The Dracaena genus is a plant family containing around 120 species of evergreen trees and architectural foliage shrubs. You might know a Dracaena plant as a Madagascar dragon tree, and with good cause! Their name is derived from the Ancient Greek “drakaina”, meaning “female dragon”. They do indeed spark a fire of interest in those who want something out of the ordinary to help brighten up the day.
We’ll take a look at some of the best species, for both colour and form, plus find out just how easy it is to care for these spectacular foliage specimens.
The Madagascar Dragon Tree
These stunning plants have grown in popularity with houseplant growers over recent years. This is due to their easy-care nature, upright habit, and striking, strap-like foliage. As a tropical forest enthusiast and fan of its associated flora, the Dracaena genus is one of my favourite additions from the startling under-canopy of beautifully exotic plant life.
As their name suggests, these trees are native to Madagascar and further regions of Africa. Additionally, they thrive in Southern Asia to Northern Australia. There are even a couple of species in the more tropical regions of Central America.
With such a wide range of native homelands, it’s no surprise that their forms are so varied. They can range from 2 feet tall, branched and bushy, to towering 10 feet tall and slender. All depends on the variety and their country of origin.
Their leaves, colours and markings are among their strongest assets. Furthermore, each species is a living partnership of colours and contrasting variegations, of which I am in awe.
All plants of the Dracaena genus are botanically placed in the Asparagaceae family, and have a pretty unusual stem structure. These species have a secondary thickening in their trunks which is known as a “meristem”. This is a tissue containing meristematic cells, which—unlike normal stem cells—are capable of continued cellular division.
These special cells provide the basic structure of the plant body, and are primarily responsible for growth. This is a characteristic shared by very few plant groups, including the Agave and Xanthorrhoeoideae families.
We’ll start with the “marginata”: a most recognised variety for houseplant enthusiasts, with a slender and branching form. The trunk is woody, slim, and snak-like in texture. It’s topped with a crown of glossy green, narrow, linear leaves, each edged with a red-purple margin. These are commonly sold with multiple—mostly three—stems per pot, all of which are generally of different heights. This results in the leaf crowns at different heights too.
It’s a slow-growing evergreen, reaching a mature height of around 10 feet. Interestingly, it’ll remain quite slender in relation to alternative Madagascar dragon tree species.
There is a further “marginata” variety, which is Dracaena marginata “Tricolor”: another well-established favourite. This one has a similar growth height and form, but more colourful leaves. From leaf tip to the central crown, each is marked with rich green and yellow stripes. Then then finish with a red-purple leaf margin. Overall, the Dracaena marginata is an eye-catching, medium-sized plant with a graceful stature.
Also known as the “Ribbon Plant”, Dracaena sanderiana is native to Central Africa. The species was named after the German-English gardener Henry Frederick Conrad Sander, who passed away in 1920. It’s a striking evergreen shrub with an upright habit and cane-like stems. In maturity, expect a height of around 2 meters tall, and a spread of less than a meter.
Their wide, attractive, ribbon-like leaves grow from a central crown. Each reaches up to 10 inches long and they’re bi-coloured, consisting of glossy mid-green with wide, creamy white leaf margins. At times, you’ll also notice white stripes along the length of the leaves. These stretch from the central crown to the pointed leaf tips.
This is a really lovely variegation on a well-known and trusted, easy-care plant species.
Interestingly, throughout Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.A., rooted stem cuttings of the Dracaena sanderiana are cultivated and marketed as “Lucky Bamboo” plants. There’s no botanical relation to the bamboo species whatsoever, but I suppose it does have a vague likeness.
Dracaena deremensis “Warneckii
The “Warneckii” is a slow-growing Madagascar dragon tree with an erect, sparsely branched form. In maturity, you can expect a top height of around 2 meters, and a spread of just about a meter. Its foliage is what gains people’s attention, and you won’t be disappointed.
The variegated leaves on these beauties are lance-shaped and initially erect, but arch the plant matures. Each leaf is wide and bold, reaching an impressive length of up to 18 inches long. Each have deep grey-green and cream stripes running the entire leaf length. It’s not overdramatic to say the “Warneckii” is a sight to behold.
Although foliage is key here, we haven’t touched on the Dracaena flowers at all. That’s because they rarely flower, and if they do, it’s only on mature plants. On this particular variety, the occasional flower pannicle is relatively large. They consist of many tiny red and white flowers that appear during the summer months.
Dracaena deremensis “Janet Craig”
This is another top seller with a compact, solid form and a broad crown of glossy, mid-green leaves. Again, these leaves initially grow upright, but arch with age. “Janet Craig” is a non-variegated cultivar with interestingly wavy leaf margins. It’s one of the original Dracaenas frequently used as structural plantings in large shopping malls. Additionally, it’s been used in spacious office spaces over the past few decades.
