These popular plants for the house or office have attractive foliage and are easy to cultivate, says Miranda Kimberley.

D. marginata ‘Tricolor’
D. marginata ‘Tricolor’

Dracaena are popular houseplants that are commonly used in living rooms, hallways and offices. Ranging from small potted plants to tall specimens with established trunks, they cope well with positions of low light and, dare I say it, a little neglect.

There are around 40 species of Dracaena, residing in the Agavaceae family. They come from warm climates, from West Africa to the Canary Islands, with one species in America. They are quite variable, being either herbaceous or woody shrubs or trees. 

The houseplants available tend to be either false palms, with a trunk and crown of leaves, or shrubby in habit. Their main feature is their attractive foliage, which is green but often variegated white, silver or yellow, sometimes with red margins. The canes of the species D. braunii are also grown in such a way that they create interesting patterns, earning it the common name "lucky bamboo".

In terms of cultivation there are a couple of easy species. These include the succulent D. draco Award of Garden Merit (AGM) and D. marginata AGM, both of which will cope with a more shady position, quite low winter temperatures and some neglect. 

However, the rest of the genus is a little more fussy, needing higher winter temperatures and careful watering to ensure moist but not waterlogged compost. There is debate about how much misting they need, but removing dust from the leaves with a damp cloth is a good idea — but you should be aware that the shrubby form D. surculosa ‘Florida Beauty’ AGM does not appreciate this approach.

To prevent waterlogged conditions, Draceana are best planted in well-drained compost. Drooping or yellowing leaves indicate overwatering or poor drainage. Give them a position in the house or conservatory that benefits from good light but is not in direct sunlight. 

They are best repotted every two years, in spring, moving the plant up to a larger pot each time.

Although generally having few problems with pests, occasionally they can be affected by mealy bug, spider mites and scale.

A nice feature of Dracaena is that they can be easily pruned to shape, which gives you cuttings that will produce new plants. D. fragrans and those in the Deremensis Group can reach heights of 3-4m, so older plants will get leggy and often need cutting down. 

After pruning, new foliage will sprout in just a few weeks. The cut pieces can be dried a little before planting, to callous over, and can then be rooted into seed and cutting compost, which should be kept moist but not wet.

The name Dracaena refers to the Greek word for female dragon, because of the red resin that exudes from the stems when cut that is said to resemble "dragon’s blood". 

There is an incredible specimen of the dragon tree — D. draco AGM — standing in Parque del Draco in Tenerife, Spain. This tree is known as "El Drago Milenario" because it is estimated to be thousands of years old.

What the specialists say

Rich Meredith, co-owner, ourhouseplants.com

"The most common Dracaena grown as houseplants are the dragon tree, corn plant and lucky bamboo. All three are attractive and suit the majority of homes or offices easily. 

"They all like bright light without being in direct sunlight. Constantly moist soil is preferred, but not soaking wet as this will encourage the main stem to rot. Fortunately they don’t need frequent repotting and there is no need to mist the leaves, although it might help get rid of the dust that settles over time.

"These very hardy plants are seldom visited by pests or disease. They also put up with a lot of poor care for a prolonged period. In fact, the number-one killer for these plants is overwatering."

In practice

Stephen Graham, planteria manager, Woodlands Garden Centre

"Dracaena are great houseplants that need little attention. There are a few we often recommend to customers — false palm types such as D. draco, D. marginata and D. fragrans. These produce a nice stem topped with a crown of leaves, which eventually start branching. Their size can be controlled by pruning so if they get too big — D. fragrans gets the tallest — it’s easy to remedy that.

"There is a nice shrubby variety called D. surculosa ‘Florida Beauty’, which used to be known as and is often still found as D. godseffiana. Its nickname is gold dust, because of the sprinkling of yellow on the green leaves. It is a robust plant that isn’t keen on being misted at all and copes with lower temperatures."

Species and varieties

D. braunii (syn. D. sanderiana), is an African species, also known as "lucky bamboo" because its strong stems resemble culms. They can be grown into interesting patterns and the houseplant has become popular for feng shui. Keeping lucky bamboo inside houses and business places is believed to bring happiness and prosperity. Height: up to 90cm.

D. draco AGM (H1C), the "dragon tree", is an attractive succulent commonly used as a houseplant. In its native habitat of the Canary Islands, Cape Verde, Madeira and western Morocco, it will become and large and broad tree. As a houseplant it first produces a clump of sword-shaped green leaves and as it ages it produces a thick grey stem that eventually branches, at the end of which are clusters of leaves. Drought-tolerant. Height: 4-8m.

D. fragrans is known as the "corn palm". It is one of the false palm types, like the dragon trees and D. braunii, with its clean stem tipped with a cluster of leaves. There are several good forms. Height: 2-4m.
D. fragrans ‘Massangeana’ AGM (H1B) has broad arching green leaves, with a central greenish-yellow stripe.
D. fragrans (Deremensis Group) ‘Lemon Lime’ AGM (H1B) has narrow arching leaves, striped with green and bright greenish-yellow.
D. fragrans (Deremensis Group) ‘Warneckei’ AGM (H1B) has grey-green leaves, variegated with stripes of white and green. Height: 4m.

D. marginata AGM (H1B), the "Madagascar dragon tree", is a popular tall houseplant that can be grown with a single slender trunk or several trunks in a pot. The canes can be trained to curve, creating unique character plants. It has long, sword-shaped, recurved, dark-green leaves with reddish-purple edges. Height: 4m.
D. marginata ‘Tricolor’ AGM (H1B) has three leaf colours — a green midvein then yellow and red. 

D. reflexa ‘Variegata’ AGM (H1B), the "variegated song of India", is an erect form with sword-shaped green leaves that are reflexed with creamy white margins. Height: 90cm.

D. surculosa ‘Florida Beauty’ (syn. D. godseffiana) AGM (H1B) is also known as the "spotted dracaena" for its broad green leaves that are heavily blotched with creamy white. An evergreen with slender branches and elliptic leaves. Height: 60cm.

Thank you to Floramedia, which supplied the images for this article from its photo library


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