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How to Grow Sansevieria Indoors or Outdoors

Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.

Sansevieria or Mother-in-law's Tongue

Sansevieria or Mother-in-law's Tongue

Sansevieria are easy houseplants to grow. They are great for beginners or for people who have not been able to successfully grow houseplants. They require minimal care and not a lot of sunlight.

What are Sansevierias?

Sansevierias are native to Africa, the island of Madagascar and southern Asia. They are only hardy in zones 9 through 11. Sansevieria are more commonly called snake plant or mother-in-law’s tongue. There are actually 70 different species. The most common species grown as a houseplant here in the US is Sanseveria trifasciata . It comes in two forms, an upright form and a smaller called a Birdnest sanseviera. The birdsnest forms are short, less than 12 inches, with curly leaves. .

More commonly seen are the plants with tall, upright leaves that can reach heights of 3 to 4 feet. The all green leaved plants are called snake plants and the gold bordered leaved plants are called mother-in-law’s tongue.

Sanseveria produce flowers, but they are tiny so the plants are grown for their foliage rather than their flowers. The tiny flowers grow in a bunch on long stems or racemes, eventually producing berries. In their native habitats, the flowers are pollinated by moths. Because the flowers are small in size and number, not many seeds are produced. Grown indoors, they will not produce berries because there are no moths to pollinate the flowers.

Sansevieria can grow from seeds, but they more often reproduce by spreading through underground rhizomes. The smaller types don’t spread as much but the taller types spread aggressively and can become invasive in the landscape in tropical areas.

A Birdnest sansevieria.  Note how the leaves are shorter and twisted.

A Birdnest sansevieria. Note how the leaves are shorter and twisted.

How to Grow Sansevieria Outdoors

If you live in USDA growing zones 9 through 11, then you can grow sansevieria outdoors. They are tough, easy to grow plants but their one non-negotiable requirement is good drainage. If they are over-watered or planted in a wet area, they will rot and die. On the plus side, their preference for dryness makes them excellent candidates for desert or xeriscape landscapes. The thick cuticle on their leaves prevents them from drying out in arid conditions.

Sansevieria prefer full sun, but will grow in light to moderate shade. If you are growing mother-in-law's-tongue, it is less likely to sport its jaunty gold borders in the shade. It needs sun to manifest its full variegation. Too little light can also result in weak, spindly plants.

There are three options for preventing your sansevieria from becoming invasive in your yard:

  1. You can dig it up every two to three years and divide it.
  2. You can plant it in containers which can be sunk into the ground up to their rims. That way, the containers remain out of sight while keeping your plants in check.
  3. You can surround your plants with barriers extending at least 12 inches into the ground to prevent the roots from spreading into surrounding areas.
Sansevieria flowers grow on long stems known as racemes.

Sansevieria flowers grow on long stems known as racemes.

How to Grow Sansevieria Indoors

Most of us grow sansevieria as houseplants. They are well-adapted to life indoors where light levels can be low. Your sansevieria will do best in a sunny spot but even a room with little sunlight is suitable. Use cactus potting soil or add coarse sand to regular potting soil to provide the drainage that these plants need.

Be careful not to over water them. Allow the soil to dry out slightly between waterings. The ideal container for sansevieria is made of clay because clay is porous so the soil will dry more quickly than in a plastic pot. Plastic pots hold in moisture which is great for plants who need moist soil but can cause root rot in plants like sansevieria which need dry conditions. They are tough plants but two things will surely kill them: too much water or no water at all.

Because they are tropical plants, they are very sensitive to cold temperatures. Keep them in a warm room away from drafty windows and doors during the winter. Temperatures below 50°F will injure or kill them. They prefer temperatures ranging from 70⁰F to 90⁰F.

Sanseviera will quickly outgrow or even break their containers. You should divide and repot them annually, always using a container that is shallow and wide. The plants have a very shallow root system. The soil at the bottom of a deeper container will retain moisture which can encourage root rot. You want less soil so that it will dry out between waterings.

A wide, shallow container will also provide stability. My own sansevieria is 4 feet tall and very top heavy. In a regular deep container which has a smaller circumference, it has a tendency to fall over. A wider container gives it a secure base so that it is less likely to tip over.

Repotting should be done in the spring. At the same time, you can fertilize your plant using a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10 or 8-8-8) that is diluted to half strength. You can fertilize again near the end of the growing season in August. The plants should not be fertilized during the winter when they are resting and not actively growing.

Sansevieria or Snake Plant with berries.  Although the berries contain seeds, the plants more readily reproduce using underground rhizomes.

Sansevieria or Snake Plant with berries. Although the berries contain seeds, the plants more readily reproduce using underground rhizomes.

