Mother in Laws Tongue Plant – What a Name

This plant is searched for by many names… Mother in Law’s tongue, Mothers in Law Tongue, Mother in Laws Tongue Plant, no one seems to actually know what it is called.

Drum roll please…the official nickname is Mother in Law’s Tongue, it also has another nickname…snake plant, not very flattering to all the mother-in-law’s out there.

Actually, it has two other nicknames, viper’s bowstring hemp, and St. George’s sword (usually only called that in Brazil) but those aren’t as fun to talk about.

A Little Background, PleaseMother in Law's Tongue in planter

Sure, no problem.

The genus scientific name is Sansevieria and there are about 70 different species listed under that title. When people use the nickname “Mother in Law’s Tongue”, it could mean any of the 70 varieties.

The plant is native to West Africa, Arabia, Burma, and India.

There are no stems on this plant, just giant pointed (like a sword, snake’s tongue and apparently a mother-in-law’s tongue or maybe the nickname is because she is tough like the plant) leaves. Some species offer a green leaf trimmed in white, others offer a green leaf trimmed in yellow gold, some are all shades of green or grayish-green.

They range from about 6-8 inches tall to 8-12 feet (yep, feet) in their native habitat. Growing one indoor you can expect about 2-3 feet, 4 feet if you are lucky.

Anything Special About Them?

Yes, these plants have a lot going for them!

  • One of the best air-cleaning plants, according to NASA, read about it here
    • These are succulents which mean they release oxygen at night, perfect in bedrooms to help you get your zzz’s
  • I love that most of these grow tall, not wide, it makes them perfect in corners, between doors, anywhere you want a plant but there isn’t much room
  • Great for beginners, very low maintenance

What Kind of Care Do They Need?Snake plant in planter

These plants are loners, no need to talk to them or give them much attention.

  • Only water them when they are completely dry (as with most succulents) but especially these, err on underwatering
  • They like full sun (but not direct), if you put them in lower light, they are fine, just don’t ask them how they feel
  • Use succulent/cacti potting soil as you would use for any succulent, here are some potting soil reviews
  • Seriously, they are very easy to take care of, follow these instructions and this plant will thrive
  • These plants can get top-heavy so use a solid (heavy) pot/planter
  • Preferably use a clay pot that is wide but not tall (their roots are shallow)
  • When repotting, it is easy to do “the divide and grow way or the leaf way” to multiply your number of plants, it can be done other ways but these are the easiest
    • These do not need repotting very often, they like to fully grow to their pot and be root bound first. If roots are coming out of the drainage hole, it’s time to re-pot. If you forget to check (no biggie) and you used a plastic pot, the roots will cause the shape of the pot to change. If you used a ceramic or clay pot, it will crack. If you notice the plant is just not doing as well as normal, check the drainage hole.
  • If a leaf gets broken, scratched or something unsightly (it happens), remove the entire leaf as close to the soil as possible, this will be healthier for the plant

What Are Some Cool Ones?

Oh, there are some really pretty ones but unfortunately, some of them may be hard to find at your local nursery, I have seen most of these on Etsy and Amazon.

As I stated above, there are 70 different species that fall under the Sansevieria genus. If you want a specific plant, make sure to state the genus, in this case, Sansevieria and the species. If you ask for “mother-in-law’s tongue”, you could get any of the 70 species plus any of the cultivars but as long as you like it, who cares what it is called.

Speaking of cultivars, there are shorter (dwarf) versions that grow less to be less than a foot-ish tall. One called the bird’s nest trifasciata hahnii, golden bird’s nest, or golden hanmii was accidentally created by W. W. Smith, Jr. in New Orleans in 1939 and received a patent in the name of Sylvan Hahn in 1941. Wouldn’t it be cool to create a brand new plant?

The dwarf versions are just as easy to care for.

  1. Sansevieria trifasciata – Grows tall, dark green leaves with a lighter green/gray rows, about 3 feet tall
  2. Sansevieria trifasciata laurentii – Grows slower, was a cultivar, easy to distinguish because it has a yellow outline around the leaves, 3-4 feet tall
  3. Sansevieria masoniana – Has paddle-shaped leaves and is commonly known as a shark’s fin or whale’s fin, slow-growing, 2-3 feet tall
  4. Sansevieria cylindrica – Cylinder shaped leaves, sometimes called the African Spear, can grow 6-7 feet tall. Look how cool this looks braided! (4a).
  5. Sansevieria trifasciata Twist – Has yellow edges on the leaves and the leaves twist a little. This only gets to be about 12-16 inches tall
  6. Sansevieria trifasciata Bantel’s Sensation – Stripes going top to bottom of the leaf and they are white, about 2-3 feet tall
  7. Sansevieria trifasciata hahnii – Usually stays below 8 inches in height, makes a great desk plant or in an arrangement, has a goldish color around the leaves
  8. Sansevieria trifasciata robusta – Dark green with a lighter green stripe, these look like a shorter version of number one but still gets about 2 feet tall

9 images of different snake plants

Whew, That’s A Lot To Take In

True!

