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Why Is Snake Plant Called Mother-In-Law’s Tongue?

Common plant names can be problematic at worst and confusing at best. What you may call a Snake Plant, another gardener may call a Mother-In-Law’s Tongue. Rest assured, however, you’re both talking about the same species.

This plant species is most likely called Mother-In-Law’s Tongue because its leaves are pointed and sharp like the tongue of your mother-in-law. But there’s no official record of when, where, or how this colloquial name first came about.

While Snake Plant and Mother-In-Law’s Tongue are the most popular names for this species, they are far from the only ones in use. Using one common name over another can be regional or based solely on personal preference. 

What Is A Snake Plant?

First, “Snake Plant” is itself a colloquial name. The scientific name for this plant species is Dracaena trifasciata.

Dracaena trifasciata is a succulent plant species. It stores excess water in its leaves, making it expertly adapted to hot and arid climates — most notably deserts — such as those found in its native regions of Africa.

What Is The Difference Between Dracaena trifasciata And Sansevieria trifasciata?

If you were under the impression that the scientific name for a Snake Plant was Sansevieria trifasciata, don’t be alarmed! 

Sansevieria trifasciata was the correct taxonomic name for this species until very recently. And, if you’re at all interested in botany, the story of how the Snake Plant came to be renamed is quite interesting.

In 2017, scientists made a surprising discovery when analyzing the Snake Plant’s genetics on a molecular level. 

While the Snake Plant had initially been placed in a genus all its own (Sansevieria), its genes proved that it was a member of an existing genus. This genus was, of course, Dracaena.

You might not realize it, but many other houseplants are also members of the Dracaena family. Popular examples include:

  • Lucky Bamboo (Dracaena braunii/sanderiana)
  • Dragon Plant (Dracaena draco)
  • Corn Plant (Dracaena fragrans)
  • Madagascar Dragon Tree (Dracaena marginata)
  • Song of India (Dracaena reflexa)

How To Identify Dracaena trifasciata

While there are many varieties of Dracaena trifasciata (with more being developed seemingly every day!), they all share a somewhat similar appearance.

Dracaena trifasciata leaves grow upright and pointed, emerging from a central rosette. The growing rosette is particularly visible in varieties with shorter, broader foliage.

Dark green is the most common color seen in Dracaena trifasciata foliage. However, this species is highly prone to variegation, so don’t be surprised if you see more Dracaena trifasciata with striped leaves than not.

Other colors of Dracaena trifasciata are also available. Many such varieties are the result of purposeful breeding and asexual propagation.

The foliage of Dracaena trifasciata is not soft and yielding like many plants’ but is extraordinarily stiff and, in some cases, sharp to the touch. (As we’ll cover in a minute, this trait plays heavily into the plant’s long list of colloquial names!)

5 Names Dracaena trifasciata Most Commonly Goes By

As we already mentioned, Dracaena trifasciata doesn’t just go by the names Snake Plant and Mother-In-Law’s Tongue. 

Here are some (but not all) of the common names this plant is sometimes known as:

1. Snake Plant

It doesn’t take a genius to pinpoint the inspiration for this name. Not only do the Snake Plant’s leaves resemble serpents in shape. But their unique stripes are also reminiscent of many snake species.

Common names pose a communication problem for botanical professionals and hobbyists alike. Unlike some of the other colloquial names for Dracaena trifasciata, “Snake Plant” is rarely used to describe any other species.

Using “Snake Plant” to refer to Dracaena trifasciata in conversation is almost always a safe bet.

2. Mother-In-Law’s Tongue

If you don’t know this houseplant as a Snake Plant, then you’re probably more familiar with the name Mother-In-Law’s Tongue. 

As mentioned, the most common theory behind this name’s origin is that the pointed foliage is reminiscent of a mother-in-law’s sharp tongue.

Some enthusiasts also believe the name was inspired by the plant’s ability to withstand nearly all growing conditions — it’s persistent and unlikely to go away without force!

While scathing, familiar names such as this one don’t come about by accident. If you have a good relationship with your mother-in-law, count yourself lucky.

It’s usually safe to assume that anyone using the name Mother-In-Law’s Tongue is talking about Dracaena trifasciata. But Mother-In-Law’s Tongue can also refer to Dieffenbachia, a similar-looking but unrelated plant species. 

In Dieffenbachia’s case, the name is most likely inspired by the plant’s tongue-numbing sap that can leave the ingester temporarily unable to speak!

3. Viper’s Bowstring Hemp

The third most popular name for Dracaena trifasciata is Viper’s Bowstring Hemp. This common name is a bit of a mouthful. But it is surprisingly descriptive if you know the origin!

While we tend to associate hemp with various Cannabis plants, the term can technically describe any strong plant fiber. The fibers of Dracaena trifasciata have specifically been used to make bowstrings.

As for the viper, the moniker is the plant’s snake-like appearance.

