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Understanding Habitat Origins for Houseplant Happiness: The Genus Formerly Known As Sansevieria

Articles: Understanding Habitat Origins for Houseplant Happiness: The Genus Formerly Known As Sansevieria

Spring 2024 

If you’re unfamiliar with the scientific name Sansevieria, perhaps you’ll recognize its nicknames “snake plant,” or my personal favorite, “mother-in-law’s tongue.”

In this article, I’ll share some background on snake plants, how to care for them, what makes them appealing, and tips from those who grow them—from a nurseryman in San Diego who sells rarities to a curator at a botanical garden in Germany who oversees the largest collection of any botanic garden in the world. These experts offer insights into every step of the sansevieria journey, whether you’re looking to grow your first snake plant, take better care of your existing collection, or maybe even plan a trip to see snake plants in the wild!

Adaptable, durable, versatile, beautiful, stylish—sansevierias check all the boxes. They grow in a wide range of conditions, feature unique banding or edging, and have an attractive upright form that fits any interior design aesthetic. They are one of the easiest houseplants to grow because of their low water requirement, tolerance of low light conditions, and slow growth rate. And rarely, if ever, do you have to prune them. Some even have wonderfully fragrant flowers.

Due to advancements in genetic research, botanists have reclassified Sansevieria as Dracaena, a genus native mostly to tropical Africa and southern Asia. (To prevent confusion, I will refer to the plants as sansevieria or snake plant, how they are still most commonly referred to, throughout most of this article.)

Becoming familiar with the conditions of their native habitats, though not essential, can lead to better care of your snake plant at home.

Dracaena ehrenbergii 'Dhofarica' (Oman). Credit: Rocksmith Nursery
Dracaena 'Blue Clone' (Indonesian hybrid). Credit: Rocksmith Nursery

“Sansevierias colonize a wide range of natural habitats in the tropics, from deeply shaded forest floor to rocks exposed to strong sun,” said Dr. Michael Burkart, curator and scientific head of the University of Potsdam Botanical Garden in Potsdam, Germany. Burkart is in charge of the garden’s vast sansevieria collection, “the largest of any botanic garden worldwide, comprising 650 accessions, most of them with documented wild origin,” he said. “These belong to 81 presently accepted species but also include several undescribed taxa.”

While the collection isn’t entirely accessible to the public, the university garden features a collection of 25 sansevierias in a planting bed within one of the garden’s public glasshouses, offering “a first insight to the surprising diversity in this genus, which is sometimes considered to be boring,” said Burkart. “Visit our garden to see the truth.”

Seattle-based Sara L. Chapman teaches plant care classes and has over 50 years of experience growing plants indoors and out in New York, California, and Washington. In awe of the beauty and drama of the genus, Chapman said snake plants are generally pretty easy to keep happy. All you need is plentiful light, a chunky and fast-draining soil mix (such as equal parts perlite, non-moisture potting soil, and orchid bark), a pot with drainage holes, and no rocks added at the bottom.

At the center of it all, a vigorous snake plant in the private collection of plant care practitioner Sara Chapman. Credit: Sara Chapman

‘Snake plants are succulents’

Chapman and colleagues on her Facebook group dispense care guidance on a wide variety of houseplants, but they are regularly peppered with pleas from plant parents on how to save their poor snake plants, or just how to better care for them.

Overwatering is the most common growing mistake with sansevierias, said Chapman. “People show a photo of a sad snake plant with maybe a rotting section of the leaf. There are so many ways for this to happen when drainage and watering are poor.”

She often reminds plant owners that snake plants are succulents, and therefore store water in their thick stems or leaves because they adapted to very dry, bright conditions. “They love and need to get super dry each time before getting soaked again.”

The Sansevieria hybrid 'Love Love.' Credit: Shiv Shankar Ash
The Sansevieria hybrid 'Rookie.' Credit: Shiv Shankar Ash

As for when to water, Chapman said to “keep feeling the leaves and the soil. Never water on a schedule. When the plant is happy, the leaves are very firm and upright. As the plant gets thirsty, the leaves begin to soften just a tad. Then is the right time to water fully.”

Chapman adds that many people treat sansevierias like thin-leafed tropical plants and try to keep them moist, “which is what they do not like.” Basically, don’t water your snake plant as you would your fern. She said to also avoid using “moisture control” soil and pots without drainage or putting rocks or pebbles in the bottom of the pot, supposedly to help drainage. “This actually impedes drainage because it raises the water table and tends to rot the roots.”

Editor’s Note  

When purchasing houseplants, we have an opportunity to support global conservation goals by supporting sustainable and reputable nursery practices. Many rare and protected plants are being harvested by poachers, smuggled across borders, and illegally sold online. The plants that are most susceptible to poaching are often those that have gained attention on social media. Carnivorous plants, succulents, cacti, orchids, and other rare species may be offered with little or no commentary on the plants’ origins. With 34% of all plants in the United States at risk of becoming endangered and about 40% of global flora at risk of extinction, those of us who love plants can take care that our plant purchases are from ethical, propagated sources and not wild collected. 

