What is a Mother-In-Law's Tongue?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Mother-in-law's tongue or Sansevieria trifasciata is a plant native to the tropics of Africa. It has been grown as a houseplant around the world since the 1800s and continues to be popular for this purpose today, as well as being used for landscaping in tropical gardens. Many nurseries carry mother-in-law's tongue and it can also be obtained from other gardeners in the form of divisions of mature plants.

Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

Also known as snakeplant, this plant produces stiff, upright leaves with sharp tips. The leaves are evergreen and will continue to grow from basal rosettes throughout the life of the plant. Some cultivars with variegated foliage or leaves with light green edges have been developed for ornamental use. The plant grows rapidly, and will periodically produce sprays of paper flowers.

As a houseplant, mother-in-law's tongue prefers areas of the house with bright, indirect light, although it can grow in darker areas of the house. The soil should be light and well drained, as the plants prefer dry conditions. In the winter, when the plant is dormant, it may only need to be watered once or twice, when the soil is very dry. In the spring growing season, watering can be stepped up and fertilizer can be added. The plants should also be periodically repotted.

Mother-in-law's tongue propagates itself with the use of rhizomes, developing runners and sprouting new rosettes of leaves periodically. Gardeners can divide the plant or take cuttings, but divisions are the most reliable method of propagation. Divisions should be rooted in medium soil and given moderate water while they develop into mature plants. Mature plants can be split multiple times throughout their lifetime and used to propagate new plants to sell or give away.

The most common problem people experience with this evergreen perennial is overwatering. The roots are highly susceptible to rot and too much water will cause the plant to yellow, droop, and develop slimy, rotting leaves as a result of poor root health. This plant thrives on benign neglect and can safely be left unwatered, even during the heat of the summer, for several weeks. The low water requirements make mother-in-law's tongue ideal for low water gardening outdoors in tropical and subtropical regions, although gardeners should be aware of the potentially invasive nature of this plant. It should be established in a confined area of the garden to avoid the development of new growth where it may not be wanted.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


My mom has a Mother in Law's tongue plant. I have always been fascinated by the name of that! She had the plant for a long time and it grew very tall. It was a houseplant and needed to have support in the pot or it would topple over.

I find it very interesting that this plant is native to Africa. That must be why it has low water requirements.

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