The Dragon Tree and Its Characteristics
Dracaena Marginata is the scientific name of the jungle originating Dragon Tree. The good reason for their fearsome name is because these plants are sturdy, drought-tolerant, and an awe-inspiring sight to see when fully grown. Even with a minimum amount of care, Dragon Trees will likely grow to be fairly healthy. The terrifying moniker, however, does not show the fact that this actually vulnerable species requires dedicated care from its gardener to achieve its full potential, as several pests and diseases can prey and kill this tree or at least cause it damaging harm.
Dragon Trees are also affectionately called Rainbow Plants. They are slender, with a thin trunk that branches into multiple stalks. These have a tendency to grow wild, so you’ll have to train them to point upwards and keep your tree looking organized. The bark is usually brown or gray, and the trunk will grow to a few inches in width.
The leaves of the Dragon tree are long and slender, arching in various directions, although this can be straightened out by pruning them diligently. Leaves come in several color varieties such as red with a green center, green with red or yellow stripes, and red with a yellow center.
If you maintain the Dragon plant properly, it will retain a slim profile, using up only minimal floor space, and grow to an impressive height of around 8 feet. Their look and size also make them ideal indoor plants, and they are, in fact, commonly featured in offices and institutions that benefit from its appearance and simplicity.
The Dragon tree is a hearty plant, and able to grow in low light and broad temperature variations, but never in extremely cold climates. They are capable of some limited air filtration, removing chemicals and toxins like formaldehyde from the air. Since the Dragon plant will be helping you keep your indoor air clean, it’s best not to abuse it.
Varieties of Dragon Trees
There are many different species of dragon trees, and in fact, there are approximately 40 species in total. Some of the most well-known Dracaena varieties include green dracaena, corn plant, Pleomele, and gold dust dracaena.
Some varieties of the plant are commonly grown for their exotic leaves. The plants are commonly cultivated as specimens and border plants. The trees often appear as potted plants on balconies, patios, and office hallways and corridors. A red resin is extracted from the Dracaena draco species of the dragon tree plant. This red resin was mostly used for medicinal purposes in ancient times in order to heal gastrointestinal and respiratory issues. It was then known as “Dragon’s Blood.”
How to Care for a Dragon Tree
The Madagascar dragon tree plant likes moderate to low lighting, and they can grow best in partial or filtered sun, or in full shade. While sunlight is important to the plant to maintain their foliage colors, they still prefer indirect sunlight. Dragon trees cannot withstand frost or below freezing temperatures and will only survive above -1 degrees C. Outdoor dragon tree, especially in pots, should be brought in greenhouses or the garage. If your region’s temperature falls below the above temperature, don’t plant ground-bound outdoors. Frozen Dragon trees will slowly die out by starting to drop off its leaves.
Outdoors, you should plant Dragon trees in the shade to protect it from direct sunlight. Indoors, leave them close to your East or West windows, or a few feet away from your South windows, so they can receive indirect sunlight.
Dragon tree plants don’t need to be watered frequently. The most common mistake with this plant is over-watering and this is the fastest way to kill the plant. Water only about once a week. Watch out even when watering only once a week if your plant begins to drop its leaves and has a soft stem. Soil should be allowed to dry out before watering again. You will also know if the plant needs watering when its leaves begin to wilt.
The first rule of growing Dragon trees – regardless of soil – is patience. These are slow growers, so you’ll have to invest a deal of time to see them reach their maximum size. By some estimates, it takes about ten years for them to reach their first five feet.
Well-drained soil is still necessary and good, loose potting soil should be fine for it. If the soil is too tightly packed, add peat, mulch, bark or sand to loosen it. Too much moisture in the soil will commonly lead to root rot, for which the cure is re-potting in dry soil.
When starting out, you won’t need a gigantic pot to plant the plant, but you will need the right kind of soil. A loose and well-drained potting mix should do the trick. It should also have low amounts of perlite and well-balanced pH between 6.0-6.5. Pack it into your pot and water your dragon plant well, but don’t pack the soil too tight. Don’t go overboard with the watering because you’ll kill the Dragon Plant with too much water. Only water the plant when you know the top inch of soil is dry, and drain excess water from the bottom of the pot.
Fertilizer is mostly not needed for this hardy jungle plant, but you can fertilize lightly, as little as once a year, or as often as once a month during the plant’s active growth period in the summer if desired, to help in the plant’s growth. Use only small amounts of fertilizer to feed the plant. In the spring and summer, fertilize every two weeks if so desired. In the fall and winter, fertilize only monthly. Avoid any superphosphate fertilizer, and instead, use a slow-release all-purpose fertilizer and water the plant after feeding.
Pruning and Repotting Guide
All you need for a dragon tree are small pruning shears or hard plant scissors.
