University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime News Article
line

EASY HOUSEPLANTS-- DRACAENA

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont

This easy-to-grow houseplant comes in various forms, and may be harder to pronounce (said as dra-C-nah) than it is to grow.  This seemingly odd name comes from the Greek word “drakaina”, meaning female dragon, and possibly referring to the red sap exuding from cut stems.  Dracaenas are commonly seen in homes and offices, give a tropical appearance, help to purify the air, and many tolerate low light conditions.
   
Dracaenas are in the Asparagus family, related to this vegetable as well as to house plants such as the bow string hemps (Sansevieria) and cordyline.  They’re toxic to dogs and cats if ingested, causing symptoms such as vomiting, depression, or dilated pupils in cats.
    
Draceanas can grow from two to ten feet tall, depending on cultivar (cultivated variety).  Many can be kept shorter with pruning.  Those that are upright generally grow no more than two feet wide.  
   
They generally have one to a few main stems, with strap-shaped leaves.  Some cultivars have colorful stripes on the leaves. Check your plants weekly for scale insects (small brown bumps), white cottony mealybugs, and mites (use a magnifying glass for these, checking undersides of leaves).  Wiping leaves with a damp cloth occasionally, or giving smaller plants a rinse with soapy water, will help keep pests and dust off.
   
If lots of leaves fall off suddenly, this could indicate sudden temperature changes, drafts, too much water and poor soil drainage, or heavy insect infestations. Give bright, indirect light unless you know a cultivar to tolerate lower light conditions.  Excessive direct sun on leaves may cause round spots and streaking.  
      
Water only when the soil surface is dry to the touch.  Make sure plants don’t sit in a saucer or outer pot in water, as this will rot the roots.  Make sure water is at least room temperature when watering, and not cold (as may come out of faucets in winter).  
   
Air temperatures of 60 to 70 degrees (F) are ideal, perhaps to 10 degrees cooler at night.  Don’t  let them get much below 50 degrees, or for too long.  Keep leaves away from, and not
touching, cold windows.
   
If tips and edges of leaves turn brown, the humidity may be too low.  These are the same symptoms, too, of too much fertilizer.  Increase humidity with daily misting of leaves, a room humidifier, placing plants on trays with pebbles kept moist, or similar methods.  If you suspect too much fertilizer, and see a white salt residue on the inner pot rims, repot the plants into fresh soil and only fertilize sparingly.  
   
Draceana is one of the few houseplants sensitive to too much fluoride, either from the water or the soil.  Try and avoid potting media with white perlite granules that can provide fluoride, and avoid fertilizers containing superphosphate.  Yellowing of leaf tips and margins, or scorched areas, indicate possible fluoride injury.
    
One common dracaena is the corn plant (Dracaena fragrans), named from the leaves that resemble corn leaves.  The species name refers to the fact that the flowers, that you rarely see on plants indoors but may see in the tropics or conservatories, are fragrant.  ‘Massangeana’ is the a common cultivar, having a central yellow stripe on the arching glossy, wide green leaves.  
   
Corn plants benefit from periodic wiping dust off with a damp cloth.  Stems are stout, thick, and tan, often with the leaves near the top.  They reach four to five feet high, with a width to two feet.  It is native to tropical and subtropical Africa, and is a plant often touted to help purify air indoors from chemical pollutants such as formaldehyde.
   
Another common dracaena is ‘Janet Craig’.  It is much more common than the green dracaena species (D. deremensis), having wide, glossy green leaves that arch off of upright stems to 10 feet tall.  Related is the cultivar ‘Warneckii’, but it has narrower leaves with central white stripes.  It grows up to four feet tall, and is one of the better variegated plants for low light. ’Lemon Lime’ is a relatively new cultivar with yellow stripes.
   
Gold dust dracaena (D. godseffiana) is shrub-like, only growing two to three feet tall.  Leaves are three- to four-inches long, spiraling around thin, wiry stems.  They’re speckled with creamy yellow that fade to white as leaves mature.
   
Madagascar dragon tree or red-margined dracaena (D. marginata) is native to Madagascar as you might guess.  It has clusters of slender, arching leaves atop thin stems.  Stems often have interesting natural bends.  In the species, leaves have purple margins; in the cultivar ‘Tricolor’, the narrow green leaves have cream and red stripes.  Dragon tree can grow up to 10 feet tall, but cutting back stems will force them to branch and remain lower.  Since this species tolerates low light, it is often found in homes, offices, and commercial settings.
   
Song of India is a great name for a dracaena (D. reflexa) native to islands of the Indian Ocean.  You may find it by its former name of pleomele, or as Malaysian dracaena.  ‘Variegata’ is a popular cultivar with yellowish lime-green margins on the dark green leaves when they’re young.  Over time leaves mature to a lighter green with creamy margins.  The narrow leaves are arranged spirally in whorls up the stems.  Often plants in containers have multiple stems, reaching three to six feet tall.  In the wild, they may reach 18 feet all or more.  
   
These are only the more common draceanas you’ll find at greenhouses and garden stores. The main factors to consider when shopping are the appearance, ultimate height, and light needs.


Return to Perry's Perennial Pages, Articles