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Dragon trees

Kathrin Auer Kathrin Auer

Dragon trees are quite the headturner with their interesting trunks and leaf crowns. Here you’ll find care tips for the houseplants.

Origin

Dragon trees (Dracaena) are attractive green plants, which botanically belong to the agave family (Agavoideae) within the asparagus family (Asparagaceae). Most species of the genus are native to the tropics and subtropics —from the Canary Islands across Africa and Asia to Australia. The botanical name is derived from the Greek word "drakaina", which means something resembling a "female dragon" or "snake". More than 100 years ago, a garden magazine pointed out the beauty and robustness of dragon trees. In our latitudes, a few species are well-known as houseplants and office plants with air purifying characteristics. The best-known representative of the genus is probably the Canarian dragon tree (Dracaena draco). One plant that is quite similar in its growth form is the cabbage palm (Cordyline australis). Botanically too, they are quite closely related.

Appearance and Growth

Even if the name suggests: A dragon tree is not a real tree - it just develops a woody, palm-like trunk. Characteristic are the dense leaf tops that sit on somewhat long, slender to thick stems. In their homeland, dragon trees can grow to be several meters high. As indoor plants, they often do not grow taller than 6.56 feet.

The long, lanceolate leaves of the dragon trees grow stiffly upright or overhang at a beautiful angle. Depending on the type and variety, they are solid green, striped or speckled. The Canarian Dragon Tree (Dracaena draco) is one of the green-leaved species. The varieties of the fragrant (Dracaena fragrans), the red-edged (Dracaena marginata) or the branched dragon tree (Dracaena surculosa) are adorned with colorful foliage.

Indoor plant fragrant dragon tree (Dracaena fragrans)

Dracaena fragrans, the fragrant dragon tree, is a popular houseplant and also cuts a fine figure when planted in groups

The flowering behavior varies considerably, usually a dragon tree only blooms once mature and tends to bloom in the summer months. The greenish-white or creamy white flowers are arranged in loose umbels or panicles — some have a scent, such as the fragrant dragon tree. The ball-shaped fruits, which are usually orange or red in color, usually do not grow when the plant is kept indoors.

The dragon tree is frequently confused with its close relative Cordyline. The difference is in their roots: In case of dragon trees, for example, these are orange-yellow in color, while cordylines develop white roots with storage tubers. And one more tip: The dragon tree is classified as mildly poisonous. Utmost care must be taken in homes with children, allergic people or pets in handling the houseplants.

Location and Substrate

Most dragon trees prefer a bright location all year round, but do not want to be in full sun. Ideally, the location should be warm and preferably humid. Even in winter, the temperature must not go below 59 to 64.4 degrees Fahrenheit for several varieties. Draft and cold soil should be avoided at all costs. The Canarian Dragon Tree can also stay outdoors in a wind and rain-protected place in summer. In winter, it can make do with even 50 degree Fahrenheit.

Indoor greenery with dragon trees

Dragon trees (Dracaena) love a bright, warm place in the room. Direct sunlight and draft should be avoided

The substrate for the dragon tree must be permeable with moderate nutrient levels and should be rich in humus. The pH value should ideally be 6 — in a slightly acidic range. Soils for green plants or palm tree soils are suitable. High-quality potting soil can be improved with clay granules, sand or gravel. Alternatively, dragon trees can also be grown in hydroponics.

Planting

Commercially, the dragon trees are sold in hand-held pots — however, the pot size and the substrate is often not suitable for the houseplants to thrive. It is therefore advisable to put them in a larger container with a nutritious, permeable humus substrate immediately after purchase.

Care Tips

Use your instincts to water the dragon tree. Many species that are planted indoors should be kept moist all year round. If the root ball dries, then the leaf tips quickly start turning brown. So, as soon as the top layer dries, water the plant. Also, ensure that the plant doesn’t get waterlogged! This will rot the roots. Dragon trees that go into a dormant phase in the winter months, the substrate can also be kept drier during this time. The tropical plants prefer to be supplied with rainwater, tap water may have to be decalcified first. One more tip, in case of low humidity: In this case, Dracaena species and varieties would like to be sprayed regularly with room-temperature, low-lime water.

Watering the Dragon tree

The right amount of water is essential, when it comes to watering the dragon trees: The root ball must never dry out completely, at the same time waterlogging should be avoided at all costs

To fertilize a dragon tree it is best to choose a liquid fertilizer for green plants, which you must add to the water. The plant must be fertilized according to its growth rhythm: Most dragon trees are fertilized about every two weeks from March to September, and every four to six weeks from October to February.

In the initial years, dragon trees grow very quickly - so they should be repotted every spring if possible. As they get older, it's usually enough to repot them every two to three years. The new planter should be at least 1.18 inches larger in diameter than the previous one.

In places with less light, dragon trees often form long, bare shoots with weak leaves. To encourage branching, it is recommended to prune the dragon trees. All species tolerate pruning well and can typically be shortened all year round with the help of sharp garden shears— the ideal time, however, is spring. The resulting clippings are great for propagation.

Pruning the dragon tree

You can not only cut the leaves of the dragon tree, but also the trunk

Important Species and Varieties

  • The Canarian Dragon Tree (Dracaena draco) comes — as the name suggests — from the Canary Islands and is adorned with long, dark green leaves. As indoor plants, it reaches a maximum height of 6.56 feet.
  • The fragrant dragon tree (Dracaena fragrans) owes its name to the aromatic, fragrant flower clusters that appear in the wild from March to May. The leaves of the wild species are simply green, while the leaves of the fragrant dragon tree “Massangeana”are adorned with yellow stripes. “Compacta” forms a dense tuff of dark green leaves. Dracaena fragrans “Lemon Lime” has light green leaves with a yellow margin. The dark green leaves of the “Janet Craig” variety tilt slightly outwards.
  • The reddish brown, thin stripes on the leaf edges are characteristic of the Dracaena marginata.
  • The leaves of the branched dragon tree (Dracaena surculosa) are somewhat spotted. Since the shoots resemble bamboo, the species is also called the bamboo dragon tree.

Propagation

If you want to propagate your dragon tree, it is best to use cuttings. Both head and trunk cuttings can be used. For rooting, they are placed in a glass of water or in a pot with moist, nutrient-poor potting soil. Some species, such as the Canary Islands dragon tree, can also be propagated by sowing them in spring - but cultivation is tedious. Optimum germination temperature is around 77 degrees Fahrenheit.

Diseases and Pests

The dragon trees are robust houseplants. However, improper care can lead to an infestation with pests such as spider mites, scale insects or thrips. Brown leaf tips are caused by a dry ball, dry air drafts or by over-fertilization.

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