Sansevieria ehrenbergii (PROTA)

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Sansevieria ehrenbergii Schweinf. ex Baker


Protologue: J. Linn. Soc., Bot. 14: 549 (1875).
Family: Dracaenaceae (APG: Asparagaceae)
Chromosome number: 2n = 40

Vernacular names

  • Seleb sansevieria, blue sansevieria, Somaliland bowstring hemp (En).
  • Mkonge (Sw).

Origin and geographic distribution

Sansevieria ehrenbergii is distributed in all countries of East Africa and is also native to Yemen and Oman.

Uses

In Ethiopia Sansevieria ehrenbergii is the most common of the five species of Sansevieria that are found in the country, and the leaves are harvested in large quantities for the extraction of the fibres. The fibres are used to make brushes, straps for carrying gourds, in the construction of huts and to tie bundles. The young leaves and fruits are eaten by goats, the rhizomes by cattle. The plants exude an edible gum. The fruits are made into beads. In Kenya it is one of several Sansevieria spp. planted for soil conservation, for land reclamation and as a living fence.

In traditional medicine in Kenya leaf sap is rubbed into wounds to promote healing and whole leaves are warmed up and placed on aching body parts for pain relief. Leaf sap is applied to aching teeth. In Tanzania leaf sap is used to cure skin infections. The fruits are used in Yemen to treat warts and as an antiseptic.

Properties

The fibres are tender, smooth and have a long lifespan. Fibre from the interior of the leaf is finer than that from the outer parts.

The aerial parts of Sansevieria ehrenbergii were found to contain 3 spirostanol and 3 steroidal saponins. Out of these 6 compounds, 5 caused inhibition of cancer cell growth. In addition, the majority of these saponins exhibit antimicrobial activity, for instance against the pathogenic fungi Candida albicans and Cryptococcus neoformans. In tests the methanol extract of the fruits proved very active against several opportunistic fungal pathogens and showed cytotoxicity against human epithelial cells with a IC50 of 30 μg/ml.

Adulterations and substitutes

Like all natural fibres, Sansevieria fibres face strong competition from synthetic products, such as polypropylene and nylon.

Description

Perennial, rhizomatous herb with or without stem, sometimes forming dense stands; rhizome rounded, subterranean, c. 3 cm in diameter; stem usually up to 25 cm tall. Leaves 5–9(–13), crowded; stipules absent; petiole absent; blade erect or more or less spreading, laterally compressed with flattened sides and rounded back, usually 180–300 cm × 2.5–3.5 cm, tapering upwards, ending in stout spine c. 9 mm long, dark bluish green, margin reddish brown with white edges. Inflorescence a panicle 2–3 m long, much branched in lower part; peduncle with long bracts; branches 25 cm long or more bearing clusters with 4–7 flowers. Flowers bisexual, regular, 3-merous; pedicel c. 3 mm long; perianth tubular, tube 5–6 mm long, lobes 6, white to purple; stamens 6, much exserted; ovary superior, 3-celled, style filiform, 14 mm long, stigma capitate. Fruit a berry, c. 10 mm in diameter, green turning orange, 1–3-seeded.

Other botanical information

Sansevieria has been variously included in the Amaryllidaceae, the Liliaceae and the Agavaceae but is nowadays usually placed in the Dracaenaceae. This genus of the tropics of the Old World numbers c. 60 species most of them native of Africa. In view of widespread confusion about delimitations of species, a thorough revision of the genus is badly needed.

