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A Dracaena For Every Taste
by Larry Hodgson
by Larry Hodgson

email: horticom@horticom.ca

Larry Hodgson has given hundreds of lectures on gardening throughout Canada and the United States.

All the lectures are given with Larry's typical touch of humor and are fully illustrated with beautiful color slides.

They are either in English or French, according to your needs.

Larry is also Regional Director of the Garden Writers Association and has written many books.


July 15, 2012

There are literally dozens of varieties of dracaena on the market, most resulting from mutations from relatively few species. Finding out exactly which dracaena you have, however, can be quite difficult, as labeling is far from constant and the same plant may be known under different names, depending on the grower.

Perhaps the best known dracaena is the corn plant (Dracaena fragrans), a staple plant in just about every office and shopping centre planting. With its long, broad, strap-shaped leaves measuring about 10 cm wide by 90 cm long (4 inches by 3 feet), arching first upward and then down, it can indeed resemble a very leafy maize plant. A naturally tree-like plant with a thick, strong trunk, it is fortunately very slow-growing and may take years before reaching the ceiling. This plant is virtually unkillable and can survive for years in even the poorest light.

Dracaena fragrans is sold in two forms: single potted plants with leaves to ground level and "canes". The latter are lengths of bare stem with clusters of leaves on the top, usually sold several per pot. Although canes are less expensive, they are often not well-rooted. Make sure you give the cane a good tug before you buy it: if well-rooted, it should barely move.

There are several cultivars of Dracaena fragrans, including D. f. 'Massangeana', which is far more widely available than the species itself. It is easily recognized by the broad yellow band down the centre of each leaf. In poor light, the yellow band becomes greener and greener until it disappears entirely, but it will reappear when the plant is exposed to stronger light. D. f. 'Lindenii' is similar, but has yellow-margined leaves instead of yellow-centered ones. D. f. 'Victoriae', with leaves abundantly striped in white and cream, is perhaps the most striking of all the Dracaena fragrans cultivars, but is unfortunately harder to find and to grow than the others.

Although Dracaena deremensis is comparatively new on the market (Dracaena fragrans has been popular since early in the 20th century), its relatively modest size is more in line with modern homes and it is presently the most popular of the two. The species bears dark green, arching, strap-like leaves which, at about 60 cm in length and 7 cm in width (2 feet by 3 inches), are considerably smaller than those of D. fragrans. Although treelike in growth, it doesn't age particularly well, not having the attractive woody stem of D. fragrans. Although it holds onto its lower leaves for a long time, it will eventually reach a stage where it becomes quite ungainly and should then be rejuvenated through air-layering or cuttings. If grown three stems to a pot, it will however remain attractive longer.

Although Dracaena demerensis itself is rarely grown, several of its cultivars are extremely popular. D. d. 'Janet Craig', for example, is a deeper green than the species and has denser growth and shinier, slightly shorter leaves. There is also a dwarf version of this cultivar, D. d. 'Janet Craig Compact' with extremely dense, short leaves, making the plant look like an all-green bottle-brush. Since the latter is excruciatingly slow-growing, it is best to buy it at the size you want for your decor. D. d. 'Warneckei' is the most popular of the numerous variegated Dracaena demerensis cultivars. Its leaves are heavily striped in white and gray-green. New and truly different is D. d. 'Green Stripe' (it is also sold under other names, including D. d. rhoersii) with a broad central band of apple green set off by two white stripes and a deep green border.

Dracaena sanderana is definitely much smaller than the preceding two plants and requires staking if it is to attain even moderate heights. Commonly called the ribbon plant, it bears widely spaced short leaves in a spiral pattern around a thin stem. Individual plants are rather narrowly upright, which is why is it is usually sold in pots of three or more. Both the leaves and the stem are broadly striped white in the case of the species, while the cultivar D. s. 'Borinquensis' has an apple green centre surrounded by bands of white and dark green. Most attractive when small, D. sanderana and its cultivars are often used in dish gardens and terrariums. Unfortunately, they grow too quickly to remain useful very long under such circumstances.

One could say Dracaena marginata has a split personality. As a young plant it is grasslike, bearing long, thin leaves with red-purple edges right to ground level and is used as a table-top or windowsill plant. In only a few short years, however, it is a true indoor tree with a tall, naked, gray stem, attractively marked by triangular scars where the former leaves used to be. Mature specimens are often sold with curiously curved trunks. A similar effect can be obtained indoors by attaching a weight to the stem to bend it down, causing the growing tip to arc upwards from beyond the bend. When the weight is removed and the leaves have fallen off that part of the stem, it will show its crooked stem quite prominently. This dracaena reacts more quickly to poor conditions than most others, producing thinner and shorter leaves and a narrower stem in only a few months. It will nevertheless remain attractive under less than perfect conditions. Watch out for spider mite when the air is dry.

