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Bold beauty, full of surprises

It's the houseplant that most everyone has seen, but few really know. Meet sansevieria, the sturdy succulent that comes in a growing array of sizes, shapes and colors. Variety is just one of its charms.

February 01, 2007|Lili Singer | Special to The Times

YOU may know them as snake plants or mother-in-law's tongues, those leathery denizens of dark stairwells, dusty corners and windowless offices. Grossly maltreated, the plants seem barely alive.

In fact, these hardscrabble succulent perennials -- placed botanically in the genus Sansevieria -- can be a godsend to indoor gardeners. Few potted plants are easier to grow, longer lived or as varied in leaf size, shape and color. Interior designers have discovered the snake plant's many charms, and as demand for them grows, some remarkable sansevierias are showing up at nurseries and plant sales.

One of the largest collections in Southern California belongs to Norma Lewis, who has amassed about 200 species and cultivars that she coddles inside her North Hollywood home, in a backyard greenhouse and in protected outdoor spots.

Lewis, 75, began her collection with a family heirloom: an ordinary, solid green Sansevieria trifasciata that came from her grandmother's dining room in Boston. Her second acquisition was more unusual: a division of S. cylindrica var. patula received in 1978 from a friend who had bought actor Vincent Price's Hollywood Hills home and its contents, including some interesting succulents.

"I'd never seen anything like it," she says of Price's sansevieria. "It had long, stiff cylindrical leaves arching fan-like off a big, fat, dark rhizome." Lewis was hooked.

She then bought S. 'Bantel's Sensation,' a stunning cultivar with flat upright leaves striped vertically in bright white and dark green. 'Silver Queen' was next, a handsome hybrid with tall sword-shaped leaves that come up gray-green, then age to jade.

Among her rarest is the walking sansevieria, S. pinguicula, a slow grower with stilt-like roots and stocky rosettes of thick, bluish-green leaves with ferocious tips.

ONLY recently has sansevierias' sculptural beauty been fully appreciated and put to use in the home, where the plants' diverse looks add zip to a range of interiors. Leaves may be flat, cylindrical, club-like or spoon-shaped. They may be green, bronze, gold, pinkish, nearly black, blue or gray. They may be ornamented with blotches, banding, inky squiggles or tartan-like patterns.

The foliage is tough and fibrous, hence other common names such as bowstring hemp and African hemp. Depending on the species or cultivar, leaves grow singly or in clusters from underground rhizomes or above-ground runners.

The tallest species is S. stuckyi, with cylindrical leaves that rise like tusks to 10 feet. In contrast, forms of S. trifasciata 'Hahnii' stay under 6 inches and resemble bird's nests.

Despite these differences, all 70 or so species are native to the Old World. Most hail from Africa; others are from the Arabian Peninsula, Comoro Islands, India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

With so many homelands, it's no surprise that the plants' natural habitats are wide-ranging, from shade to sun, woodland to rocky cliff, sea level to high elevation, desert to tropical, arid to humid. Most are frost-tender, though, and do best indoors.

To keep sansevierias fit inside the home, Lewis plays it safe with the following regimen: a fast-draining soil mix with plenty of pumice; medium or bright diffused light; judicious watering that errs toward dryness; and winter drought, because almost all sansevierias hate cold, wet feet. Lewis hasn't watered her collection since late autumn.

Some plants are painfully slow to grow, producing no more than one leaf per year and remaining content in the same container for eons. Others are quite vigorous, and their chunky rhizomes can break through pot walls.

To protect valuable containers, grow sansevierias in inexpensive plastic pots placed inside the fancy ones, says Jeff Karsner, vice president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America. To prevent rot, remove the plants for watering, and never let them sit in standing water.

THE biggest challenge for serious sansevieria collectors, Lewis included, is sorting out the scientific names. Sidling down the skinny aisles of her greenhouse, she explains that according to a recent authoritative study of the genus, plants formerly called S. singularis are actually S. fischeri, and those known as S. deserti are now S. pearsonii. Even experts, she says, are baffled by the "messed up" nomenclature, a morass of duplication and dubious data that can make shopping for a particular species more difficult for the average gardener.

Complicating matters even more are sansevierias' chameleon-like demeanor. The leaves of some species vary radically in size, shape and color as they mature. Some types of sansevierias sprout leaves with atypical markings. The number of "new" sansevierias on the market confuses even longtime devotees of the plant.

"It seems like every time there's a deviation in a leaf, it gets a new name," Lewis says, adding that one plant can exhibit 12 leaves, every one different in appearance.

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