My grandmother grew them, and I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that yours did too. Sansevierias, or as my gardening granny, Grandmother Reba, called them, “mother-in-law’s tongue” (aka “snakeplant,” even “grandmother’s plant” and “leopard lily”) have been kicking around parlors and in more than a few office cubbies since the dawn of time.

In fact this ubiquitous plant has been around so long, is so tough and undemanding, staying green and growing no matter what, that it simply seemed to fall off the radar screen of possible houseplants. Sansevierias may have something to offer today’s gardeners, however, even those not in possession of a “brown thumb.” Though some would assign this dinosaur to the auspices of the Smithsonian, let’s take another look at what is actually a downright dandy plant.

One of the “hottest” plants at a recent Florida Nurserymen and Growers Association’s Tropical Plant Industry Exhibition (quite a mouthful) was an other-worldly Sansevieria called “Cylindrica” that elicited more than a few double-takes. Looking like a cross between a javelin, a punk rocker and a plant, the offspring was a rather lethal-looking, cool dude of greenery consisting of a series of green spikes.

Cool-factor aside, Sansevierias have proved their mettle, and were named office plant of the year by the Dutch National Health Institute NIGZ. Considering the criteria involved and the actual benefits these unassuming  plants can deliver to the average office (or home for that matter) space, it is indeed quite an achievement. But there’s more.

Interiorscapers love Sansevierias. Just ask Bill Boyd of the Boyd’s Nursery in Loxahatchee, Fla.

“I just came back from Europe, and I see Sansevierias used everywhere,” Boyd said. “Interiorscapers don’t have to change them out like they do other plants. They don’t drop their leaves, don’t have sharp points and are great around children. And they are one of the best (indoor) plants to remove toxins from the air.”

Just give them good drainage and Sansevierias are good to go.

“This is a very good plant,” Boyd said, and he offered a check list of Sansevieria’s strong suits:

1. It is very drought tolerant
2. It is extremely pest resistant
3. It adapts well to full sun and low light conditions

Add to that tally the many different leaf lengths, patterns and colors now available, and today’s mother-in-law’s tongue isn’t your run-of-the-mill plant.

“This is a plant we’ve grown for 35 years,” Boyd said, admitting he is an unabashed fan of Sansevierias of which Boyd Nurseries grows some two dozen varieties, short and tall. “We only water them in times of drought.”

Native to Africa, Sansevierias are not fast-growing plants, but can slowly creep out of bounds if not contained, Boyd said. A popular interior and exterior use of the short varieties of Sansevierias is as a foundation cover in large planters, especially when combined with other tall plants. Their “sculptural” nature makes them an attractive contrast plant in many ornamental designs.

While we may think of them as solely ornamental, there was a time when Sansevierias were studied for practical uses. In particular the fiber they contain was considered by the U.S. War Department in the 1940s. In that study, a U.S. Department of Agriculture project, Sansevierias were considered for cordage and ropes. The fibers are very similar to sisal, though neither the War Department nor the USDA pursued this use after the initial investigations.

True to their tough nature, Sansevierias are able to tolerate periods of extreme heat and humidity. But being succulent plants, they cannot tolerate rapid temperature changes. With new varieties, leaf form and color combinations being developed, maybe these tough old birds might be your houseplant of choice today.

Sansevieria: office VIP

One very important plant, or more precisely office plant of the year recently, the lowly mother-in-law’s tongue bested a group of other indoor air-purifying plants including Calathea, Epiprenum, Dracaena and Schefflera to win the top honors.

Researchers of a new project, “Quantification of Carbon Assimilation in Interiorscape Plants,” aka: Project Carbon funded by the National Foliage Foundation, just released preliminary results from the first of three planned phases of the project. More than 200 4-inch plants (including Ficus benjamina, pothos, philodendron, sansevieria, aglaonema and spathiphyllum) were studied and they found that the plants clearly fix carbon. NFF reports, “In addition, since plants absorb carbon dioxide as a molecule, there is a positive impact on the environment by the CO2 removal, and not just carbon.”

Sansevieria’s ability to purify the air plus its overall practical application in the workplace (or home for that matter), prompted the Dutch National Health Institute NIGZ to note that “not only is the Sansevieria air purifying, but it’s also nearly indestructible. Sansevieria requires so little care that it is bound to survive and continue to look good.”

According to the group, the jury also found the sleek form of the plant shows up well in modern office surroundings. Sansevieria in its many guises and pot sizes is perfect for work or home and particularly good by the computer where research has shown it is helpful in making users feel well and focused. Here are some benefits of plants such as Sansevierias in the workplace and some facts about toxins:

• Plants purify the air by absorbing toxins
• Toxins are given off by man-made materials and products such as glues, deodorants, perfumes and even people
• Man-made materials emit toxins for their lifetimes
• People today contain 100 more chemicals in their bodies now than their grandparents did
• We breathe between five and six liters of air per minute – 15,000 liters per day
• Plants make us feel good
• Plants keep us calm and focused
• Plants refresh the air with oxygen

Reducing stress, enhancing employee attitudes, increasing productivity and improving air quality — all pretty tall orders for a lowly little plant. But it would appear that Sansevierias can stand up to the pressure.

Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award and the Florida Magazine Association’s Silver Award of Writing Excellence. She is a member of the Garden Writers Association. She gardens in Camden.