Even beginner gardeners can consider growing dragon trees. This plant is easy to maintain and prune and naturally drops their lower leaves in favor of a mostly bare trunk and denser canopy. The larger mature trees that grow in outdoor ground-bound gardens rarely need pruning, but the ones growing in pots require a bit of cutting to promote denser foliage and a more rounded appearance, whether they are growing indoors or outdoors. Prune between mid-spring and early summer.
Cut back excessively long growth to a more manageable size by making a 45-degree angle cut in relation to the stem at your desired location on the stem. The 45-degree angle cut ensures water will not collect at the location of the cut. Prune back stems to encourage denser growth. Dragon trees have the tendency to use most of their energy to induce growth at the tip of a stem. This causes the bottom of the plant to appear bare as it grows. Pruning back the stem to where you want new growth to form will result in two stems forming at the cut.
Cut back dead stems to the main cane or where the stem shows signs of health. Scratch the outside of the stem slightly with a knife. If a greenish color appears, that part of the stem is healthy. If a brownish color appears, that part of the stem is dead or dying. Unhealthy stems will feel soft and soggy or have noticeable physical damage. Remove discolored leaves you’re your shears or plant scissors. Dragon trees drop lower leaves naturally, but removing them when you notice they change colors will have no effect on the plant’s growth and keeps your plant looking nice.
Water the plant after pruning so that the soil turns slightly damp and this also promotes recovery and growth after pruning. For a mature tree growing outside that is ground bound and has grown to around 8 feet tall and with thick branches, prune it only if you notice the canopy is outgrowing its location or if the branch is diseased or dying. Branch discoloration and abnormal growth both indicate branch disease or death. If the branch is too thick for your shears, use a pole saw to cut back a dead branch to where it meets the parent branch. To cut back healthy branches due to excessive growth, make the cut where the canopy is manageable again.
Repotting should be done about once every two years or so. If they become root bound, plant growth is likely to be very slow. You can check the bottom of the pot to see if roots are appearing through the drainage holes and if the plant is becoming root bound. To start the re-potting process, first get yourself a new pot that is 1 to 3 inches bigger in width than the current pot. Lean the pot on its side holding the plants stem carefully and try to ease the plant out. You may need to tap the bottom or press and squeeze the sides of the pot (if it is plastic) to encourage the plant to come out.
Loosen as much of the old soil from the roots as much as possible and check for any unhealthy roots and also remove these. Loosen all the roots so they are kind of hanging down rather than spiraling around with each other. This spiraling appearance is a sign the plant is becoming root bound. Place enough potting mix in the pot so the plant is kind of sitting at the same level as it was previously. Cover the outer edges of the plant within the pot a couple of centimeters at least below the top of the pot. An all purpose potting mix is fine to use for this plant. Water the plant thoroughly and place it back in the same position it was before treating it.
Rooting cane cuttings. Dragon tree plant foliage grows atop long, bare stems called canes. Cut the cane into pieces about two inches long, each with one node, reserving the top 4 to 6 inches of the cutting for use as a tip cutting. You may get faster results and stronger roots if you roll each piece in rooting hormone. Lay the pieces horizontally on a tray of seed-starting medium and push them down so that about half of the cutting is above the soil. Enclose the tray in a plastic bag to keep the humidity high and place it out of direct sunlight. Plant the pieces in individual pots when they begin to grow.
Tip cuttings. Tip cuttings should be 4 to 6 inches long. Remove all but a few leaves at the top and dip the lower two inches in rooting powder. Stick the cutting two inches deep in a pot of seed-starting medium. Like cane cuttings, tip cuttings need a moist environment. Enclose the pot in a plastic bag or cover it with a clear plastic soda bottle with the bottom cut out and keep it away from direct sunlight.
Air layering. This is a sure way to get a good-sized Dragon plant. Using this method, you root the plant before cutting it away from the parent plant. Make a wound no more than 1/3 of the way through the stem where you want the new roots to grow. Root no more than the top 12 inches. The small new roots will have trouble supporting anything larger. Coat the wound with rooting hormone and wrap it in damp sphagnum moss. Cover the sphagnum moss with plastic wrap and secure it at the top and bottom with tape. You’ll be able to see the new roots when they form. Cut the rooted portion of the plant from the main plant when the roots are 2 or 3 inches long and plant it in an individual pot.
Stubs. Leave at least six inches of the stub in the pot when you remove the top part of the original plant. Continue to keep the soil moist, and in a few weeks, a pair of new shoots will form to take the place of the old top growth. Fertilize the plant with a balanced liquid houseplant fertilizer every two weeks after the new shoots appear.
