Dracaena - U of I Extension

News Release

Dracaena

This article was originally published on November 1, 2008 and expired on February 15, 2009. It is provided here for archival purposes and may contain dated information.

As winter drags on, there's a natural choice for gardeners looking to do their gardening with houseplants, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"Dracaena is a great choice, even for people whose thumb isn't very green when it comes to houseplants," said Jennifer Schultz Nelson. "It is a genus of about 40 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 the species based on 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," she said. "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 2 to 10 feet tall. Fortunately, most accept pruning readily and can be kept at whatever size is appropriate for the 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," Nelson noted. "Left unpruned, it can reach heights of about 10 feet. 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 10 feet. 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."

Also growing to about two feet is the very shrub-like Gold Dust Dracaena, Dracaena godseffiana. Three to four-inch-long leaves spiral 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.

"While Dracaenas can tolerate low light, they grow best in bright, indirect light," Nelson said. "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. The plants appreciate having their soil dry out partially between waterings. They are also very sensitive to fluoride, which is a common additive to municipal water supplies.

"Symptoms of fluoride toxicity in the plants are yellowing and dying leaf tips," she said. "Low humidity can also cause dying leaf tips, but if you suspect your water is the culprit, use distilled water to water the plants. Letting tap water sit before using it for plants does nothing to remove fluoride."

Many have bought a Dracaena in recent years and didn't realize it, she added.

"The 'lucky bamboo' that has been so popular is actually Dracaena sanderiana," she said. "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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Source: Jennifer Nelson (Schultz), Extension Educator, Horticulture, jaschult@illinois.edu

Pull date: February 15, 2009