There is a spectacular variegated-leaf version of this plant, D. marginata 'Tricolor', with a green centre band, cream stripes and a pink edge. The result is a candy stripe appearance unmatched by any other plant. Although easy to grow, D. marginata 'Tricolor' is not stalwart as the species, requiring considerably more light. It is most attractive as a young plant before its rather thin trunk becomes visible. There are also several cultivars of D. marginata with purplish rather than green leaves.

Dracaena draco, the original "dragon tree", is also available, although not necessarily in every plant store. It has stiffer, thicker leaves than the other dracaenas, giving it a spiky appearance recalling that of the yucca. Unlike yuccas, however, its leaves are smooth with no sharp edges. Their general color is a slightly bluish green with a nearly translucent edge turning red in full sun. At adulthood, the trunk and branches are grotesquely swollen. In culture, D. draco doesn't normally branch, nor does the stem reach such the gigantic proportions it can attain in the wild.

A Dracaena by any other name would certainly smell as sweet (if you could get it to flower, that is!). Such is the case for Dracaena reflexa which almost never goes under its true name. Instead it is still called by its old one, Pleomele reflexa, at least commercially. This plant bears numerous narrow strap-like leaves which cover the thin, twisting stem from head to foot. This plant is most attractive when relatively young, as its twisting growth habit is rather undisciplined. It can however be maintained forever in a state of eternal youth through pruning, which also encourages branching for an even fuller look. It has two extremely attractive variegated cultivars, D. r. 'Song of India', with a green centre and broad golden to light green bands on either side and D. r. 'Song of Jamaica', whose coloration is inverted: golden in middle and green on either side. The variegated versions need high humidity and good light to do well.

The dracaenas discussed so far could be described as being "typical" in that they have the long, narrow, strap-shaped leaves and upright growth we associate with the species. There are some, however, with very different appearances.

D. surculosa (D. godseffiana), the gold dust dracaena, is very different from the others. It bears elliptical leaves in groups or whorls of 2 or 3 on thin wiry branches that arise from ground level. The leaves are spotted with yellow or ivory. In the case of some of the cultivars, notably the very popular D. s. 'Florida Beauty', the spots are so abundant they merge together to the point where the centre of the leaf can seem almost entirely cream. In a more recent cultivar, D. s. 'Jaunita', the white to yellow spots form what looks more like a broad, oblong stripe in the middle of the leaf.

D. surculosa forms a relatively dense shrub when young, but the branches become longer and longer as the plant ages and shoot out unpredictably in different directions. Although they can be pruned back and will then produce secondary branches, the latter are irregular, giving the plant an uneven appearance. In most cases, then, it is better to start an aging D. surculosa over with cuttings or to divide the original plant.

Although many plant books mention D. goldieana, it is far being a regularly available species, perhaps because, unlike the other dracaenas in cultivation, it has the reputation of being difficult to grow. That's a pity, since it is a strikingly attractive plant, with long-stalked, oval leaves beautifully marked in an attractive pattern of yellow and silvery gray. It is most at home in a warm greenhouse where it can receive the high humidity and freedom from drafts it requires.

D. thalioides (Pleomele thalioides) is also rather uncommon, although it has nothing to do with its ease of culture. Very unlike most other dracaenas, its broad, sword-shaped leaves suddenly narrow into a thin, channeled stalk. Its smooth, shiny leaf surface is marked by lengthwise ribs which give it more than a passing resemblance to an upright-growing aspidistra. Of all the dracaenas, it is perhaps the species which blooms most readily.

When is a Dracaena not a Dracaena? When it's a Cordyline! Just as Dracaena reflexa is better known as Pleomele, several plants in the genus Cordyline occasionally go under the name Dracaena. When in doubt, check their roots: all dracaenas have yellowish to orange roots; cordylines have white ones. Cordyline indivisa and C. australis are two grass-like plants (palm-like after a few years when they form a trunk) that often masquerade until the title Dracaena indivisa. Rather large for indoor growing, they are generally used as outdoor accent plants and are occasionally maintained indoors over the winter. The Ti plant (Cordyline terminalis, sometimes called Dracaena terminalis) is available in various cultivars, most heavily variegated in pink and/or white, but is not an easy plant to grow as it requires constant warmth, high humidity and protection from spider mites and disease pathogens to thrive.

There are, of course, many more dracaenas, but the ones mentioned above are among the most attractive, easily grown and readily available of all… and in fact, the genus Dracaena includes some of the best foliage plants for indoor decoration of any. Give them only bare necessities and they will survive; give them good houseplant care and they can be the stars of your collection!

So, go ahead: try a dracaena! They're practically infallible plants that will give you a world of pleasure!

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