Tough Indoor Trees for Tough Indoor Conditions
By Mason Roberts
Dracaena is a genus of plants whose members range from tree-like to shrub-like. They come in sizes from several inches tall to fifty feet (15 cm to 15 m) in the wild.
While we grow some dracaenas as houseplants, there are many rare species. Even today, botany professionals argue about which plants belong in this exciting and diverse genus.
Dracaenas are easy to grow and can tolerate lower light and a bit of neglect. That makes them perfect plants for the office or that back bedroom that needs a bit of greenery.
They are altogether beautiful, with a unique form. They offer more visual interest than that pothos you haven’t talked to since the holidays.
Dracaena History and Origins
Search through the literature, and you will find wide variations in the number of species claimed to belong to the genus Dracaena. Most botanists agree there are over 100 separate species, with some arguing for as many as 170. This is partly due to juvenile and mature plants sometimes being classified as different species.
Adding to the confusion, taxonomists incorporated the former genera Pleomele and Sansevieria into Dracaena as of 2018.
Thus, your snake plant, formerly known as Sansevieria trifasciata, is now named D. trifasciata. If you still refer to it as a mother-in-law’s tongue, we’ll all know what you mean.
Belonging to the family Asparagaceae, most dracaenas come from tropical regions in northwest Africa, although a few do hail from southern Asia and islands of the Indian Ocean. And there are even 2 species in Central America.
They are monocots, meaning that when they sprout from a seed, they have only one embryonic leaf, like grass, not two like your tomatoes or bell peppers.
Fun Party Fact: Dracaenas exhibit a process called dracenoid thickening, an adaptation in the main stem area that allows their stem tissues to thicken. This is unusual in monocots and usually only found in dicots. Blow your friends away with that one.
Once you have them hanging on your every word, mention that their main stem won’t branch until the plant flowers or is injured.
The word Dracaena stems from ancient Greek, meaning female dragon or she-serpent.
Bring Home a Female Dragon—Dracaena
Here are some common and not-so-common examples to pique your interest.
Lucky Bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana)
Bright green leaves on upright stems, lucky bamboo is not actually a bamboo at all. It grows well in containers, but can be picky about water parameters. Often dark green stems grow in clumps.
Corn Plant (D. fragrans, formerly D. deremensis)
This popular houseplant is known for its resemblance to corn (maize, Zea mays). This selection of D. fragrans exhibits an unbranching stem, long, sword-shaped leaves that droop over, and often a stripe down the middle of the leaf in either white or yellow. It is quite fragrant if it blooms for you, as you might expect from the name.
‘Warneckii’ Dracaena (Dracaena fragrans ‘Warneckii’, formerly D. deremensis ‘Warneckii’)
‘Warneckii’ is a popular cultivar of D. fragrans which has a beautiful upright growth habit and dark foliage with a white stripe. It can grow five feet tall (1.5 m) in a container, even if the light is a little less bright.
‘Lemon Lime’ Dracaena (Dracaena fragrans ‘Lemon Lime’, formerly D. deremensis ‘Lemon Lime’)
‘Lemon Lime’ dracaena is another beautiful cultivar of D. fragrans, which, as the name suggests, has leaves striped with bright yellow and green. It makes a great accent to break up a sea of green houseplants that have taken over your coffee table.
Dragon Tree (Dracaena draco)
Also called the dragon’s blood tree, this D. draco is slow growing, but can reach fifty feet tall (15 m). But that’s in its native home of the northwest coast of Africa and the Canary Islands. It won’t get anywhere near that big in your container!
Long, pointed leaves and a trunk that can exude a red-colored sap when nicked, this plant can take abuse and neglect.
Snake Plant or Mother-In-Law’s-Tongue (Dracaena trifasciata, formerly Sansevieria trifasciata)
This common houseplant can be found anywhere from supermarkets to thrift stores. Upright, spiky, and with tough, almost leathery leaves, this plant will survive in rooms too dark for many other houseplants.
