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

Inconsistency in plant naming often results in confusion, and sometimes even predicaments. For instance, you might refer to a certain plant as a Snake Plant, whereas another plant lover could be calling that very same plant a Mother-In-Law’s Tongue. But don’t worry. Even with the disparity in names, you’re both talking about the same species of plant.

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

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 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 heavily influences the plant’s long list of colloquial names!)

5 Names Dracaena trifasciata Most Commonly Goes By

As mentioned, Dracaena trifasciata doesn’t just go by 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 colloquial expressions for Dracaena trifasciata, “Snake Plant” rarely describes 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, 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 don’t come about accidentally. If you have a good relationship with your mother-in-law, count yourself lucky.

It’s usually safe to assume that anyone using Mother-In-Law’s Tongue talks 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 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 Tail are inspired by the leaf’s 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 once reminded someone of a holy sword. Yet why the sword of Saint George was chosen as a namesake isn’t entirely clear.

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 Plants 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 shop 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 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’ 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 words are universal. 

Regardless of where you are, the same taxonomic name is used for any plant species. 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. When properly caring for a misidentified plant, hobbyists are set up for failure.

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

Imagine entering 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 a proper time and place for familiar names; 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 familiar name to identify a plant species.
  • Remember that some familiar names apply to multiple species.
  • Be aware that common names rarely have cross-cultural and language barriers.

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

What does a snake plant at your front door mean?

According to Feng Shui principles, snake plants are typically associated with good luck mainly due to their air purification qualities. It’s essential to place the snake plant in an ideal position to bring good luck to the home, as wrong classes invite negative energy.

What do I need to know about snake plants?

Snake plants absorb toxins and release oxygen, which may remove moisture in the air and lessen airborne allergens. The Sansevieria meets these conditions perfectly. Therefore, persons with allergies should find a friend in such plants because they are a natural and cheap way to stay healthy.

Can a snake grow without sunlight?

The snake plant or the politically incorrect mother-in-law’s tongue, sansevieria, is one of the toughest houseplants on the planet. These architectural beauties come in various leaf shapes and colors and do fine in low-light locations.

Can you cut snake plant leaves?

In our mild climate, Sansevieria can be grown successfully outdoors too. To reduce the height of the plant, cut off the tallest leaves to the soil line. Use a thin knife to cut the individual leaves away, careful not to damage adjacent leaves. Remove all the leaves that you think are too tall.

Do snake plants clean the air?

The snake plant (mother-in-law’s tongue) has many air-cleaning tricks. It removes formaldehyde, xylene, and nitrogen oxides from the air and continues its hard work at night.

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 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!

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