Sansevieria aethiopica (PROTA)

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Sansevieria aethiopica Thunb.

Protologue: Prodr. Pl. Cap. 65 (1794).
Family: Dracaenaceae (APG: Asparagaceae)
Chromosome number: 2n = 40

Vernacular names

  • Bowstring hemp, piles root, mother-in-law’s tongue (En).
  • Mkonge (Sw).

Origin and geographic distribution

Sansevieria aethiopica is distributed in Tanzania, Zambia, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa.


The leaf fibres of Sansevieria aethiopica are used to make strong twines and ropes. Like several other species of the genus it is especially valued to make bowstrings, hence the vernacular name. The Himba of Namibia use the fibre to make clothing. In Botswana it is used to make fishing lines and nets and the rope is used to make sleeping mats by tying thick papyrus stems together.

The rhizomes are a source of drinking water obtained by chewing and spitting out the fibres. Sansevieria aethiopica is planted as an ornamental in pots and gardens. The medicinal use of rhizomes and leaves is widespread in southern Africa. In Zimbabwe the leaves are heated and the sap is squeezed into the ear to treat ear-infections, while the rhizome is warmed and used for treating toothache. Fresh or boiled rhizomes are eaten to treat haemorrhoids, stomach-ache, ulcers, diarrhoea and internal parasites. In Namibia Bushmen apply the heated, pounded leaves to a stiff neck to give relief. Leaf sap is applied to wounds to accelerate healing and to maternal breasts to stimulate milk production.

Production and international trade

Sansevieria fibre is mainly used locally in countries where the species occurs. No recent production and trade data for Sansevieria are available.


Rhizomes and leaves contain ruscogenin and related sapogenins, which have anti-inflammatory and venotonic properties. Antibacterial tests have given negative results.

Adulterations and substitutes

The traditional use of fibre of Sansevieria in some parts of southern Africa is diminishing as it is gradually replaced by fibres of the introduced sisal (Agave sisalana Perrine). All natural fibres face strong competition from synthetic products, such as polypropylene and nylon.


Perennial, rhizomatous herb, without stem, usually forming large groups; rhizome rounded, subterranean, c. 12 mm in diameter, bearing thin, fibrous, orange-grey roots. Leaves 13–30 in a rosette; petiole absent; blade narrowly linear, 13–43 cm × 1–2 cm, erect to slightly spreading, half-folded, mottled with darker, irregular, transverse bands, margin red with colourless outer ridge. Inflorescence a spike-like raceme 35–75 cm long, densely flowered; peduncle with scattered membranous bracts. Flowers bisexual, regular, 3-merous; pedicel c. 5 mm long; perianth tubular, c. 5 cm long, globose around the ovary, lobes 6, c. 13 mm long, white, purple or cream with a tinge of pink or purple; stamens 6, much exserted; ovary superior, 3-celled, style filiform and long, stigma capitate. Fruit a berry, c. 10 mm in diameter, red, 1–3-seeded. Seeds c. 5 mm long, white.

Other botanical information

Sansevieria has been variously included in the families Amaryllidaceae, Liliaceae, Agavaceae and Dracaenaceae, on the basis of morphological characters. Recent taxonomic work based on molecular DNA characters has seen the genus Sansevieria treated variously under the families Convallariaceae, Ruscaceae and, more recently, Asparagaceae. Proposals have been put forward to merge the genus Sansevieria with its putative sister group Dracaena. The genus numbers c. 60 species, but in view of various taxonomic treatments and conflicting delimitations of species, a thorough revision of the genus is needed. Recently, a subspecies of Sansevieria aethiopica has been described for Kenya but so far it is only known from the type specimen.

