Photo by Mary Henry: Planted for dramatic effect in an 18-inch-tall pot, this sansevieria towers at nearly 6 feet tall.
Photo by Mary Henry: Planted for dramatic effect in an 18-inch-tall pot, this sansevieria towers at nearly 6 feet tall.

Any writer will tell you: Probably the hardest thing about crafting a story is to come up with a lede (lead to non-journalists). One always faces an agonizing search for the attention-grabbing sentence that, coupled with the headline, tickles the curiosity and engages the reader, making it almost impossible to escape the words and ideas that follow.

I’ll get to sansevieria in a minute, but first, some background. 

Back in 1972, when, as a young writer, I walked into the Northwest Office of Sunset Magazine to start my career, I was expected to file travel and architecture copy, the occasional food story and fill the garden pages. In those days few people were writing about gardening. While I hardly knew the difference between a cedar and a fern, I had ample energy, plus, being the proud owner of a little cottage in Madison Park (where I still live), I was eager to learn by doing, creating my own garden.

Here the plot thickens. One of my jobs was to write the monthly Northwest Garden Guide. This was a four-page spread that had as many as 18 short, informative quick-read items on regional gardening. The formula was a snappy subhead, a strong lede, a cogent nugget or two about the subject and a zinger last sentence to catapult the reader into action. It was taxing, but it was fun!

Then in 1990, Time/Warner put me on television to do two-minute gardening segments for their network affiliates nationwide. I cranked them out with lightning speed to the amazement of my producers. “How does he do it?” Well, the old boy was merely looking into the lens and saying to the viewers what he’d been writing all those years in the garden guide. Of course, I never told anyone that … but it worked. Viewers loved it. Weekly, we’d hit as many as 120 markets, nationwide. Still, the secret was in the lede.

I look back on those days, and I think of how many times I pulled sansevieria out of the hat. This plant had so many virtues that it could be approached in any number of ways for a flashy, highly informative and motivating item or broadcast clip that would stop the reader or viewer and give them something that stuck. 

So, herewith, a few of the ledes with which, over nearly a half century, I have (hopefully) excited readers, or viewers, with quick information about sansevieria. I’ve tried to fill their minds with ideas and aspirations while filling my pages and air time with material. 

* Among the immeasurable riches of tropical western Africa, it’s quite likely that you’ve been looking at one for most of your life: sansevieria trifasciata. This soaring, statuesque plant, whose leaves can stretch 4 feet in height, has filled pots in hotel lobbies, office buildings and, quite likely, your ancestors’ living rooms for centuries. It’s commonly called snake plant, for its long, narrow, interestingly marked foliage. A less dignified moniker is mother-in-law’s tongue, due to the tough, sharp leaves.

* Any gardener wanting to sign-up for Propagation 101 need not worry about passing this course if sansevieria is chosen as a class project. Growing on thick, resilient rhizomes, all one need do is pull a plant with three leaves or more out of a pot, knock off the soil, cut a third of the rhizomes away and repot. Put the cut-away plant material in a pot of fresh indoor planting mix, water well and within a few weeks you see new shoots poking out of the soil and on their way to towering beauty. The plant pictured here is a division of my mother-in-law’s. She sent me home with it in November 1964, on my first visit to her house as I was courting her daughter. Like the tongue of my wife’s mother, the leaves are sharp, rigid, tough and indefatigable ... and also steadfast and loving like none others.

* Want to fill a dark spot in your living room with a pot full of live foliage? The Victorian era has passed down two no-fail choices to do the job: aspidistra (the cast iron plant) and sansevieria (snake plant). Both will flourish in a modicum of natural light, providing a burst of greenery to pull the eye to the gloomiest corner of the living room. Because sansevieria is so easy to propagate, maintain and find, it is somewhat taken for granted. Little that would matter to this undemanding old friend.

* Forgiveness has strong roots. Forget to water or feed most houseplants, and the Goddess Flora will punish you by letting them wither and die, provoking guilt that will stick with you through life. But sansevieria, that trusted old houseplant that is well known and beloved, will tolerate neglect like no other plant. Yet, give it a spot next to a bright window, regular watering and light feedings, and it will not only flourish, growing with vigor, it will probably reward you with blooms. Spikes filled with creamy tassel-like blossoms will emerge from the base of the plant with a powerful fragrance to perfume any room, delighting you and all visitors. If it happens to be summer when the flowers explode, set the potted plant out on the porch, in indirect light, but in a spot were hummingbirds can safely access it. 

* Take a deep breath. Is anything more sustaining than the feeling of pulling clean fresh air into your lungs? We all know about the power of trees to purify the air, but recent studies have shown that even houseplants are good air cleaners and oxygen factories. Since the early 19th century (likely even earlier), the African native sansevieria has embellished parlors with sculptural greenery. Lately, horticultural scientists have discovered that it is second to none in its ability as an in-home air purifier. It removes formaldehyde, xylene, trichloroethylene, benzene and toluene from the air. This plant is one of the few that removes carbon dioxide and produces oxygen during the night. I’m dividing the plant I have and spotting it in other places around the house, and I plan to see that each of my grandchildren has a plant for their bedrooms. Grandpa will help them name their leafy pet and teach them how to tend it and keep it thriving, yet another way to imprint the minds of budding gardeners and future Earth stewards.
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Hopefully this small sampling of some of the times sansevieria has come to my rescue to fill space with a compelling idea helps amplify its value. Now, go get a plant or, if you have one, propagate and share it. In the event you’re faced with a lull in conversation and you need a good lede, simply say, “I’ve fallen in love again! Know anything about sansevieria? I was recently reading the most interesting article...”