No little sips

Too little water can lead to a snake plant’s downfall, too.

“They heard that snake plants don’t need much water, so they might give them only a tiny bit of water each time, what I call little sips,” said Chapman. “Because very dry soil can repel water, this can trap water at the roots, rotting them.”

If a snake plant’s foliage has become wrinkled or has flopped over, it is too thirsty. “Water from the top and allow water to collect in an outer pot or wide, deep saucer. Let it sit there for perhaps half an hour before removing excess. Capillary action will completely hydrate the soil, until next time.” Again, Chapman emphasized, “never give little sips of water.”

Light is another issue Chapman often addresses. She’s seen snake plants grown in “basically zero light,” which she says makes any watering issues worse, because without sufficient light, the plant can’t process the water, leading to root rot.

“Dim corners or to the side of a window are not good places for most houseplants. Sadly, many social media posts, TV shows, and commercials feature plants in places in the room where no plant could thrive for long. It’s a pet peeve of mine and I always hope those are artificial plants,” Chapman said.

As I advised with begonias, resist the temptation to simply place plants wherever they look nice rather than where they need to be to thrive. To put it gently but firmly, houseplants are not decor. They are living things.

While snake plants can tolerate medium light, they do by far the best in bright light, Chapman said, and may even flower with fragrant blossoms if conditions and light are right. “Even some direct sun is fine if the plant is exposed to it gradually to prevent sunburn. In most cases you can safely add an hour a day.”

If someone wants to grow sansevierias but thinks they lack the ideal conditions to do so, Chapman offers some insightful workarounds. Overall, she said snake plants can tolerate quite a lot except for staying wet and being in the dark for too long.

“I prefer white light and advise that inexpensive daylight spectrum LED bulbs in a regular lamp close overhead will provide excellent light for foliage plants,” she said. “Optimally the light is on 12 hours a day, synched with daylight. But snake plants will thrive on even a north windowsill in the US in most cases.”

Read: Understanding Habitat Origins for Houseplant Happiness: Begonias, by Paul Lee Cannon

Is knowing a snake plant’s origin story important when it comes to care? “Yes, and this is why travel is so useful for those of us who grow plants. Seeing a plant in the wild and its conditions there is so educational,” said Chapman. “I saw a large stand of sansevierias in central Mexico, growing on an exposed bank, super dry and sunny. They didn’t look too happy but they were huge and well established. So they can take light, they can take drought. And what they can tolerate is a good guide to what they like.”

‘Like fertilizer to the soul’

James Chambers owns Rocksmith Nursery in San Diego and has been growing snake plants for 25 years. With sansevierias, he finds joy in the plant form itself. “The array of colors, leaf forms, and growth habits are all beneficial to the mind,” said Chambers. “There are always signs of new life in the emergence of offsets, so it is very encouraging to grow them. The breaking up of the soil surface and the emergence of offsets is like fertilizer to the soul, and it instills a great sense of hope.”

For the true sansevieria lover, he said, there really aren’t any drawbacks in growing the species except for maybe getting poked by the pointy foliage. “Some of the plants have extremely sharp leaf tips and contact with those is painful, but after many years of working with them, the hands are trained to avoid them.”

Snake plants are touted so much for their dramatic foliage that the fact that they flower is often overlooked. Chambers said he considers the blooms a magnificent bonus.

An undescribed species from Uganda, Dracaena raffillii complex. Credit: University of Potsdam Botanical Garden
The buds of Dracaena bacularis. Credit: University of Potsdam Botanical Garden

“The plants can bloom and produce an intoxicating fragrance, which is wonderful and more prominent at night when the humidity is higher,” he said. “The inflorescence has another added benefit in that it disrupts the meristem, or growth point, which forces the plant to produce offsets. This is particularly important with plants that do not offset that frequently.”

Burkart of the University of Potsdam Botanical Garden also attests to the excitement of a sansevieria in flower.

“The inflorescence takes several weeks to develop, which is interesting to watch. Individual flowers only last one single night, opening in the evening and wilting in the morning, but large inflorescences with many flowers can last for two weeks or more opening the flowers subsequently,” he said. “Open flowers exude a strong, sweet fragrance, which differs between species.”

Chambers said he is often asked, “why a plant looks so bad and what has happened to it?” Unlike Chapman, who pointed to overwatering as the usual culprit of a failing snake plant, his experience has been quite the opposite. “In my observations, 99 percent of all problems are a result of under-watering,” he said. “So the answer to the ‘poor-looking sansevieria’ question is always followed up by ‘When was the last time you watered?’”