Various other Sansevieria species occurring in East and southern Africa are used as ornamentals, for fibre and for traditional medicine. Sansevieria hyacinthoides (L.) Druce (synonym: Sansevieria thyrsiflora Petagna) and Sansevieria pearsonii N.E.Br. (synonym: Sansevieria desertii N.E.Br.) are used in the same way as Sansevieria aethiopica. Sansevieria hyacinthoides is a native of Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa, and has 2–8 leaves in a rosette. Sansevieria hyacinthoides has been produced commercially in Mexico, with exports to the United States. Sansevieria pearsonii grows wild in Angola, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, and has 5–9 opposite cylindrical leaves with a narrow groove on the inside. In literature, the name Sansevieria guineense has frequently been used as a synonym for Sansevieria hyacinthoides. Sansevieria cylindrica Bojer ex Hook. is only recorded in Angola and Zambia but the name Sansevieria cylindrica has often been misused outside the range of the species for any Sansevieria plant with cylindrical leaves. There are no recorded uses for the species from either Angola or Zambia. The true Sansevieria zeylanica (L.) Willd. (‘Ceylon bowstring hemp’) is native to and cultivated as a fibre plant in Sri Lanka. It has been introduced and is naturalized in Madagascar and Mauritius. It is not confirmed to be present on the African continent. The name Sansevieria zeylanica as applied to Sansevieria specimens from continental Africa, refers mostly to Sansevieria aethiopica.


In cross-section, Sansevieria leaves are divided into a peripheral region of green chlorenchyma tissue and a central region of water-storage tissue. Fibre bundles are present throughout the leaf but are largest and most prominent in the chlorenchyma.

Growth and development

Sansevieria species are slow growing and use the Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM) pathway. CAM plants are able to fix CO2 at night and to photosynthesize with closed stomata during the day, thus minimizing water loss. The delicately scented flowers of Sansevieria aethiopica open late in the afternoon and remain open for a single night.


Sansevieria aethiopica occurs in dry open places, savanna and woodland on well-drained sandy or rocky soil. Minimum annual rainfall requirements of Sansevieria spp. are c. 250 mm. For commercial production a warm, moist climate and well-drained, somewhat calcareous soils are recommended. Shading is sometimes recommended, but its favourable effect may be due more to its influence on soil moisture and nutrient status than to a direct effect on plants.

Propagation and planting

Propagation of Sansevieria spp. is easily done by division, suckers, leaf cuttings, seed or in-vitro culture.


Leaves are harvested during the growing season as fibres harvested during the dry season are weaker. Best yields and quality of fibres are obtained by respecting a harvest interval that is long enough to not reduce the leaf-length. A first harvest could take place at 2.5–3.5 years after planting and consecutive harvests at 2 year intervals. At a high growth rate the harvest interval can be shorter.


The highest annual Sansevieria yield recorded of 3.1 t/ha was realized using the hybrid ‘Florida H-13’, a cross of Sansevieria trifasciata Prain with Sansevieria pearsonii.

Handling after harvest

The leaf is placed on a soft surface, usually a leg or a thigh, and is scraped with a wooden tool. If this is done on a hard surface the fibres break. Scraping continues till all green material has been removed and the white fibres remain. The fibres are divided in three equal bundles and are rolled on the thigh with the palm of the hand. The result is a very strong twine or rope. This method of preparation is commonly used for most Sansevieria species of Africa. Short pieces are joined together to form one long string. It is then hooked around the toe and allowed to coil up on itself, producing a double string, which makes it stronger.

Genetic resources

A number of Sansevieria species are stored in germplasm collections notably in those of the Millennium Seed Bank Project, United Kingdom, and the National Genebank in Muguga, Kenya. Sansevieria aethiopica is not a threatened species since there are no reports of the species being overexploited.


In the United States the potential of various Sansevieria spp. was examined for replacing sisal and abaca (Musa textilis Née) as a source of marine fibre. Sansevieria trifasciata was considered the most suitable species, because of its leaf length, fibre content and tolerance to cold. In hybrids with Sansevieria aethiopica the dwarf habit of the latter proved dominant which reduced the practical value of the hybrids for fibre production.


The fibres of Sansevieria aethiopica will remain important for local usage. In the event of increased worldwide demand for natural fibres in the future, a species with higher fibre yield then Sansevieria aethiopica will need to be considered. Opportunities for breeding and selection of high-yielding hybrids are great considering the large gene pool and the high number of species in the genus Sansevieria.

