement for snakeplant flowering which is stress brought on by crowding. Stressed plants are more likely to bloom than unstressed plants since the former receive a signal that their continued health is in jeopardy and they better flower now to ensure their survival. And so if you are patient and wait until your snake plant is ready to burst out of its container – due to rhizomes that facilitate its spread – you may be rewarded with flowers too as long as your specimen benefits from a half day of sun.

I also find it fascinating that, as Fischer told me, he waters his Sansevieria every day, even in winter. While he thinks that over-watering it last year led to some rotting at the interior of his clump, the plant responded by giving him additional flowers this summer with only a slight reduction in daily watering. I imagine he must have a soil mix that drains rapidly since container plants that do not need much water will not be affected by regular water as long as the medium in which they grow is light and airy. When it comes to selecting a soil mix for Sansevieria, any bagged product labeled “cactus mix” would be suitable..

Snakeplants, whose habitat ranges from Nigeria to the Congo, are considered tropical species, yet their ecological niche is that of a “dry forest” so they are comfortable under a sporadic irrigation regime. Thus, they may go several weeks, if not much longer, without any water at all, even if they will look better when regularly hydrated. You can propagate snake plant in three ways: Divide clumps of the plant into smaller clumps and pot them up in separate containers; take individual offsets that grow up around a mother plant and plant them out individually in their own pots; take a leaf, cut it into horizontal sections, bury the bottom inch of each section in a 50:50 mixture of perlite and peat moss, and watch as roots and leaves develop from the base of each cut section. 

California native of the week: California four o’clock (Mirabilis laevis var. crassifolia) is widely seen in Southern California, all along the coast and inland as well. It is also known as desert wishbone bush which points 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 off pink flowers from January to June. Like the more common annual four o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa), which blossom in pink or yellow while spreading with weedy abandon, its flowers open in the afternoon and stay that way until the following morning, when they close up. Desert wishbone bush a fine eye-catching specimen but keep in mind that it experiences summer dormancy so that its soil must be kept scrupulously dry in hot weather. While searching for nurseries that carry it, I stumbled on a nursery that simply goes by the name of Plant Material (plant-material.com). It has branches in Glassell Park, Silverlake, and Altadena, and has a few specimens of desert wishbone in stock. The nursery is unusual since it grows a wide variety of hard-to-find drought tolerant plants including many California natives as well as obscure species from Australia and South Africa that you will not find in most nurseries. Plant Material also offers fruit trees, indoor plants, a large collection of stylish plant containers, as well as miscellaneous garden accessories.

If you have a snake plant (Sansevieria) story to tell, please send it to joshua@perfectplants.com. Your gardening tips or successes, questions regarding any plant problem, as well as photos, are always welcome.

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