Wild South Florida — Mother-in-Law's Tongue
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Mother-in-Law's Tongue
mother in law's tongue
Mother-in-law's tongue, photographed west of Delray Beach near Military Trail.
mother in law's tongue

There might not be an easier house plant in the world to grow than mother-in-law's tongue, aka Sanseviera hyacinthoides. It is made to take abuse and not just survive, but thrive. Which is great when it's a house plant, not so great when it makes its way into the wild.

It will send out shoots via rhizomes, or underground stems, and form dense patches that crowd out native plants. Mother-in-law's tongue is also commonly known as snakeplant and by the United States Department of Agriculture as viper's bowstring hemp.

Mother-in-law's tongue is not native to Florida or in fact anywhere in the western hemisphere, hailing instead from Zimbabwe and other parts of southern Africa. It is only found growing in the wild in Florida among the 48 contiguous states, and only from Central Florida south. Florida considers it a Category II invasive, meaning it has yet to do any environmental damage, but is spreading and bears watching.

The plant puts out blade-like leaves that are sharply pointed at the end and as tall as three feet. The leaves vary in color, some dark green, others light, with mottled yellow or white bands. We've seen it grow in deep shade (photo above) and we've seen it in full sun (photo to the left), apparently doing well in both. White and whispy flowers grow from a long spike. It produces a small red berry.

Mother-in-law's tongue is extremely fibrous, and for centuries, it was used for making cords and ropes, baskets, bowstrings and similar products. It still is in parts of Africa.

Its ability to thrive under tough conditions, plus its attractive foliage accounts for its popularity as a house plant. Mother-in-law's tongue also has a major health benefit: the ability to remove toxins such as formaldehyde from the air.

mother in law's tongue

When used as a house plant, mother-in-law's tongue is well-behaved. the problem comes when plants are tossed as trash outdoors. In other words, humans are the problem.

In Africa, mother--in-law's tongue is used to make a variety of medicines and remedies. In Zimbabwe, for example, it's used traditionally to dialate the birth canal and to prevent complications generally during childbirth. The root is used to make baby food. It's also used to make a treatment for toothache and sprained ankles.

Scientific research has found mother-in-law's tongue to have antioxident, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

It goes by a host of other common names, including iguanatail, devil's tongue, good luck plant, snake sansevaria and St. George's sword. It is a member of Agavaceae, the agave family.

Photographs by David Sedore
  United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) distribution map for mother-in-law's tongue. County map not available.  
Mother-in-Law's Tongue
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