It’s quite common for them to reach a good 4 meters in height in their African homeland. In contrast, they reach a much more manageable 2 meters when cultivated as indoor plants.
This species has been around since the 1930’s and is a variant of the Dracaena deremensis “Warneckii” listed above. It’s reportedly named after the daughter of Philadelphian nurseryman Mr. Robert Craig.
They look great and are easy maintenance, with the added benefit of low-light tolerance. These factors ensure the Dracaena deremensis “Janet Craig” will still be in the top ten for years to come.
This small and shrubby Dracaena cultivar is unusual in that it forms loose groups of slender stems. They all produce oval, deep green, pointed leaves which become patterned with yellow-green splashes over time.
At a manageable height of around 4.5 feet, this is one Dracaena that looks similar to the Asian bamboo plant. In fact, in Malaysia, it’s commonly known as “Japanese Bamboo”. It’s also called the “Florida Beauty” in other countries.
As with all plants in this easy-going family, the “surculosa” is a dream to look after. It continues to provide great year-round foliage with minimal care and effort. Overall, it’s an excellent Dracaena with a slender form and exotic feel. Perfect for structural plantings and minimalistic design.
Commonly referred to as the “Song of India”, Dracaena reflexa is native to Madagascar, Mozambique, Mauritius and further Indian Ocean islands. In its natural habitat, it can reach 4–5 in maturity. In contrast, those grown as houseplants will only grow to a far more manageable 3 feet or so.
This popular ornamental landscaping plant can be grown both in and outdoors. Like all Dracaenas, however, the species is frost tender. As a result, it only survives year-round in zones 10–11. It has a mature oval form with a stout, irregular stem structure.
Its leaves are a rich, glossy green and spear-like in shape. These grow erect in infancy but arch as the plant matures. They’re arranged in whorls, growing in a spiral fashion up the stem. In fact, each will reach up to 20 cm long, with pointed tips and broad bases.
The Dracaena reflexa does flower, though these are considered rather insignificant. The flowers are fragrant, small and white, appearing sometime in mid-winter.
As care goes, this species isn’t quite as tolerant of neglect as other varieties. It also requires higher humidity levels to flourish properly. This can easily be achieved with regular misting, and placing the plant on a tray of watered pebbles.
Dracaena compacta “Janet Craig”
This variety is a dwarfed version of the “deremensis Janet Craig” listed above. It grows to around a foot tall and is perfect as a low-light tabletop plant. Its form is stout and bushy with a huge amount of slim, glossy green pointed leaves. These are oval and grow en masse from the central crown.
This is a slow-growing, durable Madagascar dragon tree, which has been collected by enthusiasts for the last 20 years. It’s often found with 3 stems per pot, staggered in height.
The Dracaena compacta “Janet Craig” is a fresh, vibrant specimen that’s ideal for smaller spaces.
Dracaena deremensis “Lemon and Lime”
Another of the “deremensis” Dracaenas, with a similar form and growing habit and closely related to the Dracaena “Warneckii” and “Janet Craig”. Native to tropical regions of Africa where mature plants can often reach over 4 meters high. Thankfully, when grown as a houseplant, you can expect a top height of around 1.5 meters, with a spread of up to a meter. Its stems are much like canes, with a dull marbling of grey-green and white, each crowned with bold and beautifully coloured, arching lance-shaped leaves. “Lemon and Lime” refers to the leaf markings, each leaf has zesty bright green edges and a dark green midrib running from crown to tip.
Overall, “Lemon and Lime” is a true wonder of nature. Its bright and contrasting variegation attracts the boldest of houseplant enthusiasts, adding a touch of energetic zest to any interior space.
Forms of Madagascar Dragon Tree
There are many, many species of this wonderfully tropical genus, a few of the best I have listed above. All species fall into one of two categories, being either tree-like in structure with stout trunks and broad, very stiff leaves, or the shrubby Dracaenas.
These shrubby Dracaenas are not only smaller in size, but their stems are far thinner and the leaves are slim, elongated and generally more flexible.
Tree-like forms include the Dracaena Americana, D. arborea, D. cinnabari, D. draco, D. ombet and D. tamaranae. All the remaining available species fall under the heading of Shrubby Dracaenas.
The Dracaena genus is one plant that’s undergone extensive research in the NASA Clean Air Study, proving it has great air filtration abilities. It is one of the best plants for removing damaging toxic gases, such as formaldehyde, xylene and trichloroethylene.
Planting your Dracaena
Selecting the Right Soil
Dracaenas will tolerate many soil types, but perform best in a well-draining, humus rich growing soil – one that imitates that of its native tropical forest floor with added organic matter. All Dracaenas are especially sensitive to excessive fluoride, this can cause leaf scorch and discoloured leaf margins. For this reason, I would recommend you avoid using perlite in the potting mix, but maybe add some sand or vermiculite instead. A soil pH value of around 6 is ideal.
