When people ask me, "What plant won't I kill?" I most often suggest the snake plant (Sansevieria sp.) because it's—for the most part—forgiving to those that have a blackthumb. It can tolerate lower light conditions, doesn't require too much watering, and can pretty much ward off any gnawing insect that may plague other members of your plant collection.
That alone should make Sansevieria a crowd favorite, but the reality is this leathery, sword-shape succulent, (also known as Mother in Law's Tongue), is under-appreciated in the houseplant world. Admittedly, when I go to a plant shop, I'm not necessarily drawn to the snake plants first. However, when I was looking for a perfect plant for peculiar, hard-to-fit places—like under my kitchen sink and a narrow strip of wall between two doorways—I should say that the snake plant came in as first choice!
In addition to fitting in odd spaces, snake plants are particularly good at cleaning one's air. You may have heard about the relatively famous (and now classic) 1989 NASA study that sought out ways to prevent "sick building syndrome", which is a sickness caused by the off-gassing in buildings or too many people in a confined space. NASA suggested that choosing healthier building materials, of course, would work, and also filling one's space with plants. They studied how the leaves, roots, soil, and associated microorganisms of plants could reduce volatile organic contaminants (VOCs) in the air. Sansevieria was shown to be particular effective at removing formaldehyde, benzene, and to a lesser extent TCE.
Formaldehyde is unfortunately a particularly common VOC in the home, as it's released by many household products, among them plywood and pressed wood, wallpaper, foam insulation, paper products, some paints and varnishes, permanent-press fabric, and even in our cosmetics. Additionally, you may have remembered reading about the toxins found inside the temporary homes of those who were hit by Hurricane Katrina. That was largely formaldehyde.
There was an unpublished study in 2006 by Wolverton that came out in response to this unfortunate news that detailed an ingenious solution based on the NASA study. Wolverton arranged a plant/air filter in trailers similar to those given to people affected by Katrina. These air filters contained a plant growing in a mixture of activated carbon and expanded clay pebbles. He demonstrated that levels of formaldehyde were reduced from potentially toxic levels of 0.18 ppm to 0.03 ppm, within the safety limits defined by the World Health Organization. Even though Wolverton didn't use Sansevieria, it's already been show to be a formidable natural air purifier, particularly in the plant root-soil zone.
Hopefully these little bits of information will allow you to look at such a lowly and common houseplant as Sansevieria, in a brand new way—maybe even making it first on your plant list to acquire. 🌿