How to Grow Sansevieria From Divisions

Although sanseviera produces seeds, it is usually propagated from divisions. When you repot your plant in the spring is a good time to divide it. Your first step should be to cover the surface that you will be using with newspaper or a tarp. This is will be a messy procedure.

To repot and divide your plant, run a knife around the edge of the container to loosen the soil from the sides of the pot. Turn the pot upside down with one hand on top of the pot supporting your plant so that it doesn't fall out of the pot and break. With your hand supporting the plant, pull the pot upwards with your other hand, exposing the root ball. Once the root ball is completely exposed, quickly turn your plant right side up and lower it to the newspaper.

Gently pull the plant apart. Because sansevierias grow by underground rhizomes, the crown may not come apart easily. You may have to use a sharp knife or garden shears to cut the rhizomes to make your divisions. Plant the resulting divisions in shallow pots using cactus potting soil or regular potting soil that has been amended with coarse sand for drainage. Water thoroughly. This is also a good time to give your plants their annual spring dose of fertilize with a balanced fertilizer diluted to half strength.

Questions & Answers

Question: Can sanseviera tolerate a freeze when grown outside?

Answer: No, sanseviera are tropical plants only hardy in zones 9 - 11. Weather colder than 50 degrees F will kill them.

Question: I've been told not to water the center of the plant because it will cause leaf rot. How is this avoided outdoors in the rain?

Answer: There many so-called recommendations about houseplants that are simply not true. Your question is one of them. Another one is to only water African violets from the bottom of the pot which is silly because, in the wild, rain falls from the sky, not from the ground. The answer to your question is that it is okay to water the center of the plant. The thick cuticle will protect it from rotting.

Question: Can Sansevieria grow in clay soils?

Answer: No, sansevieria will not grow in clay soils. They need soil that is well-drained. If you have clay soil, you can either grow it in containers or in a raised bed.

Question: For growing sansevieria outdoors, do you have to buy them specified for outdoors? I was trying to transition my purchased indoor ones to the outdoors and they’re losing color.

Answer: All sansevieria will grow indoors or outdoors. There are not separate cultivars specifically bred for indoors or outdoors.

To transition an indoor plant to the outdoors, you have to do it gradually. The first day, put it somewhere that is protected and has a little shade for an hour or two, then return it to the indoors, The second day put it in the same spot for a little longer. The third day, put it somewhere where it will get a little more sun. Each day increase the amount of time the plant is spending outdoors and the amount of sunlight that it is exposed to. It can take up to two weeks to successfully transition an indoor plant to the outdoors.

If you have done that and your plants are losing color, it sounds like they are not getting enough sunlight. Sansevieria needs full sun outdoors. That means 6 to 8 hours of sunlight each day. Morning sun only or afternoon sun only are not enough.

Question: Why not use Zone 12 with minimum temperature between 50- 60°F instead of Zone 9 with a 20°F to 30°F? You state that it is harmed below 50°F.

Answer: I can understand your confusion. The temperatures shown on the USDA growing zone charts show the coldest POSSIBLE temperatures for each region. The reality is that it rarely gets that cold in each region. For instance, I live in zone 6b which on the map is -5F to 0F. Maybe once every few years it gets that cold here. Our normal winter temps are around 30F to 35F. Zone 9 is considered sub-tropical meaning it almost never drops below freezing. Average temperatures are 50F and above which is why plants like sansevieria can survive there.

© 2015 Caren White

Comments

Caren White (author) on February 14, 2015:

Flourish, that's a wonderful idea. Share the wealth! Thanks for reading and commenting.

FlourishAnyway from USA on February 14, 2015:

Chefsref should probably email, Facebook, Tweet, etc. an invitation to all his Granny's living relatives with a link to this hub as to what it is, that it can be a houseplant or be grown outdoors. He should offer them some of dear old Granny's MIL Tongue. It could be like Genealogy meets Horticulture. Just an idea.

Caren White (author) on January 12, 2015:

Mine is also a gift! It has been happily living in the same container for almost 10 years! Thanks for reading and commenting.

Lee Raynor from Citra Florida on January 12, 2015:

I dunno,I may want to know how to get rid of this plant. I have a very large pot of Sansiveria that my mother gave me about 20 years ago.

My mother got the thing from my grandmother in 1938. My grandmother had already had the plant for 30 years at that time. So the plant is well over 100 years old. I have divided it numerous times, given away those divisions and planted some in the ground. Here in Florida it survives winter fairly well just needing protection from a hard freeze. So... outside I don't water it and don't fertilize it still it thrives on neglect.

Caren White (author) on January 12, 2015:

Poetryman, I'm discovering that foliage color and shapes are just as attractive as flowers. Thanks for reading and commenting.

poetryman6969 on January 11, 2015:

I tend to like plants with big, showy flowers but these are interesting nonetheless.