Plant Palette

Plant Palette

Dracaena

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
jaschult@illinois.edu

While the winter drags on, it's natural for gardeners to turn to houseplants for their gardening 'fix'. Dracaena is a great choice, even for people whose thumb isn't very green when it comes to houseplants.

Dracaena is a genus of about forty trees and shrubs. Most are native to Africa, but there are a handful in Asia and Central America. The name Dracaena comes from an ancient Greek word for 'female dragon'.

There are two distinct groups of Dracaena based on their growth habits. One group is composed of tree-sized plants, with stiff leaves growing in semi-arid desert areas, commonly called 'dragon trees'. The other group is familiar to most people as common houseplants, but they are actually native to the rain forest, where they grow as understory plants along the forest floor. These are the 'shrubby dracaenas'.

If you are looking for a houseplant that can withstand less than ideal conditions, Dracaena is a great choice. They are commonly used in office and commercial plantings, where they can survive without a lot of special care.

Depending on the cultivar, Dracaena can grow anywhere from two to ten feet tall. Fortunately, most accept pruning readily and can be kept at whatever size is appropriate for their surroundings.

Dracaenas are grown for their beautiful "strap-like" foliage. Variegated cultivars of green, white, and even pink are available.

There is a species of dragon tree, Dracaena marginata, grown as a houseplant. Left unpruned, it can reach heights of about ten feet tall. The cultivar 'tricolor' is prized for its green leaves with cream and red stripes.

Green Dracaena, Dracaena deremensis, has several widely grown cultivars. 'Janet Craig' is a popular but very large cultivar, growing to about ten feet tall. It is best suited to large offices and shopping malls. 'Warneckii' is unusual, as it is a variegated plant that tolerates low light. It only grows to about four feet tall.

Gold Dust Dracaena, Dracaena godseffiana, grows to about two feet tall and is very shrub-like in growth habit. Three to four inch long leaves spriral around wiry stems, and the leaves are speckled with yellow that changes to white as the leaves mature. 'Florida Beauty' has so many speckles that hardly any green portions of leaf can be seen.

I have had a Corn Plant, Dracaena fragrans, for over ten years. The common name comes from the plant's resemblance to a corn plant because of its narrow, arching foliage. 'Massangeana' is the cultivar I have, and it has a large stripe of yellow down the center of each leaf. Mine started out in a very small pot, only about a foot tall, but now it's about three feet tall. It may eventually reach four or five feet tall.

While Dracaenas can tolerate low light, they grow best in bright indirect light. If they have been in low light for a long time, sometimes their leaves and stems become elongated and somewhat lighter in color. The simple remedy is to move the plant to a brighter location, and cut back the unsightly foliage and stems. New healthy-looking leaves and stems will soon appear.

Dracaenas can tolerate a lot of abuse, but they will develop root rot if they are not in a well-drained potting mix. They appreciate having their soil dry out partially between waterings.

They are very sensitive to fluoride, which is a common additive to municipal water supplies. Symptoms are yellowing and dying leaf tips. Low humidity can also cause dying leaf tips, but if you suspect your water is the culprit, use distilled water to water your plants. Letting tap water sit before using it for plants does nothing to remove fluoride.

Many of us have bought a dracaena in recent years and probably didn't even know it. The "lucky bamboo" that has been so popular is actually Dracaena sanderiana. Commonly sold rooted in water, it does grow better in soil. Even though it isn't really bamboo, it is a fun plant for the home, and can even be coaxed into crazy twisted shapes by growing it in different positions relative to the light source and the force of gravity.

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