Where to site your plant
Natively, the Dracaena is a genus commonly found growing in the under canopy of tropical forests. As a result, they need bright, though indirect, filtered light. Try to replicate this environment if you can, siting your plant in a semi-shaded spot, away from strong, direct sunlight and any cold draughts.
Please be aware that all plants within the Dracaena genus are toxic to cats and dogs.
All the Dracaenas are frost-tender, suitable for outdoor growing in zones 10 -11 only. In all other areas, your plants can be over-wintered indoors and placed outside throughout the summer months. A minimum temperature of 64 degrees F, or 18 degrees C. is recommended, though temperatures of around 70 – 75 degrees F will guarantee healthy growth.
Beware that sudden shock can cause your Dracaena to lose its leaves – some or all. This is usually caused by a sudden change of temperature, but fear not, the leaves will grow back again.
Caring for your Dracaena
When in full growing mode throughout the summer months, water your plant regularly and let it dry out well in-between watering. When the top 1 inch of soil is dry to the touch, then water again.
In the late autumn and winter months, water less frequently allowing the soil to dry out more in cooler temperatures.
Never let your Dracaena stand in water as this can cause root rot. Always drain any excess away before placing the plant back in situ. One of the commonest causes of plant casualty is overwatering and root rot.
Once your potting soil has enrichment from organic matter, your Madagascar dragon tree will only need to be fed once a month in the growing season. Use a well-diluted liquid feed, with a balanced N.P.K. value. Don’t feed your plant during the winter months.
Remember that the Dracaena genus is very sensitive to excessive fluoride, and any build-up of salts and phosphates. Heavy fertilizer use is likely to increase possible damage. Therefore, avoid using any superphosphate feeds, and flush the roots and soil regularly with rain water to remove excesses.
Be sure to repot regularly with selective fresh compost. This will also help avoid excessive salt buildup and keep your plant healthy.
Only prune your Madagascar dragon tree when the lower leaves start to discolour or die off. Just pull these leaves off gently instead of cutting them.
Should your specimen get too leggy with sparse foliage, or even if you want to remove part of the stem, rejuvenate pruning is very successful on all Dracaena species when cut right back to around 10 – 15 cms above the soil line. This will give your plant a new lease of life, bringing fresh green foliage and encourage new stem growth. Ideally, this should be carried out in the Spring.
Leaves can over time, gather household dust. It is best to regularly use a light feather duster to remove the build-up.
You can propagate Dracaena plants from seed or by way of air-layering in the Spring time. Alternatively, take tip or stem cuttings from the mother plant in the Summer.
Good cultural practices are always important in a bid to avoid pest problems. Keep your plants clean, and remove old leaves and debris as soon as you can. Avoid over-watering your plants, and let them have space to breathe.
The most common houseplant pests you’ll come across will be mealybugs, thrips, shore flies, scale and fungus gnats. Most of these are sap-sucking insects feeding on the plant body. Although they’re small, you can easily spot infestation evidence.
Fungus gnats feed on the plant roots and lay larvae in the top inch of potting soil. Allow soil to dry out well in-between waterings to avoid this problem.
For sap-sucking insects, use an insecticidal soap on the plant, washing the leaves with a damp cloth. This will remove any excretions left behind by the insects. Additionally, it’ll remove any bugs that are still present. Next, spray your Dracaena with neem oil. Most of these bugs will feed on the plant body, so the oil will stop them.
If this doesn’t work, head to your local garden store and buy a suitable spray insecticide.
Leaf spot is a common problem, caused by overhead watering and plant overcrowding. To avoid this, water early in the day so that your plant has enough time to dry out before the temperatures drop. In addition, allow your plants plenty of space to breathe. Buy a suitable fungicide from your local garden store to deal with an extensive problem.
Dracaenas are also prone to cold damage, so avoid drastic temperature changes. Trim off damaged areas with a good pair of clean snips or scissors. If your plant receives too much shade, growth will be spindly and rather insipid. Move your plant to a brighter location in filtered sunlight to improve things.
Perfect Planting Companions for your Madagascar Dragon Tree
My favourite planting companion for your Dracaena is the amazing Alocasia. It’s a tropical forest playmate with lush, green, fleshy foliage and the largest glossy leaves you can imagine. Check out the “Alocasia Mayan Mask” and “Alocasia Plumbea Nigra” to get a better idea.
Another beauty is the Japanese Aralia plant, botanically known as “Fatsia Japonica”. This bold-leaved beauty has large, glossy-green palmate leaves. The unvariegated Fatsia is a pretty frost-hardy plant, though the variegated “Spiders Web” cultivar is not.