I begin this column fresh from the thankless task that is repotting a large sansevieria or snake plant. As soon as I hauled the inner plastic pot from its china cachepot, I knew there would be trouble: the beast had put on so much growth that the plastic was bulging alarmingly on one side. Sansevierias like to be a bit ‘snug’ in their pots, but I feared things had gone too far in this case, and my only option would be to cut the pot away from the rootball. After much huffing and puffing, though, I managed to prize off the plastic in one piece with a huge heave. And there was, literally, the root of the problem: compost was matted with orange roots, and a forest of pups pushed up from the rhizomes below.
Sansevierias are the Bear Grylls of the houseplant world, able to survive in the most unpromising of environments. They will live for decades as the dusty hatstands of the houseplant world: no one can quite remember how they got there or what to do with them, but can’t bring themselves to dump the poor things. In her brilliantly eccentric book on the subject, The Sansevieria Book, Hermine Stover writes: ‘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.’ Stover attributes the snake plant’s ability to melt into the background to its toughness – and the fact sansevieria growers have no idea how wonderful a carefully tended snake plant can look. She’s right. Given the odd shaft of sunlight and a splash of water every couple of weeks from spring to autumn, a sansevieria will reward you with a sculptural form and, at a schedule known only to itself, scented flowers.
Almost four decades on from the publication of Stover’s book, Instagram has done these succulents a lot of good. Search for #SansevieriaSunday and you’ll scroll through snake plants, from the squat bird’s nest-shaped Sansevieria trifasciata (soon to be Dracaena trifasciata – taxonomists have recently moved Sansevieria to the genus Dracaena, but this news has yet to reach social media) cultivar ‘Golden Hahnii’ to the tall, elegant spears of Sansevieria cylindrica (Dracaena angolensis). In the past it was hard to source anything other than the ubiquitous Sansevieria trifasciata and its gold-edged variety laurentii (Dracaena trifasciata ‘Laurentii’), but now, once-obscure cultivars are being propagated to satisfy the growing demand. I own several. My favourite is the variegated form of Sansevieria metallica (Dracaena zebra), with its leaves striped in silver and cream, but my wish list is long, topped by the whale fin snake plant, Sansevieria masoniana (Dracaena masoniana) usually sold as a single, preposterously wide leaf.
Sansevierias are often recommended for low light conditions, which is unusual for a succulent native to Africa. Yes, it will survive in the half light under your hall table, but sansevierias will thrive in bright light with a few hours of sun, and will reproduce most rapidly when given plenty of summer heat. The only way to really kill this plant is to let rot set in, by leaving it in an unheated room and watering it often during winter months. So, don’t let familiarity breed contempt for sansevierias, and keep them in pride of place in a sunny windowsill. You will be rewarded with bulging pots of the stuff.
How to propagate sansevierias in water
If you’re not the kind to buy cut flowers, why not enjoy a vase full of Sansevieria leaves instead? Cutting away a leaf of any species from the parent plant and allowing the cut to callus over for a couple of days before placing the cut end in a glass of water on a bright windowsill will, within weeks or months, produce a rooted cutting that can be grown on in gritty compost. One caveat: variegated types will revert back to their green ancestry, so to propagate these the best approach is to remove the plant’s offsets, or pups, when repotting.