Several other East African species have a documented fibre use. Sansevieria bagamoyensis N.E.Br. is a native of Kenya and Tanzania. It has long stems, spirally arranged leaves over 35 cm long. It yields fibre of good quality. In Tanzania the filtered leaf sap is drunk and applied over the body against convulsive fever. Sansevieria fischeri (Baker) Marais (synonym: Sansevieria singularis N.E.Br.) is distributed from Ethiopia, and Somalia to Tanzania. Only a single cylindrical leaf is present at any given time. It yields fibre and is much sought after by elephants. Sansevieria forskaoliana (Schult.f.) Hepper & J.R.I.Wood (synonym: Sansevieria abyssinica N.E.Br.) is distributed in DR Congo and throughout East Africa with the exception of Uganda. It occurs in a wide range of habitats. Records and uses from Côte d’Ivoire are obviously based on misidentifications. It has been introduced in Mauritius where it has become naturalised. In Ethiopia it is used like Sansevieria ehrenbergii and is harvested in large quantities. The rhizomes are dug up and sucked to quench thirst. Sansevieria powellii N.E.Br. is distributed in Sudan, Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania, while reports from Ethiopia are unconfirmed. It resembles Sansevieria ehrenbergii but has taller stems and smaller inflorescences. Its fibres are used in the same way. Sansevieria raffillii N.E.Br. is distributed in Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Botswana. It has 1 or 2 leaves and a tall inflorescence of up to 130 cm. In Kenya its fibres are used to make ropes, mats and clothing. Medicinal uses are similar to those of Sansevieria ehrenbergii.

Sansevieria robusta N.E.Br. is a shrubby species with a distribution restricted to DR Congo, Kenya and Tanzania. The Rendille people of Kenya process its fibres into ropes and mats. Sansevieria suffruticosa N.E.Br. is considered to be an endemic of Kenya. Records for the species from Honduras and the United States are almost certainly referring to imported, cultivated plants or misidentifications. It is a semi-erect, branching herb with leaves of up to 60 cm long. In the highlands of Kenya fibre and medicinal uses are comparable to those of Sansevieria ehrenbergii. The Loita Maasai use the leaf sap to treat gonorrhoea.

Anatomy

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.

Ecology

Sansevieria ehrenbergii occurs from sea-level up to 1900 m altitude in open bushland, dry grassland and dunes, often on rocky ground, usually in the shade of small trees or thickets. 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.

Management

Early in the 20th Century a failed attempt has been made to produce Sansevieria ehrenbergii fibres on a commercial scale in Voi, Kenya. No details on management have been published.

Harvesting

Best yields and quality of fibres are obtained by respecting a harvest interval that is long enough not to 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.

Handling after harvest

In Ethiopia the leaves of Sansevieria ehrenbergii are retted in water before the fibres are extracted.

Genetic resources

A number of Sansevieria species is stored in germplasm collections notably in those of the Millennium Seed Bank Project, United Kingdom, and the National Genebank in Muguga, Kenya. The conservation status of East African species that are used for their fibres are classified by CITES as ‘Least concern’.

Breeding

In the United States the potential of various Sansevieria spp. was examined for replacing sisal (Agave sisalana Perrine) and abaca (Musa textilis Née) as a source of marine fibre. Sansevieria trifasciata Prain was considered the most suitable species, because of its leaf length, fibre content and tolerance to cold. Hybrids with Sansevieria ehrenbergii have been produced to combine its vigour with the advantages of the former.

Prospects

The fibres of Sansevieria ehrenbergii will remain important for local usage but even if demand for natural fibres increases, it is probable that other more productive species will be used to fill in the gaps. Opportunities for breeding and selection of high-yielding hybrids are large as a large gene pool is present in the genus.

Major references

  • Bos, J.J. & Teketay, D., 1997. Dracaenaceae. In: Edwards, S., Mesfin Tadesse, Demissew Sebsebe & Hedberg, I. (Editors). Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Volume 6. Hydrocharitaceae to Arecaceae. The National Herbarium, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Department of Systematic Botany, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden. pp. 76–82.
  • Khalumba, M.L., Mbugua, P.K. & Kung’u, J.B., 2005. Uses and conservation of some highland species of the genus Sansevieria Thunb. in Kenya. African Crop Science Conference Proceedings 7: 527–532.
  • le Floc’h, E., Lemordant, D., Lignon, A. & Rezkallah, N., 1985. Pratiques ethnobotaniques des populations Afars de la moyenne vallée de l’Awash (Ethiopie). Journal of Ethnopharmacology 14: 283–314.
  • 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.
  • Newton, L.E., 2001. Sansevieria. In: Eggli, U. (Editor). Illustrated handbook of succulent plants: Monocotyledons. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Germany. pp. 261–272.
  • 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.
  • Thulin, M., 1995. Dracaenaceae. In: Thulin, M. (Editor). Flora of Somalia. Volume 4. Angiospermae (Hydrocharitaceae-Pandanaceae). Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. pp. 27–30.

