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Dracaena: Home

Dracaena fragrans; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/ Forest and Kim Starr
Dracaena fragrans; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/ Forest and Kim Starr

Growing dracaena indoors

One of the most asked about houseplants for the NYBG Plant Information Service is Dracaena, sometimes called the corn plant. This houseplant's popularity may be due to its easy care, tall, palm tree-like growth habit and the many striking leaf forms available. Of African origin, these plants offer strong, architectural impact in the home. The showy leaves can be colorfully striped, variegated or even blotched.

The spikey leaves of Dracaena marginata, sometimes confused with cordyline plants, is more tolerant of typical, indoor conditions than are other dracaenas. It can reach 6 feet or taller indoors unless pruned to keep growth in check. The lowest leaves naturally drop off as the plant ages, giving the mature D. marginata a palm tree-like appearance with a slender, attractively-scarred stem.

Dracaena fragrans (so named for it fragrant flowers which are seldom produced indoors) can grow to 4 to 5 feet tall with a 2 foot spread. It has a stouter appearance and broader leaf than D. marginata

Dracaena draco, commonly called dragon tree, can become huge in the wild but is rarely taller than 4 feet by 2 feet wide indoors. The leathery leaves are 18 inches long and blue-gray with thin red margins if kept in proper light. The young Dracaena draco has leaves that stand erect, but when mature arch downward.

An attractive low growing form is Dracaena goldieana, but this plant may be difficult to grow indoors due to its need for high humidity and its sensitivity to changes in temperature. It has an erect stem and tops out around 1 foot high by 1 foot wide. The bright leaves are glossy green, with a yellowish midrib and irregular crosswise bands of silvery gray.

Other collectable species include:

  • Dracaena hookerana, a leathery, glossy sword-shaped leaf form; it's leaves grow up to 2 1/2 feet long. The leaf margins are white or appear almost transparent.
  • Dracaena sanderana, sometimes known as ribbon plant or Belgian evergreen, is a slender, erect shrub that has deep green leaves with broad white margins. The stiff leaves can grow to nine inches long by 1 inch wide. Its height can mature to 3 feet but the compact columnar form makes it a great choice for a tight space.
  • Dracaena surculosa (syn. Dracaena godseffiana) is sometimes called gold-dust, or spotted dracaena. It has a shrubby look with oval leaves, unlike its relatives. Cultivars include Dracaena surculosa ‘Florida Beauty’ and Dracaena surculosa ‘Kelleri’. ‘Florida Beauty’ is more densely spotted, sometimes so much so that the blotches merge to form a solid creamy white area. 

CARING FOR DRACAENA

Light

To successfully grow dracaena plants, give bright light daily, but do not place in direct sunlight. The best light condition gets two or three hours a day of sunlight filtered through a translucent blind or curtain. Dracaena marginata and Dracaena fragrans will tolerate slightly less light. If you notice pale, dry patches on the leaves, move your plant to a place further from the light source.

Water and humidity

During active growth, water plentifully and keep potting mixture constantly moist; toss excess water left in saucer. Brown spots on leaves may indicate inadequate water.

Reduce water in winter but do not allow the root ball to dry out. Too much water in the winter is a frequent cause of plant death.

One of the most common problems with growing dracaenas indoors is providing adequate humidity. Abundant humidity is required for healthy growth. Moist air around these plants can be supplied by placing plants on water filled pebble trays. Place plant with saucer on pebbles to avoid wet feet and eventual rot. Mist regularly. If you notice that your plant's leaf tips are brown, your space may be too dry.

Temperature

Dracaenas need warmth to grow well. Provide a temperature range of 65 – 75º F. (Exception: Dracaena draco can  tolerate a low temperature down to 50° F.) Cold drafts from being placed too close to windows or air conditioning units can lead to brown leaf tips and curling brown leaf margins. 

Repotting

Dracaena goldieana, D. sanderana and D. surculosa do not need frequent repotting due to their relatively small sizes, and can remain in a small pot throughout their lives. More substantial dracaenas can be repotted into a container one size larger every one to two years, in the spring, until a large pot size is reached. The perfect soil is a mixture of one part peat, one part soil and one part vermiculite or sharp sand for drainage, but standard, soil based potting mix is also fine.

Nutrition

Apply standard liquid plant fertilizer every two weeks while the plant is in active growth.

Dracaena marginata 'Tricolor'; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/ Maja Dumat
The beautiful coloring of Dracaena marginata 'Tricolor'; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/ Maja Dumat

Propagation

The best time to do your propagating is in the spring when the plant is in an early growth cycle (though late summer will work too). You can cut off the crown where it is relatively green and young in a 3 to 6 inch length. Cut off all but a few leaves and dip the bottom 2 inches in rooting hormone. Place in a 3 inch pot of slightly moistened rooting mixture with equal parts sand or perlite and peat moss. Enclose the cutting in a plastic bag and keep it warm. (If you can provide gentle heat from underneath with a propagating mat or tray, that is ideal). It should be in part shade until roots form (4 to 6 weeks), at which point take it out of the bag, away from the warm spot and water moderately, allowing just the surface to dry before watering again. Feed every two weeks.

It is also possible to root portions of the long stem if they have a growth bud, but they root less reliably. Don’t forget to make sure cuttings are placed the right end up—i.e., the way the stem originally grew. 

Cutting back a too tall plant

Eventually, a plant may become too tall and leggy for the space or lose so many leaves that its time to cut it back. New growth will appear on the old stem from the nodes, so trim the remaining canes down to just above the nodes for the tidiest appearance. You may choose to start fresh instead with the piece you cut off rather than re-growing the root stock; in that case follow the instructions for propagation above.

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