I’m a little taken aback by this week’s shopping list. I’m nursery-hopping to pick up a plant that has never stirred my own heart. It’s the ‘Sansevieria trifasciata’ or mother-in-law’s tongue. You can find it in virtually every sizeable plant collection, and one look at the different varieties of sansevieria lined up at the nurseries should assure you the plant is a favourite with other plant lovers, whatever my own predilections.
While you were sleeping
For some years now, we’ve known about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (Nasa) study on indoor plants to maintain air quality in space. The sansevieria featured on its list of 10 plants that can purify the air indoors.
For years, we placed potted plants around the house for aesthetic value. They were what the interior decorator prescribed. Now, growing awareness about their abilities to absorb pollutants has made them what the good doctor would prescribe. Sansevieria pushes the envelope further. At a talk held recently by the Paharpur Business Centre, New Delhi, on houseplants that purify air, one point came across strongly: Sansevieria releases oxygen at night (most other plants release carbon dioxide after dark). That makes it a sure winner among houseplants, especially for your bedroom.
Sansevieria is a genus of more than 50 species of tough plants. Of these, the ‘Sansevieria trifasciata’ is the best known and most visible.
All leaf, it is virtually stemless. These leaves are so tough, they stand almost vertical. The leaves end in sharp points and the fibre within is often made into rope, probably the origin of its other name, “bowstring hemp”. Each leaf tapers to a sharp end, and that gives it the common, though prejudiced, name of “mother-in-law’s tongue”. The cream-to-yellow variegations on the leaves also give it the name “snakeskin (or simply, snake) plant”. The best part about the sansevieria is that it is an evergreen perennial. It’s not a fussy grower and can adjust to different climatic conditions. That’s why you find it across pretty much half the world: in Asia, in Africa and right across the planet in the Americas.
The sansevieria does just as well in sunshine as in shade. That’s why gardeners often place it wherever reach is poor and in the “common areas” of buildings. It doesn’t mind direct sun and it doesn’t mind being indoors with artificial lighting either. It can withstand frost—but I’m glad to say it has some personality, and draws the line at snow. If you water your own plants, remember the sansevieria has shallow roots: Don’t drown them. If you’re going to keep this plant outdoors through the rains, make sure the soil has good drainage.
Rather than planting a few straggly individuals, this plant looks better grouped together. Your best bet, however, is a potted plant—in a tub at least 6 inches wide and preferably wider across. Young shoots can be separated rather easily from the mother plant and repotted separately. New plants can also be grown from leaf cuttings.
It’s only when I started asking around at nurseries that I learnt, to my surprise, that this tough shoot produces flowers. Outdoors, the flowers may not look too dramatic; but indoors, the tall profusion of white tubular flowers can look quite attractive. They also produce a strong aroma that is more obvious indoors. The white tuberose-like flowers are not too regular, though. Some growers believe they appear only in mature plants. Smriti Singh, who collects varieties of sansevieria, says, “The more crowded the pot, the better the chances that it will flower.”
The green cleaner
If you’ve been wondering why several offices have been sprouting sansevieria of late, it is because this plant can take the blast of the air conditioner during working hours, yet does not feel too hot and bothered when the cooling system is shut after the last worker leaves.
Plants such as the sansevieria are great antidotes to the sick building syndrome. Indoor air, especially in air-conditioned, enclosed spaces, is laden with irritants and toxins: formaldehyde, benzene and carbon monoxide. So keep the Rule of Four in mind: About four plants per resident should be able to ensure cleaner air in your home or office.
Also Read Planters’ Club earlier columns
Reason enough for me to go shopping for sansevieria!
The author is a journalist and writer of children’s books, with a passion for gardening.
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