With its sharp blade-like leaves, Sansevieria hyacinthoides, is more commonly known as mother-in-laws-tongue, snake plant or African bowstring hemp.
The name hyacinthoides is in reference to a slight resemblance to the hyacinth plant, while Sansevieria refers to the discovery of the first specimens in the garden of the Italian prince, Pietro Sanseverino. It is almost a certainty, although not documented, that our African variety went by the Khoisan name, 'kai' or 'ghaiwortel' long before it was classified as a Sansevieria.
This evergreen perennial plant is conspicuous as much in any garden as it is in the wild, with its dense stands of stiff upright leaves dappled in lighter shades of green and grey, and a height of up to 90 cm. The leaves grow from a basal rosette which is attached to a spreading rhizome (creeping roots) that is found both above and below the ground.
A hardy plant, this shade-tolerant species grows in a variety of habitats and can spread rapidly in optimal conditions, which has earned it a place in the Global Compendium of Weeds. It reproduces by means of seeds as well as vegetatively, with segments of the rhizomes and leaves re-sprouting with ease when replanted or disturbed. Unlike the mother-in-law who rarely thrives on neglect, the Sansevieria actually benefits from neglect and a little stress, producing a flower stalk covered in buds.
The seeds are borne inside orange-reddish berries which develop from showy faintly-scented clusters of flowers, which range from white to mauve in colour. Keep a look out for these attractive displays livening up the bush from September to May in their favourite spots among rocky outcrops shaded by trees.
African bowstring hemp has a number of purposes apart from its ornamental uses in the garden and as a pot plant. Rhinoceroses and antelope feed on the leaves, while rats like to gnaw on the roots and birds are attracted to the displays of flowers in search of nectar.
Their strong leaf fibres were used by local tribesmen to make bowstrings, cordage and to weave baskets. The rhizomes and leaves are used to treat ear infections, toothache and earache with many traditional medicinal uses too. Haemorrhoids, intestinal worms, stomach disorder, ulcers and diarrhoea are all treated with parts of the African bowstring plant. It is also believed to have protective powers when pressed into service as a charm.
The term mother-in-laws tongue is an unflattering jocular reference to the sharp leaves with their sword-like appearance.
You will see this plant growing as an ornamental specimen in our camps, out in the bush and throughout the world in one form or another.