A Stately Companion

by K. Bagby, Southside Master Gardener & Southern Piedmont Master Naturalist Back in 1995 I found a plant pot someone had thrown away. There was still a plant in it, sort of. Half a dozen brown things stuck up maybe half an inch from the rock-hard, bone-dry soil, but there were traces of green in two or three of the scabbed, withered chips that were left. I didn’t know anything about plants at the time—still don’t, but that’s another story—but thought it was the remains of someone’s snake plant. Always up for a challenge, I took the poor thing home and did the only thing I knew to do: I watered it and stuck it in the kitchen window, cheap pot, hard soil, and all.
This snake plant can take abuse but tends to be unhappy with too much love. Beware, its leaves are poisonous so keep away from kids and pets. Today that plant is out on my deck ready to come back inside for the winter. It’s too big to pick up anymore, so it’s on one of those little wheeled plant movers. It needs repotting again. There are five of its offspring scattered in the house and on that deck. I’ve divided it and given away its kids I don’t know how many times now. The two biggest ones flowered again this year. No doubt they’ll outlive me. Sansevieria trifasciata used to be the scientific name for snake plant. The name was changed to Dracaena trifasciata after advancements in genetic research. Common names besides snake plant are Mother-in-Law’s Tongue, Saint George's sword, and viper's bowstring hemp, to name a few. Erect, spiky sword-like leaves are the plant’s hallmark. These are generally dark green with lighter green or slightly silvery markings. Some varieties sport yellow margins or stripes. If your kids or pets like to chew on your houseplants, you might want to reconsider this one. Snake plants contain saponins, which are mildly toxic and can produce nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. D. trifasciata is originally from Africa. There are over seventy species and many cultivars. It’s an evergreen perennial that can be grown outdoors year-round in Zone 10 or warmer, but it doesn’t tolerate temperatures below 50 degrees very well. The stiff, upright leaves can be anywhere from a few inches to a few feet long and about two and a half inches wide. D. trifasciata is known as an easy plant to grow. It prefers bright indirect light, but will tolerate a lot less. It may not actually grow in darker conditions, but it’ll stay alive. Normal house temperatures and humidity are fine. These plants are shallow-rooted and thus top-heavy, especially when the soil is dry. This snake plant can take abuse but tends to be unhappy with too much love. Beware, its leaves are poisonous so keep away from kids and pets. One thing this plant won’t tolerate at all is overwatering, which will rot the roots. Use well-draining soil and water it only when it’s dry—you can likely go the entire winter only watering once a month or less. If you move it outside for the summer, keep it out of direct sun. e a little root-bound. One old timer used to repot his when it was so root-bound it burst the clay pot it was in. Repot in the spring and don’t use too large a pot. Propagating snake plant is easy, though it can be a slow process. The easiest way is to divide and repot a large plant or wait till new-formed leaves have developed their own roots. Gently separate these little clusters from the parent plant and pot them up. It’s fun to do leaf cuttings, though it can take months before you see new leaves forming. Cut a leaf or leaf section from the parent plant, let the cut end(s) dry for a few days to develop a scab or callus (helps reduce chances of rot), then stick it upright in a pot of sandy, well-draining soil. If you’re doing a leaf section, it helps to cut a notch into the end of the section that was closest to the root of the original leaf. The notch reminds you which end to put in the soil, and some sources say notching increases the surface area available for new roots. Either way, if the section’s upside down, it won’t root at all. Keep the soil moist, checking for root formation every few weeks by gently tugging on the leaf and checking for resistance. After roots start forming, you can start watering more sparingly, every few weeks or so. Be aware that a leaf cutting from a variegated plant will probably only produce green leaves because of a phenomenon called reversion. The variegated varieties of D. trifasciata don’t “breed true”—leaf cuttings almost always revert back to the basic green instead of carrying on with the genetic mutations that produced the parent’s coloration and patterning. So, if you want the new plant to have the old plant’s look, divide the old plant versus trying to propagate from a cutting. Some good resources for more information: Penn State Extension (Snake Plant: A Forgiving, Low-maintenance Houseplant (psu.edu) and the New York Botanical Garden (Home - Snake Plant (Dracaena) - Research Guides at New York Botanical Garden (nybg.org) have good articles on D. trifasciata. Our public libraries in both Halifax and Mecklenburg counties each have several different titles in their catalogs for houseplant reference and care. As always, I’m thankful for the Southside Master Gardeners and Southern Piedmont Master Naturalists, from whom I’ve learned so much. The Virginia Cooperative Extension Halifax Extension Office is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday. If you have gardening questions, you can continue to reach an extension master gardener or extension staff member by sending an email to wmccaleb@vt.edu or calling the Halifax Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at 434-830-3383. Be sure to give us your first and last name, telephone number and the nature of the call. The help desk phone is routinely checked Monday-Friday. Someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number.