This is default featured slide 1 title
This is default featured slide 2 title
This is default featured slide 3 title

What is that Dracaenas ??

Dracaenas are Agave relatives and are a large group of plants that include some of the more popular house plants as well as some of the most striking xeric and massive trees used in outdoor landscaping. This article is an introduction to this interesting group of plants.

Dracaena is a large genus of primarily African monocot plants of which there are well over 100 accepted species, most which will not be covered in this article and are virtually unknown in cultivation. However, some are commonly grown landscape trees in some areas of the world, and others are easily among the most popular of all the house plants. Currently most plant sites list Dracaenas in the family Asparagaceae, along with a lot of other similar plants, such as Cordylines, Beaucarneas and Dasylirions (etc.). But they have been bumped about a bit, from the family Liliaceae and Agavaceae to Ruscaceae (which is where they are in the Davesgarden Plantfiles at the time this article was written, but should probably be moved). It sometimes gets old when your plants are continually being reclassified and lumped in different ways. Still, the plants themselves could not care less. It will be difficult to discuss Dracaenas without also discussing Cordylines, their southern cousins from Australia and nearby exotic places (exotic to me, at least). So I will sort of touch upon them, too, but leave the bulk of Cordyline talk for a subsequent article.

Some generalities about Dracaenas are that they are generally solitary plants with single stems (or trunks, or sometimes called ‘canes’) and are either branched or not- most species seem to branch eventually once they get older, but start out as palm-like plants with a top rosette of leaves and a naked stem. Dracaenas are often mistaken for palms, and are often seen in the plant identification section of Davesgarden with a query as to what species of palm they are. Some are immensely tall and massive, such as the very old Dracaena dracos from the Canary Islands (and commonly grown here in California). And some are pretty tiny such as the ‘Lucky Bamboo’ (actually a Dracaena species) often sold at curiosity shops with their canes braided in various ornamental patterns. Some are very drought tolerant and can survive months without any water, performing quite well as xeric landscape plants. While others are very tropical and can grow with their stems in water all the time (again, the ‘Lucky Bamboo’ tolerate this quite well). Most Dracaenas are listed frequently on toxic plant lists, but none are very toxic. However, unlike their close cousins, the Cordylines, these are not cultivated as a food source.

Dracaena draco in a cactus garden, looking somewhat like a palm, Dracaena braunii, aka Lucky Bamboo.

They grow like a typical monocot with leaves erupting from a central meristem and forming a circular rosette of leaves that hang on along the stem until, with age, they slough off. These leaves anchor themselves around the stem, unlike dicot leaves which tend to grow straight out of stems from a single point. This makes their removal or ‘pruning’ quite easy, as one can simply pull the lowest leaf off the stem one at a time by unsheathing it with a downward pull. This is usually preferred in smaller cultivated plants, rather than leaving the dead leaves to fall off constantly, and creates a neat, tidy appearance.

Dracaena draco showing leaves erupting all from same point (meristem) shows leaf bases and scars where leaves have been removed from

One of the common names of the Dracaenas, as a group, is the Dragon Tree. However only a few Dracaenas develop into ‘tree’s- the rest being are smaller, shrubby plants. Though these do not look anything like dragons, at least some of the tree species (Dracaena draco and Dracaena cinnabari) have reddish sap when cut. That red dye has mythological ties to dragon blood, which was shed by Hercules killing a dragon who’s blood then somehow stimulated the subsequent growth of the dragon trees. Dracaena means female dragon in ancient Greek). The problem with the name Dragon Tree is it also applies to a very dissimilar tree called the Paulowania tree (a very fast growing lumber tree from Australia- a true dicot tree). And some Dragon Fruit does not common from the Dragon Tree, but from a cactus.

Another common name applied to one of the most common indoor house plants is the Corn Plant, thanks to is vague similarity to a real corn plant (another upright slender monocot). This name specifically refers to Dracaena fragrans, but sometimes is used to describe other species as well.

Dracaena draco– the Dragon Tree: This is a large, very long-lived species from the Canary Islands, some nearby islands and the very western edge of Morocco (African mainland). One of the most massive trees on the planet is an estimated 650 year old Dracaena draco specimen on the Canary Islands. I have seen large, old specimens here in California, but they are dwarfed by this monster (see below). Older specimens have been known and reportedly grow over seventy feet in height.