Here are a few more details just in case you wanted to know more.

  • Leaves from certain species have been used to make ropes and bowstring (hence the nickname)
  • This genus was named in the late 1700s by Carl Thunberg
  • The genus was named after the Prince of San Seviero, I wonder if any of his descendants know this?
  • Most plants grow taller via a hormone, if you cut off the tops, where the hormone is, they can no longer grow up. This can control how tall these plants get
  • The species will flower but they usually have to be at least a few years old and it is rare for an indoor plant to bloom (it can happen but it is rare)
    • It seems people who had luck getting them to bloom treated the plant very, very bad!  The plants had to be very, very root bound and they cut the tops off. The plant will bloom and try to propagate (recreate itself) if it feels in danger. By being so root bound that the roots could no longer grow and with the leaves cut so it couldn’t go up, it bloomed in a last-ditch effort to spread its seed and save its species! So if you want blooms, prepare to be mean!

They Have A Lot Of History

Yes, it’s always good to learn.

One thing I want to make sure to stress is these plants can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea in humans, cats, and dogs if digested. Don’t eat it, lick it, or suck on it.

Over-watering and being too cold (below 50°F-65°F) are usually what causes these plants harm.

As always, keep an eye on your succulents, they will tell you if they need something.

Here is an infographic that you can reference for basic care.

Questions or Comments? Leave them below, I love to hear from you!

12 Responses

  1. These are so beautiful! I live in an apartment with a cat, so I’m out of the running, but I know some people who would pore over these in a nursery and bring them to the perfect flower bed. I’m going to be keeping my eyes open now so I can look smart when I see one. πŸ™‚

  2. I fully agree with the points you have articulated. We have a few of these in our home. My wife always place the plant very close to the window so it gets a lot of light and she would always caution me to err on underwatering.

    When my daughter visited as one time with her cat on her tow, my wife warned her to make sure that the cat does not go near the plant as it could have adverse effect on the cat.

  3. Very interesting, and thorough information on the Mother in Laws Tongue Plant. That is a very suggestive name. I like that it is very low maintenance, and has air cleaning properties. It would work well in my bedroom for sleeping assistance, and I like that I won’t have to worry about a watering schedule for it. I may have to look around for one. Thanks for sharing, Tom

    • Hi Tom,
      Yes, the name is very suggestive. I’m hoping it got that nickname because both the plant and mothers-in-law’s are tough but…

      I hope you find one

      Please let me know if I can answer any questions.

      Thanks,
      Lisa

  4. I know this plant but didn’t know its nick name was ‘mother in laws tongue’?? That is a funny name!! I live in a small apartment so it is surely a great plant because as mentioned it doesn’t take much space and doesn’t need much care either. Above all, its ‘air cleaning’ ability makes it even more interesting. In Paris, we get poluted air and it is recommended to get air cleaning diffusers but plants are so much more attractive. Thanks for this very informative review.

    • Hi Anne-Caroline,
      I know, I love the plant and the name makes me laugh!
      Yes, these are perfect for apartments!
      Let me know if you have questions and I’m glad you enjoyed the post!
      Lisa

  5. Hello,

    First, I want to tell you that I laughed a lot while reading the name. To be honest, I thought at first it is a title for a funny article not related to a plant! It is simply a big WOW from me!

    I never imagined taking care of plants at home need all that effort and things to know! I always thought it is just water them every day and that’s it. Apparently I was wrong! This mother in laws tongue plant seems a great addition to the bedroom more oxygen is good for the body!

    But, I have a small question. You said “Only water them when they are completely dry (as with most succulents)” Does that mean I don’t need to water them daily? What happens if I overwater them? Do they need a bigger pot after a while?

    Thank you for this article! I enjoyed reading and learning new stuff!

    • Hi Mohammad!
      LOL, I’m glad it gave you a chuckle!
      If you have succulents, then only water when dry (not every day). If you overwater, it suffocates their roots and they could get root rot and die. It is much easier to give them more water if their leaves are looking a little wrinkled than to recover from being over watered.
      Succulents don’t need a lot of room, the pot only needs to be about 1/2 inch to an inch bigger than it is so, yes, they will eventually need to be repotted but not into a huge pot.
      Great questions! Let me know if I can help any further!
      Lisa

  6. Hi, I am from Brazil and I only recognized this plant when you mentioned the name St. George’s sword.
    I totally agree that Mother in Law’s Tongue is a way more creative and fun name!
    Your post has some very interesting facts about this genre. I would never imagine that one had to be mean to a plant so that they could bloom. That’s weird!
    Do other plants present this behaviour, or only Mother in Law’s Tongue?

    • Hi Stefan,
      I agree it is so weird! Plants are fascinating!
      Well, some succulents will turn red when stressed. So you have to be mean and stress them out! Again, they are fascinating!
      Let me know if I can help in any way!

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