Sansevieria leaves and their uses
Sansevieria and its leaves used to be a genus of flowering plants that originated in Africa and southern Asia. This former genus has about 70 species with common English names such as mother-in-law’s tongue, bow string hemp, snake plant, and snake tongue, among others.
However, molecular studies have revealed that all species belonging to the Sansevieria genus are actually part of the Dracaena genus, and they were renamed in 2009 and 2016 accordingly. For instance, ‘Sansevieria trifasciata Prain’ is now called ‘Dracaena trifasciata (Prain) Mabb.’ Despite this, in my following articles, I will continue to refer to them as Sansevieria and not Dracaena, because the outer appearance of a Sansevieria is very distinct, while a Dracaena can take on various forms, from a sturdy tree to a nimble water plant.
All the different Sansevieria species can be classified into two groups. The first group comprises round-leaved species that mainly grow in semi-desert environments. The second group consists of flat-leaved species that thrive in tropical and subtropical climates.
Inner structure of Sansevieria leaves
The leaves of Sansevieria are composed of a thick epidermis with a waxy cuticle as the outer layer. Inside the leaves, there are mainly water-holding cells, and a dense pattern of fibers reinforces the shape of the leaves. In the pictures below, it is evident that the water-holding cells shrink as the leaves dry out.
As the water-holding cells in the leaves of Sansevieria dry out, the fibers remain and protrude from the shrinking cell masses. This results in a dense fiber material that is long-lasting and does not contain water. Because of the elongated shape of Sansevieria leaves, these fibers are ideal for human use and can be further utilized.
Uses of Sansevieria leaves
Sansevieria fibers have a wide range of applications, either in processed or unprocessed forms. They can be used in crafts, medical applications, or even as a food source. In emergency situations, the roots of most Sansevieria species can also provide drinkable water. A comprehensive overview of the various applications of these plants in the Coastal Province of Kenya can be found here.
Processed Sansevieria fibers can be used for various purposes, including:
- Trapping animals (ropes for Dik-Dik traps, ropes for ground bird traps)
- Ropes for tying goats
- Making thatching rope
- Tying roof poles
- Strings, woven into crafts
- Weaving applications
Unprocessed Sansevieria fiber has a limited application, which is tying together bundles of firewood. However, there are many other alternatives for this application, such as the inner barks of Mopane or Silver-leaved Clusterleaf, Grewias, and other plants, bushes, or trees that are directly available in the area. The choice of material for tying firewood bundles always depends on the availability and sustainability of the resources in the specific location.
Rolled-up broad-leaved or round-leaved Sansevieria leaves can be processed by removing the water-holding cells on both sides, and brushes can be manufactured from the remaining fiber. These brushes are commonly used in Eastern Africa for cleaning pots and pans.
Both pictures: © R. Takawira-Nyenya et. al.: Ethnobotanical Uses of Sansevieria Thunb. (Asparagaceae) in Coast Province of Kenya
Another application of Sansevieria leaves is to use a broad leaf to make sandals. The whole leaf can be used as an alternative sole, and strings can be made from slices of Sansevieria leaves. Although these sandals are not very long-lasting, they are a popular handcraft among kids in Eastern Africa.
Many population groups in Africa use some Sansevieria species for medicinal purposes, as they are believed to have antibacterial properties. For example, the Ju/’hoansi bushmen in Namibia use a concoction made from a specific Sansevieria species (see attached photo) to treat abdominal pain. They are pleased when this species is found in the wild. However, as I am not a pharmacist or medical doctor, it is not appropriate for me to get into further details on this topic.
In various African cultures, it is well-known that the tender white leaf base and sliced rhizome of Sansevieria can be cooked and used as a replacement for vegetables in soups and meat stews.
The rhizome of Sansevieria contains a significant amount of water, which can be extracted by chewing and sucking on the cleaned root. In a future article, this utilization will be described in more detail.
Lessons learned about the uses of Sansevieria leaves:
- Sansevieria leaves contain long, durable fibers that can be utilized for various applications.
- One of the most well-known uses is as a bowstring among various African tribes, which has even led to the plant being called “Bow-string hemp” in English.
- Despite the sharp and pointed nature of the leaf-tip, it may not necessarily deserve its common name of “Mother-in-law’s tongue”.
- In addition to bowstrings, the fibers can be used to produce a variety of other items such as sandals, brushes, ropes for tying, and for weaving crafts.