4. Tiger’s Tongue/Tail

The most common Dracaena trifasciata are inspired by the plant’s dagger-like foliage. But Tiger’s Tongue and Tiger’s Tail draw inspiration from the leaves’ distinctive stripes instead.

5. Saint George’s Sword/Sword of Saint George

You’ll rarely come across this name in English-speaking areas. However, Saint George’s Sword is a popular term for Dracaena trifasciata in many Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries.

It’s clear why Dracaena trifasciata at one point reminded someone of a holy sword. Yet why the sword of Saint George was chosen as a namesake isn’t entirely clear.

Popular Snake Plant Varieties and Their Common Names

To make matters even more complicated, not all Snake Plants are Dracaena trifasciata. (Though they are all types of Dracaena.)

Thanks to the magic of plant genetics, some varieties of Snake Plant are subtypes or very close relatives of Dracaena trifasciata.

Characteristics used to identify different Snake Plant varieties include leaf shape, height, color, variegation patterns, flower style, and more.

If you find yourself shopping online or at a local greenhouse, there’s a good chance these plants will still be labeled as Snake Plants, Mother-In-Law’s Tongue, or another common name. 

But be aware that some varieties and cultivars are dubbed with unique names:

Bird’s Nest Plant

The Bird’s Nest Plant, or Dracaena trifasciata “Hahnii,” is typically identified by its dwarfed growth pattern. 

The combination of the Snake Plant’s distinctive rosette pattern and this variety’s shorter stature give it the appearance of a bird’s nest. (Hence the name!)

Another popular version of this variety is the Golden Bird’s Nest Snake Plant. This subtype is scientifically known as Dracaena trifasciata “Golden Hahnii.”

Shark/Whale Fin Plant

Dracaena masoniana most frequently goes by Shark Fin and Whale Fin Plant. The original cultivar’s name was Mason Congo.

Most nurseries and greenhouses sell this cultivar as a single leaf in a pot. However, if allowed to grow naturally, it will produce multiple leaves like any other Snake Plant.

Moonshine Plant

The so-called Moonshine Plant is a subtype of Dracaena trifasciata prized for its unique color. 

The foliage ranges from grey to dark green. Some specimens feature the Snake Plant’s classic stripes as well.

African Spear Plant

The African Spear Plant, or Dracaena angolensis, is an exciting variation of the Snake Plant you’re probably familiar with. Instead of flat, sword-like foliage, this species’s leaves are cylindrical.

Unsurprisingly, some gardeners also know this variety as a Cylindrical Snake Plant.

Kenya Hyacinth

You may have previously stumbled across a Kenya Hyacinth, or Dracaena parva, without even realizing it was a member of the Snake Plant family. But once you know the relationship, it’s hard to miss.

Unlike its relatives that typically grow upright, the Kenya Hyacinth’s draping growth pattern makes it perfect for smaller pots and hanging planters. 

Is It Better to Use Scientific or Common Names?

We’ve addressed how using common names for plant species can be confusing. But that doesn’t mean you should abandon them entirely.

Botanists and other plant professionals rely on scientific names for clarity. The main reason is that Latin names are universal. 

The same taxonomic name is used for any given plant species, no matter where you are in the world. The same certainly isn’t true of familiar names!

On a smaller scale, problems can arise when home gardeners, publications, and retailers rely solely on common names for identification, leading to mislabeling plant species. Hobbyists are then set up for failure when providing the proper care for a misidentified plant.

Let’s use Mother-In-Law’s Tongue as an example:

Imagine walking into a local nursery and requesting a Mother-In-Law’s Tongue (Dracaena trifasciata). The clerk could return with the plant you had in mind. Or they could just as quickly sell you what they know as a Mother-In-Law’s Tongue Dieffenbachia.

There is absolutely a proper time and place for familiar names, and if not, they wouldn’t exist for most houseplants.

Common names are easier to pronounce, spell, and — perhaps most importantly — remember. Without them, gardening would be much less accessible to the average person!

So, what’s the verdict on scientific versus common names?

  • Using common names in conversation is okay.
  • Never rely solely on a common name to identify a plant species.
  • Remember that some common names apply to multiple species.
  • Be aware that common names rarely cross cultural and/or language barriers.

FAQ’s about Snake Plant

Conclusion

Though Dracaena trifasciata is well-known for its long list of familiar names in the botanical world, it certainly isn’t the only offender. Many popular houseplants boast a collection of colloquial monikers. The name you know best often depends on geographic location, native language, and other vital factors. 

Realistically, it doesn’t matter which name you choose to refer to Dracaena trifasciata or any other plant species. However, what does matter is whether or not you know how to identify a plant independent of its common name(s). 

Common names are imprecise tools that can quickly lead to miscommunication if you rely on them too heavily. Knowing a few basic facts — the taxonomic name of the plant species in question or defining characteristics — could save you from a world of confusion in the future!