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Charmed Even by Snake Plants

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Heartleaf philodendron.
Heartleaf philodendron. (The Washington Post)
Snake plant Black Gold.
Snake plant Black Gold. (The Washington Post)
Corn plant.
Corn plant. (The Washington Post)
Peace lily.
Peace lily.
Chinese evergreen.
Chinese evergreen. (The Washington Post)
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By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, January 31, 2008; Page H01

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.

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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.


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