Sunday, April 05, 2009

Snake Plant

What’s blooming in the area: Daffodils, mossy phlox, hoary cress, purple and tansy mustard, dandelion; Bradford pear leaf and flower buds opening, winterfat leafing. People cleaning ditches, plowing land, burning weeds.
What’s blooming in my yard: Puschkinia, vinca. Undamaged buds of peach and forsythia opened last Sunday, only to be killed by cold temperatures later in the week. More daffodils and tulips, grape hyacinths, Jupiter’s beard, cut-leaf coneflower coming up; pasture rose, purple-leaf sand cherry and privet leaves opening.
Inside: Brazilian bougainvillea, South African aptenia, kalanchoë and rochea weed.
Animal sightings: Bees on peach last Sunday afternoon; rabbit around.
Weather: Morning temperatures varied from low twenties to forties with high winds; last snow, 3/26/09; 13:02 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: Snake plants are the stereotypic house plant, even given to children because they’re hard to kill. Unfortunately, the one I had was in a cute pot with no room for the roots, so while it didn’t die, it also didn’t grow.
I associated them with dim settings, like the Philadelphia Italian restaurant in my graduate school days before non-smoking areas and fern bars, where the horizontally-stripped sword-shaped leaves were used in planters that separated the two sides of the row of booths. Because the perennials were tall and had colonized, I assumed they were a different variety from the one I had as a child.
Then, a couple years ago, in my never ending quest for something tall that would grow on my enclosed porch, I stuck a three-leaved rosette in a corner. I didn’t expect much, because the direct and indirect light is intense, summer and winter, the heat high and the water variable. It’s now three foot tall, and registered its first protest a few weeks ago when it put out a new sprout, as hidden from the light as it could be, between the parent and the wall.

Apparently, dark light, smokey air, and loud, loud music aren’t the only habitat deemed acceptable by the African native. Around Homestead, Florida, on the edge of the Everglades, snake plants live in open fields in full sunlight on land reclaimed from solid limestone. In greenhouses, growers keep the temperatures between 70 and 90 degrees.

While a number of Sansevieria species have been exported from Africa, the only one that’s commercially available is the Laurentii mutation of trifasciata characterized by the yellow leaf edge which is distinctly separate tissue from the rest of the plant. If a piece of leaf is stuck in the ground, only the green section will produce roots, and the yellow band disappears. A plant can only reproduce from new sprouts from its rhizomes, and even then, some, like my new rosette, revert to the species.

The chimera was apparently noticed and nurtured by some group living along the Congo river visited by Émile Laurent in either 1903 or 1904. The agronomy professor had been looking for economically useful plants like coffee and rubber since 1893, and his activities had led Leopold II to develop the Jardin Botanique de l’État for plants from his African enterprise. Although Laurent died on the return trip, his nephew Marcel took their collections to Brussels, where Émile de Wildeman cataloged them. A specimen was sent to Kew Gardens in 1910.

How they evolved in the Congo is anyone’s guess. The Sansevieria genus is more common to the east in Kenya, and the trifasciata species is associated with Nigeria and Benin where the Hausa and Nupe use single words for several species. Many Sansevieria are valued for the fibers extracted from the leaves, and some have found medicinal uses for plants they identify as trifasciata, including the Marachi in western Kenya and people in Rwanda. European sailors or Islamic traders took them to India, Indonesia and Fiji where other uses have been reported.

Sansevieria varieties arrived in Florida, apparently when it was still administered by the Spanish, and some naturalized there. During World War II, our government began testing different species and hybrids as alternative sources for rough fibers. They found Laurentii, its parent, and hyacinthoides produced the most fiber from quick growing leaf cuttings that withstood the comparative cold temperatures of Boynton in Broward County.

After the war, nylon and rayon replaced natural fibers and real estate speculators saw better uses for land near the ocean. The war surplus plants made up 16% of the foliage plants sold by Florida growers in the Eisenhower years when my mother gave me my plant. When the glut passed, so did the taste for what one Brooklyn Botanic Garden writer called the "very common," "inelegant" upright leaves with their "entire lack of form."

It wasn’t easy to find a snake plant, and even artificial ones don’t exist now in Santa Fé’s largest craft shop. I finally tracked one down in late 2006 in a corner of Payne’s Nurseries which was probably grown in Costa Rica or China. The reliable plant of my childhood, thriving on my inhospitable porch, has become as obsolete as the war-surplus Quonset huts that were erected along the industrial fringe of my Michigan hometown, and quite possibly as lost as the factories that were built there.

Notes:Blaydes, Glenn W. "The Romance of Domesticated Plants," The Ohio Journal of Science 53:193-215:1953, on yellow leaf margin.

de Wildeman, Émile. Mission Émile Laurent (1903-1904), 1905.

Free, Montague. All About House Plants, 1946.

Henley, Richard W. "Sansevieria in Florida - Past and Present," Florida State Horticultural Society Proceedings 95:295-298:1982.

_____, A.R. Chase and L.S. Osborne. Sansevieria Production Guide, CFREC-A Foliage Plant Note RH-91-30.

Photograph: Snake plant with new rosette to left on inside porch, 4 April 2009.

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