This species of Dracaena has very thick, leathery, rough-surfaced and somewhat fleshy, succulent leaves unlike most of the other commonly grown Dracaenas in cultivation. The tips of the leaves are blunted. Removing a living leaf from the trunk will result in a minor ‘bleed’ as some of the red dye this tree is named for will show up as a moist red ring at the leaf scar. This dye is used in cultivation as source of lacquer color (supposedly Stradivarius violins were dyed with this substance). As the leaves age, they dry up and fall from the trunk, leaving a ringed but very smooth, almost shiny trunk that is very ornamental in younger plants. The fresh leaf scars leave an almost woven-like pattern that unfortunately fades with age. This pattern, from a distance, gives the trunks a basket-weave appearance. Older trunks become more woody and ordinary in appearance. At the point of branching, each new stem has a narrow base giving the overall plant a somewhat cartoon appearance as though it had muscular arms relatively to their skinnier joints.The overall effect is unique and ornamental.

Dragon trees are commonly grown xeriscape plants in Mediterranean and desert climates as they are extremely drought, heat and wind tolerant. Though starting out as branchless, palm-like plants, they eventually start to branch at their flowering points, and then branch again, and again at each point the tree makes a flower. Eventually massive heads of thick green agave-like leaves topping smooth, succulent stems cover a wide area and threaten to come crashing down, even bringing down the entire plant if too top heavy. Many older, top-heavy specimens in botanical gardens can be seen held up with supporting poles.

Even these plants can fall over in heavy winds as they are so top heavy. This tree has some root rot from being planted in very clayey soil (left); right shows a yound plant flowering- likely it will branch at that point now.

These trees are very slow growing and it can take several lifetimes to get these to a tree-like landscaping size. But if given plenty of water in the summers and grown in well draining soils, their growth rates can be maximized. Plants grown from seed can reach several feet in under 10 years if grown well.

Some similar species to Dracaena draco include Dracaena cinnabari, a native to Socotra where it dominates much of the landscape (a landscape known for its striking and bizarre flora). This species differs primarily in having many more leaves per crown and the leaves are longer, stiffer and end in a definite point. If anything, these magnificent trees are even more spectacular than Dracaena dracos, forming nearly perfect symmetrical umbrella-like crowns on thick stalks. Photos of this plant are often stunning and ornamental. It is a threatened species collected locally for its red dye.

Dracaena serrulata is another similar species even rarer in cultivation. This species is native to Oman and Yemen. Though not quite as ornamental as it cousins, it still is an impressive tree-like plant growing up over thirty feet. Leaves a more scimitar-like, stiff and blue-grey.

The remainder of the Dracaenas commonly encountered in cultivation are shrubby plants who’s stems are referred to as canes rather than trunks. Some of these (notably Dracaena fragrans, marginata and reflexa) are very popular and relatively easy house plants. They are not only popular for their ornamental appeal, but they reported are natural low level air filters and have been known to reduce formaldehyde levels in room air (is formaldehyde a common problem in room air?).

Dracaena fragrans, aka the Cornstalk Dracaena, is probably the best known of all the Dracaena species. Numerous cultivar variations of this plant can be found in virtually all malls throughout the US and show up in many nurseries for sale as common house plants. This plant is native to much of tropical Africa where it can grow up over forty feet in height, though looking more like a clump of skinny palm trees rather than an impressive tree with a single large trunk. Most Dracaeana fragrans have thin, arching, sometimes undulating and usually glossy lancelote leaves that radiate out from the central canes in rosettes typical of the monocotyledonous plan. There is some variation in leaf thickness, length and waviness. But the primary variations in cultivation are the color and striping patterns which there seem to be a nearly endless variety. Though most Dracaena fragrans have narrow canes or stems from one half to one inch in diameter, at least one variety (Dracanea fragrans ‘Massageana’), the corn plant, has a trunk-like stem up to four inches in diameter. Flowers are quite showy and exceptionally sweet smelling (hence the name fragrans).Indoor plants may even flower now and then filling the entire home with their scent.

Though these plants are from tropical Africa and they look like palms, one should not treat them like palms when growing them indoors. They are extremely hardy, tolerant of low light and humidity, but do not tolerate being constantly wet. Rotting of the root ball is probably the most common cultivational problem of these indoor plants. Most recommendations on caring for these as indoor plants suggest letting the soil dry out before watering again. On the other hand, letting this plant dry out too long will result in brown tipping and death of the lower leaves prematurely. Reportedly many of the indoor Dracaena species are sensitive to fluoride in tap water. For treating plants that seem to brown tipping too much, one might try treated (reverse osmosis) water or rain water. A good soaking of the soil every now and then (yearly for example) to flush out accumulated salts that collect on the root hairs is a good idea. Fertilization should be kept to a minimum as well (but that pretty much goes for most indoor plants).