Common Problems (Pests and Diseases) and How to Cure Them
An excess of soluble salts, fluorides or boron in the soil will cause the Dragon tree plant to suffer discoloration or rot on the tips of its leaves. To prevent excess soluble salts apply 3-1-2 fertilizer monthly at the rate of 1/3 ounce per square foot. The fertilizer numbers refer to the ratio by weight of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Low humidity, bright light, high temperatures, and very windy conditions can also cause an increase in fluoride accumulation. Do not irrigate with water containing excess fluoride and adjust the potting media to pH 6 to 6.5. Add limestone or wood ash to raise the soil pH. Add granular sulfur to safely lower the soil pH if needed. Avoid fertilizers containing superphosphate or phosphorous containing fluorides. Boron is necessary for plant growth, but avoid fertilizers with high levels of boron.
The Dragon tree plant can suffer infections by spider mites and mealy bugs that are best countered by spraying the foliage with soapy water. Give your plant an occasional shower using this mixture.
Preventive maintenance. Though a sturdy jungle plant, this domesticated variety needs to be provided with consistent care. Unstressed, even healthy and sturdy plants have an increased likelihood of avoiding problems when compared with stressed plants in poor health. Grow your Dragon tree plants in areas of the garden that offer partial shade with some direct sunlight, but not totally in direct sunlight for most of the day. If grown indoors, provide bright, indirect light by standing them near windows that are hit by the sun. Overexposure to the sun may result in damage so develop the plant successfully in shaded conditions. Maintain moist soil high in organic content with a pH level from 6.0 and 6.5. Irrigate with lukewarm water when the top layer of soil is dry.
Problems. You may assume your dracaena has fallen ill with a particular mold disease when you observe a fuzzy white substance on plant surfaces. However, these fuzzy white spots are not molded but rather, they are caused by sucking pests that feed on plant tissue fluid. Cottony cushion scale attacks Dragon tree plants and a variety of other plants such as citrus and nandina. These female pests display orange bodies. The fuzzy white substance includes the cotton like egg sac the females carry on their backs as well as the molted skin of its larvae. Look for white, half-inch sacs on the Dragon plant. Mealybugs display gray-hued bodies and measure up to 1/5 inch in length. The females are coated with a white, cotton-like wax substance. With their habit of gathering in groups, this is the fuzzy white mass that will appear to your eyes.
As the cottony cushion scales or mealybugs feed on the Dragon tree plants, they diminish the plant’s health. In addition, these sucking bugs excrete a sticky, sugary substance known as honeydew. As the honey falls onto plant parts, it promotes the growth of a fungal disease called sooty mold. Plant parts saturated with black-hued sooty mold do not receive adequate light. Damage from these infestations includes stunted growth, branch dieback, and leaves dropping off slowly but in groups and clumps.
Viable solutions. To control pests, you can release the pest’s natural enemies on the plants. Natural enemies kill pests without harming the plants. For cottony cushion scale, release vedalia beetles; for mealybugs, release mealybug destroyers. You can purchase natural enemies from popular or reliable garden supply stores in your area. Try avoiding online retailers as you don’t know the condition of the insects until they are delivered to your home. For severe infestations, saturate the plants with an organic botanical pesticide called horticultural oil.
Other troubles you need to watch out for. Flecking, leaves having yellow and white spots near the tips. The disease is treated by maintaining moderate moisture, light conditions, and temperature; Fusarium leaf spot, reddish spots on young leaves. The plant can be saved with the help of applying iprodione, thiophanate methyl, mancozeb and chlorothalonil; and Soft rot, soft, brown rot and foul odor on rooted cuttings. The only way out is to buy plants without diseases and get rid of those that have them.
Things to Keep in Mind When Growing Dragon Trees
Since these are jungle plants, they appreciate higher humidity levels, but not to the point of overwatering or leaving stagnant water in the soil. You can use a spray bottle or humidifier when watering the plant once a week, but it’s not really necessary to place the plant in the bathroom or laundry room as some people tend to do. Generally, dragon trees do best with lower humidity. If you want to train your dragon plant to grow in an arrangement or style, slightly more frequent watering will soften the stems and make them easier to wire or bend.
Take note that one major drawback to growing Dragon trees is its toxic effect on cats and dogs. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reports a variety of symptoms in pets eating or chewing on the tree’s unidentified toxins. They include vomiting, loss of appetite, weakness, drooling, and even loss of coordination. Affected cats may also have dilated pupils and digestive pain. Keep your indoor dragon trees where pets cannot reach them, and supervise the pets when they’re around your outdoor Dragon plants.
From mid-fall through winter, Dragon tree plants go into rest mode so don’t prune during this period. When pruning, make sure your pruners are clean and sharp. You want to get as precise a cut as possible and you don’t want the plant or the cuttings to get any type of infection. Always cut at an angle as this lessens the chance of infection. The canes that you cut off will root very easily in water. You can then replant them at the base of the mother plant, give them away, or replant them in another pot.