Sansevieria : Mother-In-Law’s Tongue

Mother-In-Law’s Tongue

Sansevieria, or Mother-In-Law’s Tongue, is a common houseplant that also goes by the name of ‘Snake plant.’ It grows slowly, needs minimal water or light, is resistant to most parasites, can be propagated by cut shoots and can in essence be completely ignored. Practically able to grow in the dark, it can live forever and because it is almost biologically inert, if you live a hundred years you may be lucky enough to see your plant bloom once. It is so resilient that even people like my black-thumbed office manager, who says that she can murder a plant by the very aura of her presence, can keep one alive..

My grandmother had several, which she kept perpetually deprived of light in her darkened living room and rooted in the coal ash she brought up from the basement furnace. As such, because the little plants never seemed to change size or to grow, they looked and behaved more like plastic models than living organisms.

At one time I heard that the Sansevieria derived its name from a neuro-muscular paralytic compound located in its sap, which if swallowed, can paralyze the tongue and make a person immediately mute. I cannot validate this as fact, as I yet remain unwilling to experiment on myself. More likely it derives the name from its appearance of multiple long tongue-like fronds that waggle tirelessly in tropical breezes; thus the implication that it mimics the harping mouth of the notorious female in-law.

When my grandmother died in 1969 I inherited one of her plants. It was about eight inches tall, rooted in soil that looked like fossilized porous volcanic dust, yet had thrived despite having been committed to a life sentence in the prison of her darkened living room. I still have it along with numerous of its potted propagated offspring. Because I fertilize it and give it more direct light than she did, it is now about three feet taller than it was when she had it; still alive and well forty years later.

Bordering on the eerily macabre, one of these offshoot plants that I had given to my father actually did bloom, but only once; about six months after my mother died.

It is regrettable that my mother did not know about the plant’s poisonous nature or she could have dosed everyone’s dinner on a weekly basis at the obligatory Sunday in-law dinner ordeal. Having everyone alive and breathing but also peacefully mute would have been infinitely better than acting-out on her intended random strangulation of several non-biological relatives.

And who knows. Perhaps the long-term cumulative effects of the chronic poisoning may have eventually led to a perfect unsolvable murder or two.

  • Hey. What exactly did happen to Grandma?
  • Funny thing. One day she just stopped talking. Then two weeks later, just like that; she was dead. The doctor said it was the most unusual case of a stroke he had ever seen. He said: “Most curious it was. Not at all an ordinary stroke. Behaved more like Botulism than anything else.”




(Grandma’s ghost)

The worst person I know

Sent from down below

She thinks her advice is a contribution

But if she would leave that would be the solution

And don’t come back no more

Mother in law, mother in law

(Ernie K. Doe)




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