Updated: Feb 7
Dracaenas are number three on our list of the plants we get the most calls about. Sometimes they are mistakenly referred to as palms because of their similar fountain-like leaf growth patterns. Dracaenas are sub-tropical trees and shrubs that grow in all parts of the world, especially Africa, and share the same family of Asparagaceae with Agave.
Dracaenas come in a variety of sizes and colors depending on their cultivar. Some cultivars such as Dracaena fragrans ‘Corn Plant’ have very thick canes while others such as Dracaena marginata ‘Dragon Tree’ have thin canes. They are often sold as 2-3 separate plants in one pot at varying sizes.
The Dracaena’s strap-like leaves grow from a central growing point at the end of each cane. As the leaves age they will move down the canopy and eventually dry and fall from the plant naturally. It is common for the thin tips of the leaves to brown over time, even with proper lighting and watering. This is because the leaves have thin cell walls that are very susceptible to damage. One of the main causes of tip damage is the dry environments of our homes and Dracaenas like high humidity levels. A humidifier can be placed under your Dracaena to increase humidity. Avoid placing Dracaenas near vents or drafts that can dry out the air around the plant.
Dracaenas are not too picky about the amount of lighting they receive in the home, but they prefer to be placed near a window that provides bright light most of the day. Avoid placing Dracaenas in dark, shady corners of the home or the plant’s health will decline over time and the canes will bend towards light in a process called phototropism. Once the Dracaena’s canes begin to bend, it is difficult to train them to be straight again without damaging them. If this occurs, pruning the canes back before the bend point will give you the chance to re-train them to be straight. However, if the lighting is not improved the canes will continue to bend in the direction of the light.
Rotating your Dracaena each time you water can help prevent the plant from bending too far in one direction. If your home lacks proper lighting, a full spectrum grow light can be placed on your Dracaena.
Oftentimes Dracaenas can suffer from too much sunlight, especially if they have not been acclimated to a high light environment. Avoid placing newly purchased or young plants right up against windows that receive heavy afternoon sunlight or in full sun if growing them outdoors. Symptoms of too much sunlight are scalding of the top of the leaves, browning of the leaves and premature leaf drop.
Dracaenas need absorbent, but well draining soil in order for the roots to grow healthily. Soils designed specifically for tropical houseplants are the best option. This type of soil is often a mixture of compost, wood chips and pumice stones. The wood chips and pumice provide air pockets for the roots and reduce excessive moisture buildup which can cause the roots to die from suffocation and eventual rot. Soils that are very compact tend to retain moisture for long periods of time and don’t allow much breathing room for the roots.
Allowing the soil to stay moderately moist will ensure the roots do not dry up and will prevent the soil from becoming hydrophobic over time. Allowing the soil to go completely dry will eventually cause the foliage to develop dry, crunchy leaf tips and margins.
Only water your Dracaena when it looks and feels like the soil has significantly dried out, but is not bone dry.
Watering when the soil is still very damp will lead to root and stem rot from a buildup of bacteria and fungus in the soil. One of the most common symptoms that shows your Dracaena is receiving too much water is yellowing of the leaves followed by the leaves falling from the plant. In severe cases, the ends of the stems will turn black and mushy. In this case, it is best to uproot the canes from the soil to examine the health of the roots. Any black, mushy roots should be cut off to prevent the rot from spreading to healthy roots. The top of the cane should also be cut back to a healthy point to prevent the rot from spreading down the cane.
Dracaenas are sensitive to fluoride often contained in tap water. The fluoride builds up in the plant, eventually becoming toxic to the plant. Common symptoms of fluoride toxicity in Dracaenas are chlorotic leaves or browning of the leaf tips and margins. Water your plants with bottled water or remove the fluoride through a reverse osmosis filtration system.
As Dracaena’s mature, they can get to very tall heights of up to 10 feet in the home and tend to bend in different directions. They will also not grow back leaves where they lost them giving them a “leggy” look. To reduce the size of your Dracaena and to promote fuller growth, each cane can be pruned back to the desired height. Pruning cuts will force each cane to grow side shoots of two or more below the cut point. This promotes fuller growth opposed to one long, singular cane.
Step 1: Make a clean cut right across the cane and above a node with clean pruners. (A node is a growth point where a set of leaves form. If no leaves are present there should be white leaf scar lines where leaves once were.)
Step 2: Apply a pruning sealant at the end of the cane where the cut was made to prevent desiccation of the cut cane.
Dracaenas are easily propagated by cuttings. If you have just pruned the tops of your canes off, they can be propagated to make new plants that are genetically identical to their parent plant. If the cuttings are small enough they can be placed in water until they root and larger cuttings can be placed in coarse, well draining soil.
To speed up the rooting process, it is best to take cuttings during the spring or summer months when the plant is actively growing and the temperatures are warm. Warmth helps activate rooting in plants. Rooting hormone gel, liquid or powder can also help speed up the rooting process. Dip the ends of each of your cuttings into the rooting hormone and place them in the propagation water or soil.
Step 1: Using a sharp knife or pruners, make a clean cut through the stem, ensuring the very bottom of the cutting contains a node. (A node is where the leaves form. If there are no leaves, look for a white line.) This is the point where the roots will form.
Step 2: Dip the cutting in a rooting hormone.
Step 3: Place the cutting in clean, room temperature water or a coarse soil.
Propagating in water allows you to see when your cuttings have rooted. In order to tell if cuttings placed in soil have rooted, give the cutting a light tug. If it feels like it is secure, roots have likely formed. Potting into clear pots will allow you to see when the roots form.
Ensure the pot size is large enough to fit the roots with about 2” of growing room. Avoid going any larger than a 6” pot to give the roots a chance to fill out into the unoccupied soil.
If placing the cuttings into soil, lightly water the soil and continue to water as the soil dries out. Moist soil will help activate rooting. Avoid heavily watering the soil because there are no roots to absorb the excess moisture.
The most common pests that plague Dracaenas are sucking insects such as scale, mealy bugs and thrips. These insects often hide on the bottom of the leaves where they suck the sap out of the plant parts. Symptoms include necrotic leaf spots, wilting, leaf curl and a sticky residue. As these insects suck the sap out of the plant parts, they leave behind a sticky secretion which is often the first sign of an infestation.
The most common disease Dracaenas are affected by is a fungal disease called Fusarium leaf spot. The leaf spots caused by this fungus are commonly black or brown in color with fruiting bodies that contain the spores. These spots are often surrounded by a yellow halo which is the plant’s immune response trying to prevent the infection from spreading. Fusarium leaf spot is more likely to attack the new growth on Dracaenas, so try observing a pattern of when and where the spots begin showing up on the plant. Another type of fungal infection that is common in Dracaenas is powdery mildew. The mildew looks like a thin layer of dust and can be black or whitish-gray in color. These fungal infections can be treated with a copper fungicide.
Leaf spotting can be a symptom of many other things, so it is important to have the spots properly diagnosed by talking to one of our plant specialists through a video plant checkup call.
If you have any questions about how to care for Dracaenas, we will be happy to assist you in a virtual telehealth appointment with one of our Plant Specialists. Please click on one of the options below to book an appointment.