Major references

  • Kirby, R.H., 1963. Vegetable fibres: botany, cultivation, and utilization. Leonard Hill, London, United Kingdom & Interscience Publishers, New York, United States. 464 pp.
  • Newton, L.E., 2001. Sansevieria. In: Eggli, U. (Editor). Illustrated handbook of succulent plants: Monocotyledons. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Germany. pp. 261–272.
  • Obermeyer, A.A., 1992. Sansevieria. In: Leistner, O.A. (Editor). Flora of southern Africa. Volume 5, part 3. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria, South Africa. pp. 5–9.
  • Praptosuwiryo, T.N., 2003. Sansevieria Thunb. In: Brink, M. & Escobin, R.P. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 7. Fibre plants. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 217–221.
  • Takawira-Nyenya, R., 2006. A taxonomic study of the genus Sansevieria (Dracaenaceae) in Zimbabwe. In: Ghazanfar, S.A. & Beentje, H.J. (Editors). Taxonomy and ecology of African plants, their conservation and sustainable use. Proceedings of the 17th AETFAT Congress, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. pp. 61–71.
  • van Wyk, B.E. & Gericke, N., 2000. People’s plants: a guide to useful plants of southern Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria, South Africa. 351 pp.

Other references

  • APG III, 2009. An update of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group classification for the orders and families of flowering plants: APG III. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 161: 105–121.
  • Baker, N.E., 1915. Sansevieria: a monograph of all the known species. Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information Kew 1915(5): 185–261.
  • Dahlgren, R.M.T., Clifford, H.T. & Yeo, P.F., 1985. The families of the Monocotyledons: structure, evolution and taxonomy. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Germany. 520 pp.
  • Decary, R., 1946. Plantes et animaux utiles de Madagascar. Annales du Musée Colonial de Marseille, 54e année, 6e série, 4e volume, 1er et dernier fascicule. 234 pp.
  • Hanelt, P. & Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (Editors), 2001. Mansfeld’s encyclopedia of agricultural and horticultural crops (except ornamentals). 1st English edition. Springer Verlag, Berlin, Germany. 3645 pp.
  • Hegnauer, R., 1986. Chemotaxonomie der Pflanzen. Band 7. Birkhäuser Verlag, Basel, Switzerland. 804 pp.
  • Imamura-Hayaki, K., 1996. Gathering activity among the Central Kalahari San. African Study Monographs, Supplement 22: 47–66.
  • Leger, S., 1997. The hidden gifts of nature: A description of today’s use of plants in West Bushmanland (Namibia). [Internet] DED, German Development Service, Windhoek, Namibia & Berlin, Germany. February 2011.
  • Malan, J.S. & Owen-Smith, G.L., 1974. The ethnobotany of Kaokoland. Cimbebasia B2: 131–178.
  • Menzel, M.Y. & Pate, J.B., 1960. Chromosomes and crossing behavior of some species of Sansevieria. American Journal of Botany 47(3): 230–238.
  • Mwachala, G. & Mbugua, P.K., 2007. Dracaenaceae. In: Beentje, H.J. & Ghazanfar, S.A. (Editors). Flora of Tropical East Africa. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 43 pp.
  • Neuwinger, H.D., 1996. African ethnobotany: poisons and drugs. Chapman & Hall, London, United Kingdom. 941 pp.
  • SEPASAL, 2011. Sansevieria aethiopica. [Internet] Survey of Economic Plants for Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (SEPASAL) database. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. ceb/sepasal/. March 2011.
  • van Wyk, B.E., van Oudtshoorn, B. & Gericke, N., 1997. Medicinal plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria, South Africa. 304 pp.
  • von Koenen, E., 2001. Medicinal, poisonous and edible plants in Namibia. Klaus Hess Verlag, Göttingen, Germany. 336 pp.
  • Watt, J.M. & Breyer-Brandwijk, M.G., 1962. The medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and eastern Africa. 2nd Edition. E. and S. Livingstone, London, United Kingdom. 1457 pp.
  • Wijnands, D.O., 1973. Typification and nomenclature of two species of Sansevieria (Agavaceae). Taxon 22(1): 109–114.
  • Wilson, F.D., Joyner, J.F. & Fishler, D.W., 1969. Fiber yields in Sansevieria interspecific hybrids. Economic Botany 23(1): 148–155.

Sources of illustration

  • Obermeyer, A.A., 1992. Sansevieria. In: Leistner, O.A. (Editor). Flora of southern Africa. Volume 5, part 3. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria, South Africa. pp. 5–9.


  • R. Takawira-Nyenya, University of Oslo, Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, Natural History Museum, P.O. Box 1172, Blindern, N-0318 Oslo, Norway

Correct citation of this article

Takawira-Nyenya, R., 2011. Sansevieria aethiopica Thunb. [Internet] Record from PROTA4U. Brink, M. & Achigan-Dako, E.G. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. <>.

Accessed 2 March 2020.