Gardening: Sansevierias just right for the growing challenged

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

According to the garden center trade magazine Green Profit, guys are getting into houseplants. So if you’re invited to a housewarming or other celebration and you want to bring a guy a gift, consider giving him a plant.

A variegated cultivar of Sansevieria trifasciata (namely 'Laurentii'), the most common species in cultivation

 If he’s new to houseplants, a Sansevieria would be an excellent choice as these African natives are often referred to as cast iron plants because they are so easy to grow, or as some would say, they withstand a lot of abuse.

Whether tall or short, all have thick strap-like or cylindrical leaves, so they’re a perfect choice for minimalists who don’t like fluffy plants that litter by dropping aging leaves. They’re also tolerant of low light, but also do well in bright conditions and can withstand irregular watering. Pros recommend allowing the soil to almost dry out between watering. These are good plants folks who travel.

 I had one that grew in a paper bag stuck below a window getting very little light and water and it survived for a couple of years. I’m not proud of the way I cared for it and today I wish I had it back as it came from my mom.

There are dozens of Sansevieria varieties on the market today and they range in size and shapes from tall, thick-spiked leaves to short rosettes of just a few inches in height, so if one gets hooked on them they are fun to collect. Leaf colors range from dark green to mint and yellow. Most are variegated to some degree.

If you have one of the taller varieties, you might hear a comment from a person of a certain age that his or her mother or grandmother grew that plant. One common name back then was mother-in-law’s tongue. The moniker came about because the leaves contain an acidic chemical that causes numbing of the tongue, lips and throat. So this is not a good plant to have around a plant-chewing dog or cat as those tongue- numbing saponins are mildly toxic and may cause gastrointestinal issues with pets if ingested. 

According to George Papadelis, owner of Telly’s Greenhouse in Troy (, one of the hottest of these collectable plants is the newer variety “Fernwood.” The thin tubular, dark green pointed leaves with lighter traverse bands rise just 6-8 inches in height and add interesting color and texture to an indoor garden. This variety does best in bright light and will thrive with some full sun, but it is still drought-tolerant so don’t kill it with kindness. 

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at detroitnewscom/homestyle.