Other references

  • Agnew, A.D.Q., 1974. Upland Kenya wild flowers: a flora of the ferns and herbaceous flowering plants of upland Kenya. Oxford University Press, London, United Kingdom. 827 pp.
  • Al Fatimi, M., Wurster, M., Schroder, G. & Lindequist, U., 2007. Antioxidant, antimicrobial and cytotoxic activities of selected medicinal plants from Yemen. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 111(3): 657–666.
  • Baker, N.E., 1915. Sansevieria: a monograph of all the known species. Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information Kew 1915(5): 185–261.
  • Chhabra, S.C., Mahunnah, R.L.A. & Mshiu, E.N., 1987. Plants used in traditional medicine in eastern Tanzania. 1. Pteridophytes and Angiosperms (Acanthaceae to Canellaceae). Journal of Ethnopharmacology 21: 253–277.
  • Gemedo-Dalle, T., Maass, B.L. & Isselstein, J., 2005. Plant biodiversity and ethnobotany of Borana pastoralists in southern Oromia, Ethiopia. Economic Botany 59(1): 43–65.
  • 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.
  • Heine, B. & Heine, I., 1988. Plant concepts and plant use; an ethnobotanical survey of the semi-arid and arid lands of East Africa. Part 3. Rendille plants (Kenya). Cologne Development Studies 8. Breitenbach, Saarbrücken, Germany. 120 pp.
  • Kirby, R.H., 1963. Vegetable fibres: botany, cultivation, and utilization. Leonard Hill, London, United Kingdom & Interscience Publishers, New York, United States. 464 pp.
  • Maundu, P., Berger, D., Saitabau, C., Nasieku, J., Kipelian, M., Mathenge, S., Morimoto, Y. & Höft, R., 2001. Ethnobotany of the Loita Maasai. Towards community management of the forest of the Lost Child. Experiences from the Loita Ethnobotany Project. UNESCO People and Plants Working Paper 8, Paris, France. 34 pp.
  • Menzel, M.Y. & Pate, J.B., 1960. Chromosomes and crossing behavior of some species of Sansevieria. American Journal of Botany 47(3): 230–238.
  • Neuwinger, H.D., 2000. African traditional medicine: a dictionary of plant use and applications. Medpharm Scientific, Stuttgart, Germany. 589 pp.
  • Otieno, J.N., Lyaruu, H.V.M. & Hosea, K.M.M., 2007. Effect of domestication on bioactivity of medicinal herbs: case of Tarime District, Tanzania. Discovery and Innovation 19: S85–S91.
  • Pettit, G.R., Zhang, Q., Pinilla, V., Hoffmann, H., Knight, J.C., Doubek, D.L., Chapuis, J.C., Pettit, R.K. & Schmidt, J.M., 2005. Antineoplastic agents. 534. Isolation and structure of Sansevistatins 1 and 2 from the African Sansevieria ehrenbergii. Journal of Natural Products 68(5): 729–733.
  • 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

  • Agnew, A.D.Q., 1974. Upland Kenya wild flowers: a flora of the ferns and herbaceous flowering plants of upland Kenya. Oxford University Press, London, United Kingdom. 827 pp.

Author(s)

  • C.H. Bosch, PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands

Correct citation of this article

Bosch, C.H., 2011. Sansevieria ehrenbergii Schweinf. ex Baker. [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. <http://www.prota4u.org/search.asp>.

Accessed 8 March 2020.