Charmed Even by Snake Plants

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The snake plant is named for the net­ted pat­terns on its sword­like leaves. Even with­out the ser­pent con­nec­tion, many peo­ple find this house­plant dis­taste­ful. The blades are men­ac­ing in a sub­con­scious way, af­ter all.

Or do we dis­like it for what it rep­re­sents? The em­bod­i­ment of the 1970s house­plant phase or, sim­ply and per­versely, the one plant that re­fused to die. It was the zom­bielike sur­vivor in a dark, over­heated apart­ment where all the other plants had the de­cency to croak.

Mar­i­anne Raub, a florist in Old Town Alexan­dria, said she is re­minded of the one in her dad’s of­fice, and one thinks of a lone, mo­rose plant fit only for cof­fee dregs. “It’s one of my least fa­vorite plants,” said Raub, owner of He­len Olivia. “Very up­right and bor­ing.”

The sen­ti­ment is widely held and un­der­stand­able, es­pe­cially when you con­sider the most cliched variety, named Lau­ren­tii, with its thick yel­low leaf mar­gins. But what if we were to see the snake plant (also dis­dain­fully called the mother-in-law’s tongue) with fresh eyes? We could

start by us­ing its fancy botanic name, san­se­vieria, and think about the va­ri­eties on the mar­ket to­day that el­e­vate Lau­ren­tii and the ba­sic un­margined species, which is char­ac­ter­ized by green leaves marked with wavy bands in a darker green.

Mass mer­chan­dis­ers and in­de­pen­dent gar­den cen­ters con­tinue to sell a variety of san­se­vierias, al­though the lat­ter type of re­tailer is more likely to stock a more in­ter­est­ing se­lec­tion.

There are two ba­sic forms: the tall, nar­row-leafed va­ri­eties grow­ing to four feet, and low-grow­ing plants with wider leaves, called birdnest types. The plant’s ba­sic form is more clearly seen in the stouter ver­sions, with leaves in clus­tered growths that even­tu­ally fill the pot. If you were to re­move the soil, you would see the growths con­nected and emerg­ing from rhi­zomes.

Most snake plant species are na­tive to trop­i­cal forests of Africa and In­dia that get rainy sea­sons but are dry much of the year. That makes the plant sin­gu­larly suited to ne­glect in the home: A thick-skinned suc­cu­lent, it can go for weeks with­out wa­ter­ing and en­dures some over­wa­ter­ing as well as dry air and low light. For most house­plants, such try­ing con­di­tions would in­duce pest out­breaks at best. “You can feel that thick, waxy cu­ti­cle,” said El­liott Norman, a gar­dener at the U.S. Botanic Gar­den, run­ning his thumb over a leaf.

The plant used to share its lowly iron­clad sta­tus with an­other shade-tol­er­ant fo­liage plant, the as­pidis­tra, but that was back when houses were drafty and cool, said Norman’s col­league William McLaugh­lin. In to­day’s sealed, over­heated homes, the as­pidis­tra soon gets at­tacked by spi­der mites. The snake plant, by con­trast, seems in­de­struc­tible. “There’s noth­ing in the mod­ern house their ge­net­ics haven’t seen” in the wild, McLaugh­lin said.

I asked the pair to show me the range of snake plants at the botanic gar­den’s pro­duc­tion green­houses in D.C. Vil­lage.

Among the tall types, Black Gold is dra­matic in its con­trasts, with leaves an al­most solid deep green edged with yel­low. Golden Coral, which also grows to four feet high, is more snake­like, with retic­u­lated pat­terns, but like Black Gold it is var­ie­gated with a yel­low mar­gin. Just to con­fuse, there’s an­other named Black Coral, which is far less black than Black Gold.

Moon­shine is a light, sil­ver-leafed variety that ban­ishes all trace of the ser­pent. I also like Fu­tura, which is a stouter, lusher ver­sion of Lau­ren­tii.

Va­ri­eties de­vel­oped in the 1930s and 1940s by a grower named Syl­van Hahn are called birdnest types for their smaller clus­ters of wide leaves. Golden Hah­nii is a heav­ily var­ie­gated yel­low and green form. I find a variety named Sil­ver Hah­nii to be supremely el­e­gant. The leaves are a sil­ver-green suf­fused with faint green bands. The leaf mar­gins are a fine, dark green.

An­other in­ter­est­ing snake plant is called Ban­tel’s Sen­sa­tion af­ter its dis­cov­erer, Gus­tav Ban­tel. An up­right form, it has slen­der leaves that are heav­ily streaked in green and white. It looks more like a var­ie­gated pond iris than a snake plant, which counts against it in my book.

With all th­ese va­ri­eties and more, it is per­haps no sur­prise that some flo­ral de­sign­ers are be­gin­ning to take a fresh look at this work­horse. Rene Hof­st­ede is a de­signer in New York who is struck by the num­ber of new va­ri­eties avail­able in his na­tive Hol­land. Iron­i­cally, this staid plant can have a fu­tur­is­tic look. For a high-tech elec­tron­ics dis­play in Man­hat­tan called the Sam­sung Ex­pe­ri­ence, he put snake plants in 14-inch-square stain­less-steel con­tain­ers that he de­signed. “There’s a whole new gen­er­a­tion of peo­ple who haven’t had that ex­pe­ri­ence at all” with snake plants, said Hof­st­ede, owner of Mille Fiori. “There are a lot more va­ri­eties out there that are re­ally beau­ti­ful.”

Grown un­der op­ti­mum con­di­tions, the tall va­ri­eties are prone to flower. They send up a spike that is cov­ered in white tubu­lar blos­soms that are sweetly scented, es­pe­cially at night.

The plant should be wa­tered only when dry and fed four times be­tween early spring and late sum­mer, us­ing a sol­u­ble fer­til­izer at half the rec­om­mended rate, Norman said. It likes to be a lit­tle pot­bound, but it should be re­pot­ted in a slightly larger pot be­fore it be­comes con­gested. “When they get a pot full of rhi­zomes, they’re hard to wa­ter,” Norman said. If the leaves on one side are stunted, the rhi­zomes prob­a­bly are crowded in that area. He said he re­moves the dust on the leaves by hold­ing the plant in the shower for a few sec­onds. Like most house­plants, it is best re­pot­ted in the spring. Norman rec­om­mends find­ing a shel­tered, shady spot for it out­doors for the sum­mer months. Make sure it is in a free-drain­ing pot.

THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Snake plant Black Gold.

Heartleaf philo­den­dron.

PHO­TOS BY JOELLEN MUR­PHY — THE WASH­ING­TON POST; PLANTS PRO­VIDED BY JOHN­SON’S FLORIST AND GAR­DEN CEN­TERS

Corn plant.

Peace lily.

Chi­nese ever­green.

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