If you search online for information on the beautiful and hardy Snake Plant, you may find yourself a bit confused as to what plant you’re actually researching. Some call it a Dracaena, and some call it a Sansevieria – and, since this is the internet, you can probably find people fiercely arguing one way or another. So is a Snake Plant a Sansevieria? Is it a Dracaena? Is there even a right answer?
Snake Plants used to be called Sansevieria, but the consensus among botanists is that this name is outdated – based on their genetics, these plants belong under the genus Dracaena. Many people have found the reclassification hard to swallow, though, because the Snake Plant doesn’t look much like any other Dracaenas. If you need intel on these plants, you may still be better off searching by their old name.
As it turns out, the controversy over what to call these plants goes back all the way to the 1700s. The story of their names touches on some interesting aspects of history, mythology, and even warfare. In this article, we’ll briefly explain the science behind the latest reclassification. And we’ll introduce you to some of the other evocative names people have given the Snake Plant throughout the centuries.
An Old Argument
The debate about how to classify the Snake Plant harkens back nearly to the dawn of scientific taxonomy. Our modern system of grouping living things into categories like kingdom, genus, and species was invented in 1735 by a Swedish naturalist named Carl Linnaeus. This kicked off a frenzy of naming and classifying, as the scientists of the period embraced the dream of sorting the natural world into orderly groups.
Darwin’s theories didn’t hit the scene until 1859, so those early taxonomists couldn’t classify species based on shared evolutionary ancestry. Instead, they went by the details of an organism’s physical structure. This led to a lot of arguments over which characteristics were most important.
The Dracaena/Sansevieria controversy is a great example. Even before the turn of the 19th century, some botanists were pointing out that the flowers and seeds of Snake Plants looked an awful lot like those of Dracaenas.
But practically everything else about them looks different: Dracaenas produce tall, woody stems with thin, flexible foliage, and some species grow to the size of full-on trees. Meanwhile, a Sansevieria sends up rosettes of thick, fleshy leaves directly from its roots, with no trunk at all. For a long time, the differences outweighed the similarities, and people regarded Sansevieria as a genus all its own.
The Genes Fit
Fast forward to 2012, when a graduate student at the University of Hawai’i named Pei-Luen Lu presented her dissertation. Since the emergence of genomic sequencing in the 1970s, scientists have gotten increasingly good at identifying a plant’s evolutionary history based on genetic similarities and differences with other species. Lu applied this kind of analysis to 95 different species of Dracaena, Sansevieria, and a related genus called Pleomele.
Based on snippets of DNA in the chloroplasts – the parts of plant cells that absorb sunlight – Lu showed that the plants everyone knew as Sansevieria were part of the same evolutionary group as Dracaena, too similar to be considered a separate genus. (The chloroplasts are particularly good indicators of shared evolutionary history because their genes mutate around 10 times less frequently than those in other parts of the cell.)
Lu’s evidence was overwhelming, and the scientific world agreed that these plants were in the same genus.
Why did they settle on Dracaena instead of Sansevieria as the final name? Partly because there’s a lot more diversity of shapes, sizes, and genetics among Dracaenas as a whole than among Snake Plants. But it’s mostly because Dracaena had dibs – the name was coined in 1767, while Sansevieria wasn’t used until 1794.
Are All Snake Plants Dracaenas?
The short answer is yes – the entire category of Sansevieria has been officially absorbed by the Dracaena genus. That includes every houseplant currently sold under the name Snake Plant, almost all of which are cultivars of one particular species: Dracaena trifasciata, formerly Sansevieria trifasciata. It originally hails from West Africa, with a native range spanning from Nigeria to the Congo.
Over the years, houseplant breeders have tweaked the original plant to produce many different varieties. Despite all this diversity, though, they’re all members of the same species, meaning they all now fall under the Dracaena heading. Most are variations on the same basic look: clusters of fleshy, succulent leaves shaped like spikes or blades. They often have jagged horizontal bands of light and dark green climbing up the leaves.
If you’re trying to find information about buying or growing these plants, you should still probably search under “Sansevieria” or just use the common name Snake Plant. Many older care guides use the previous name, and even contemporary sources often still mention Sansevieria as an alternate name.
When the average gardener talks about “Dracaenas,” they’re referring to varieties like the Corn Plant, the Song of India, or the Madagascar Dragon Tree. These look different from succulents like the Snake Plant, and may have different care requirements as well.
Wherefore Art Thou Dracaena?
While we’re on the subject of names, where do the terms Dracaena and Sansevieria come from anyway?
Let’s start with Dracaena – a twist on the Ancient Greek word for “dragon.” Several members of this genus are commonly called “Dragon Trees” and produce a sticky red resin known as “dragon’s blood,” which has been used for centuries as a dye, a medicine, and an incense for occult and alchemical ceremonies. It’s still in use today as a varnish for violins.
Sansevieria was originally called Sanseverinia, but it was modified in 1794 by Carl Thunberg (even back then they couldn’t keep the names straight!), a prolific naturalist who studied under Linnaeus himself. Some think the change was a simple clerical error, but the more interesting story is that he changed it to honor the Italian scientist Raimondo di Sangro, the Prince of San Severo.
Di Sangro was one of those early scientists who dabbled in a little bit of everything. He was a soldier, a writer, a patron of the arts, and an inventor. His creations included multicolored fireworks, a lightweight but long-range cannon, and a sea-going mechanical carriage that traveled on paddlewheels. Di Sangro also dabbled in alchemy, leading to wild rumors that he was capable of resurrecting the dead or counterfeiting saintly miracles.
Swords, Snakes, and In-Laws
So much for the Latin terminology – what about the common or garden names?
It’s not hard to see where the term “Snake Plant” comes from – the zigzagging horizontal stripes along the leaves would look right at home on the scales of a serpent. But these plants have had lots of other names throughout their history.
The sharp, pointy leaves inspired monikers like Devil’s Tongue, Jinn’s Tongue, and Mother-in-Law’s Tongue – presumably that last one came from someone who got one too many earfuls at family dinners. In some parts of Brazil, the Snake Plant is also known as the Espada de Sao Jorge, meaning the Sword of Saint George.
That last name links the plant to its origins in West Africa, where the Yoruba religion associates the Snake Plant with a particular orisa, or spirit – a courageous warrior and protector named Ogun. When enslaved Nigerians were brought to South America and their ancestral religions mingled with Catholicism, some came to regard Saint George and Ogun as different faces of the same spirit. So the plant of the orisa became the sword of the saint.
The Snake Plant’s connection with warfare isn’t limited to its blade-like appearance. People used to harvest its tough fibers for bowstrings, leading to yet another name for this plant: the Viper’s Bowstring Hemp.
So if you don’t like the name Snake Plant, you’ve got plenty of other interesting options!
Though Snake Plants are technically Dracaenas, they don’t much resemble their cousins. If you have questions about them, you can still probably search for “Sansevieria” – there’s still lots of material out there that lists them by that name. You could also try Mother-in-Law’s Tongue, Sword of Saint George, or one of their many other creative names. Whatever you call it, this is an alluring plant that should make a beautiful addition to your home.