One of the best things about these plants is they can be pruned easily and will often result in two plants instead of just a shorter one. These are very easy to reroot and propagate in such a fashion.If one happens to rot their plant by overwatering, all one usually needs to do is remove all the rotted tissue (with some margin for safety) and reroot the entire plant. And if they grow too tall or leggy, again, chop the tops off and re-root them. The original plant will usually regrow from the cut area, often branching into multiple canes as well.

These need plenty of light indoors and though they do tolerate very low light situations, they will not stay healthy that way long, and their colors will be abnormal. Direct sun, however, is not recommended for indoor plants. Outdoors, most of these tolerate some direct sun except in very hot, arid climates.

Note that this species has many synonyms. Dracaena massangeana and Dracaena compacta are two common ones, but also Dracaena deremensis and Dracaena warneckii are two more

Dracaena marginata, also referred to as the Dragon Tree (though apparently less accurately as these do not bleed red) or Red Margined Dracaena, is nearly equally popular as a house plant though far less varieties are available in cultivation. This Madagascan native has even thinner stems and far thinner leaves than do Dracaena fragrans. The multicolor or rainbow variety is the most popular by far, but all green or maroon- leaf varieties are still very commonly encountered in cultivation. Dracaena marginata flowers are fairly small and do not that great an odor.

Dracaena marginatas ‘type’ species in mall left; Dracaena marginata growing outdoors in Hawaii showing it can become a relatively large tree in the right situatiion (never gets this large indoors) center; right shows close up of leaves on plant in my yard

Some sources have Dracaena marginata as a supspecies of Dracaena reflexa, but somehow both names are accepted in the World Check List of Plants, so I unclear which is the correct scientific name for this species (or subspecies). Either way, Draceana reflexa is a very similar species and some forms are so similar I cannot tell them apart. Additionally, some forms are very similar to some of the Dracaena fragrans varieties in terms of variegation and leaf size/shape. In general, Dracaena reflexa leaves seem to be shorter and the canes tend to snake about more not always growing upright. Some of the common names for Dracaena reflexa include ‘Song of India’, ‘Song of Jamaica’, ‘Song of Java’ etc (depending on the cultivar leaf color). Dracaena reflexa are native to several islands of the Indian Ocean (and Madagascar, if one includes Dracaena marginata into Dracaena reflexa).

More Dracaena reflexa ‘Song of India’ shots- left at a nursery; right showing flowers on plant in Hawaii. These flowers are not nearly as nice smelling as those of Dracaena fragrans and are typical of this species as well as Dracaena marginata.

Dracaena marginata and Dracaena reflexa are treated pretty much the same in cultivation as Dracaena fragrans. However, in my experience, Dracaena reflexa is more cold sensitive and one rarely sees these grown as outdoor plants in southern California, while Dracaena marginatas are commonly encountered

Other species of Dracaena one may come across in cultivation include some of these plants below.

Dracaena braunii (aka Dracaena sanderiana) aka Lucky Bamboo: this is a very common plant in cultivation and amazing, intricate weavings of its canes are often seen in shops around the world. This is a very tropical species from Africa and parts of Asia where it grows in the dense undergrowth, rarely seeing full sun. Unlike some of the above species, this is a small caned plant that grows very well if its roots are kept in just an inch or two of water. It will grow very slowly in this manner, with regular changes of water (weekly), and occasional fertiliization (very dilute liquid fertilizer). The better the water quality, the better the plant will look (water high in salts and flouride will be hard on this plant, as it is on most plants). Dracaena braunii can also be grown in soil, but there one should let the top of the soil dry out a little between waterings or even this species can rot.

More Dracaena plants below. Note that some of these species are much more highly branched and look a lot less typical of the monocot rosette-on-a-pole growth plan.

Dracaena cantleyi is a rare plant in cultivation, but my palm growing friend has it in his backyard and it is doing quite well here in California. This is the more typical monocot style.

Dracaena ‘Juanita’ at a nursery , Dracaena goldiana at same nursery. These two Dracaenas do not show the typical monocot shape or growth pattern and I am unsure how they fit into the genus in terms of relationship.

The Genus Cordyline, as mentioned above, is a very closely related genus in the family Asparagaceae but a different subfamily (Lomandroidea instead of Nolinoideae). Both Dracaenas and Cordylines look very much like their Yucca cousins. Some sources lump the two genera together. Cordylines are primarily used in as outdoor plants in cultivation with the exception of the most popular species, Cordyline fruiticosa (the Ti Plants). Below are a few photos of Cordylines, but more about these plants will be discussed in a future article.