Dracaena bed featuring D. volkensii, D. concinna, D. powellii and D. conspicua. Credit: University of Potsdam Botanical Garden.
Several species of snake plant up close in a planting bed. Credit: University of Potsdam Botanical Garden.

The appearance of an under-watered sansevieria can look just like an overwatered sansevieria, he said, with the exception of soil moisture. “We always ask people to stick their fingers in the soil and see how dry it is, and, sure enough—dry, dry, dry, Delilah!”

Since sansevierias can grow in way-less-than-ideal conditions, said Chambers, he encourages potential owners to choose a plant that is on the hardier end of the scale and give it the best care they can and the best location in the less-than-ideal setting. “After growing the plant for a while, any of the conditions that can be changed, if necessary, should be changed or improved.”

When considering how native habitat affects the care of the plants they sell, “we do include the country or countries of origin if possible, but it may not be a helpful factor at all depending upon the person and their growing conditions,” he said. “I think it is important to understand where a plant is from, but much more important that the plant grower understands what is needed for the optimum plant care in their particular climate.”

Read: Understanding Habitat Origins for Houseplant Happiness: Philodendrons

By: Paul Lee Cannon

Philodendrons are immensely popular houseplants because of their ease of care, eye-popping foliage variety, and design versatility. Most philos have similar watering, lighting, feeding and temperature needs, making them a great go-to for novice and advanced houseplant owners alike.

Read More

Good to know, good to grow

Keep in mind that snake plants are succulents, so you don’t have to water them as much as you would thin-leaved tropical plants.

If moving a snake plant from low light to bright, do it gradually—a few hours a day at first allowing it to acclimate. This will avoid scorching.

To prevent root rot, water way less during the winter and avoid cold drafts.

Baby your plant’s pointed tips. A broken tip may hinder leaf growth.

Snake plants like being root-bound and can live in the same pot for many years if you top them off with a bit of fresh soil once a year.

Snake plants, and all plants for that matter, are not decor. While they are low-maintenance plants, they do require some specific care in order to thrive.

Care tips

Light: Give it as much as you can. Snake plants tolerate low light but need at least moderate light to grow. Protect from direct sun in summer. The more light they get, the more likely they are to bloom. I’ve grown a snake plant in a dark bathroom and dim bedroom corner, but the plant was much happier when I moved it in front of a sunny window with a sheer curtain.

Water: Keep in mind what Sara Chapman said to avoid root rot: “No little sips.” Water thoroughly when the top few inches of soil are dry to the touch and discard the run-off water after 15–30 minutes. I’ve gone as long as a month between waterings during the winter months, and my snake plants have not complained.

Humidity and temperature: Average household humidity is fine. Since snake plants are tropical, they prefer temps between 65–80°F (18–27°C).

Soil: Loose and fast draining. Be sure your pot has a drainage hole.

Feeding: Not much needed, really. I feed my plants liquid fertilizer diluted in rainwater generally once a month, and only in spring and summer.

Styling: Sansevierias have an upright, sword-like structure, which makes them a popular choice for contemporary interior spaces and where space is limited. They fit in everywhere and look fabulous in just about any pot you put them in. So beautiful, versatile, and easy care!

Give these a grow

Credit: Paul Lee Cannon

Variegated snake plant (Dracaena trifasciata ‘Laurentii’): The most ubiquitous variety with its sword-like, mottled green foliage outlined in yellow. Up to four feet tall.

Credit: Paul Lee Cannon

Spear sansevieria (D. angolensis, previously Sansevieria cylindrica): Also known as cylindrical snake plant or African spear. Striped, spiky foliage. Can reach seven feet tall.

Credit: Shiv Shankar Ash

Baseball bat snake plant (D. hallii): Beautiful sculptural quality with thick, blue-gray, semicylindrical foliage. Slow grower.

Credit: Paul Lee Cannon

Whale fin snake plant (D. masoniana): Wider upright foliage that resembles whale fins. Splotchy bright-green pattern. Up to four feet tall.

Credit: Rocksmith Nursery

Pearson’s dracaena (D. pearsonii): Long, stiff, ribbed, spiky foliage. A rare beauty that can reach four feet tall.

Credit: Shiv Shankar Ash

Dracaena singularis (previously S. fischeri): Attractive upright form with thick, silvery-white leaves.

Credit: Rocksmith Nursery

Phillips’ dracaena (D. phillipsiae): Thick, spiky leaves form a large, flat fan. Showy and rare.


“An important factor in determining the suitability of a plant to your home and envisioning the care it will need, is to know the origin of the plant,” according to the New York Botanical Garden’s entry on Dracaena, an excellent resource for the home snake plant grower.

University of Potsdam Botanical Garden

Ultimate Snake Plant Care Guide” video by Summer Rayne Oakes on her channel, Plant One On Me.

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