The snake plant (Dracaena trifasciata), also commonly known as St. George’s sword, mother-in-law’s tongue or viper’s bowstring hemp, is a great plant for those who don’t want to spend a lot of time fussing over houseplants.
You see them in the mall and in the dermatologist’s office and in the home of a friend you wouldn’t trust to take care of your cat while you’re on vacation. Snake plant (Dracaena trifasciata) is a ubiquitous and hardy plant that can add a little ambience to your indoor space without being a lot of work and worry. In fact, snake plant seems to thrive on neglect, which is why it has remained a popular houseplant over the generations.
Snake plant is an evergreen perennial with long, stiff, sword-shaped leaves that shoot up vertically from the ground. There are differnt varieties, though most you can buy have dark green leaves with lighter green bands and edges, which make it look a bit like its namesake reptile.
Like aspen trees, strawberry plants and bamboo, snake plant spreads by rhizomes — little root-like structures (actually modified plant stems) that run horizontally, either under the soil or above ground, to an unoccupied spot where they send up another clump of leaves. In the wild, a giant patch of snake plant can be just one plant because all the individual plants are genetically identical to each other, connected by these rhizomes.
Although about 70 different species of snake plant can be found throughout Africa and southern Asia, the one we normally see in our accountant’s office is native to the dry regions of West Africa. Dracaena trifasciata is called by many names — Skoonma-se-tong, St. George’s sword, mother-in-law’s tongue and viper’s bowstring hemp (as it has been used throughout history as a fiber plant for baskets, ropes and bows), among others.
Caring for Your Snake Plant
In the wild, Dracaena trifasciata is considered an invasive weed in some parts of Australia, which makes a lot of sense, considering its extreme hardiness as a houseplant. Many plant care resources call them “unkillable,” which might be close to the truth, but like any living thing in your home, you’ll need to give your snake plant occasional attention — although not too much.
How Much Water Does a Snake Plant Drink?
The biggest risk with snake plants is overwatering, as they’re prone to root rot. Although they don’t require frequent repotting, when you do change pots it’s good to take into consideration that these plants do well in sandier soils. When you get around to watering your snake plant, it’s a good idea to wait until the soil is completely dry 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) down before giving it another drink. How often you water it will largely depend on time of year and the amount of light your snake plant gets. Dracaena trifasciata, like most other houseplants, rest during winter months, and don’t need to be watered quite as often.
What Kind of Light and Temperature Does a Snake Plant Need?
Snake plants do well with a variety of light conditions, both indoors and outdoors, although they have some temperature requirements — they like it between 55 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit (12 and 29 degrees Celsius). Basically, if you’re able to hang out in your house or in your yard comfortably, they should be OK, too.
These stout souls also tolerate anything from very low light situations to direct sunlight, although you should be careful moving a Dracaena trifasciata quickly from low light to bright light, as its leaves are likely to scorch. They are an overall slow-growing plant but grow more quickly in higher light conditions and more slowly in dim conditions. And if you’re keeping your plants in pots outdoors, it’s a good idea not to keep them in the blazing hot sun — especially if you live in the desert.
Snake plants have stiff, pointy leaves, so be careful not to break off the tip of a leaf — once a tip is broken that leaf will discontinue growth.
Dracaena trifasciata have been found to be mildly toxic to dogs and cats, so if you have a relentless plant eater in your house (they’d have to be pretty persistent, as snake plant leaves are very tough), snake plant might not be right for you.
Although pests aren’t a common problem with snake plants, mealybugs might set up shop in your snake plant. These are easily removed by touching them with a cotton swab that’s been soaked in rubbing alcohol.