It will tolerate neglect—just ask mine!—and cooler rooms and low humidity. It rarely blooms, and if it does, you may miss it. If you have a friend who can’t seem to keep a houseplant alive, give them a snake plant.
Madagascar Dragon Tree (Dracaena marginata)
Hold up. We already have a dragon tree on this list. That’s the problem with common names for plants. So let’s call this one, D. marginata, Madagascar dragon tree, as it is native to the island of Madagascar, the other side of the African continent from D. draco.
With long, spiky leaves edged in purple, D. marginata is drought-tolerant, similar to its cousin, D. draco. Smaller in the wild, it is also slow-growing and can be trained into different stem shapes.
You can often purchase them in either a “shrub” form or an arborescent (tree-shaped) forme with a visible cane.
‘Janet Craig’ Dracaena (Dracaena fragrans ‘Janet Craig’, formerly D. deremensis ‘Janet Craig’)
Another cultivar of D. fragrans, ‘Janet Craig’, is just about a household name in houseplants. Young plants, sometimes found in big-box stores, will look like a cluster of leaves, but as ‘Janet Craig’ grows, it will take on a more upright shape with a center cane.
Easy to grow, easy to look at, and easy to talk to, this beauty deserves a spot in your home or perhaps on your office desk.
Gold Dust (Dracaena surculosa)
This Dracaena is truly striking, with broader, more tropical-looking leaves than most dracaenas. New leaves are tightly rolled. Mature leaves are dark green, dotted with gold-like paint splatters.
A cultivar, ‘Milky Way’, has a similar speckled appearance, but with white instead of gold and a large white stripe down the center of the leaf. Amazing to look at; if you spot one, I’d like a cutting, please.
Song of India (Dracaena reflexa ‘Variegata’, anc. Pleomele reflexa ‘Variegata’)
Native to Madagascar and islands of the Indian Ocean, ‘Song of India’ has short, pointed, narrow leaves. Some D. reflexa cultivars have plain, dark green foliage, while Song of India and ‘Song of Jamaica’ cultivars enjoy yellow or white stripes, respectively.
In a container, Song of India, a tree in its native habitat, will fit on a tabletop or desk. D. reflexa ‘Variegata’ has showy lime-green margins. It’s slow-growing and easy to take care of.
Basic Dracaena Care
Care for all the Dracaena species is essentially the same. They have a reputation as being easy to grow and care for. And can tolerate quite a bit of neglect.
Dracaena vary widely in size, color, and shape. However, they generally have the same upright growth pattern, with leaves coming off a central cane.
You can prune this cane to control the height on larger specimens and use the resulting cutting to propagate a new plant.
Like many indoor houseplants, dracaenas prefer bright, indirect light. They will tolerate dimmer light, but then grow slower. This fact can be used to your advantage. Put them in a spot in a bedroom or other room that receives less sunlight and doesn’t have room for a large plant.
Many Dracaena varieties won’t tolerate direct sunlight, whether planted indoors or outdoors.
If your plant lives near a sunny window, a filmy curtain can provide just the filtered light that will make your Dracaena happy.
You don’t need to water your dracaenas as often as other houseplants, but don’t ignore them. While they adapt to dry conditions, they will be happier with a good thorough watering.
Let your Dracaena dry out just a bit more than a typical houseplant. Water your Dracaena when the top half of the soil in the pot is dry. Overwatering can cause root rot, as well as yellowing leaves. Do not let water sit in the saucer if the roots or potting soil can wick it up.
It’s easy to forget to pay much attention to this plant, as it doesn’t always need much care. Also, it is often in a darker location away from the rest of your more finicky plants. Set a reminder on your phone or mark it on the calendar. That way you don’t forget to check periodically.
Temperature and Humidity
Average room temperatures of 65–80°F (18–27°C) degrees will keep your dracaenas happy. Coming from the tropics, these plants enjoy a humid atmosphere. The humidity in a modern home can drop very low, especially in the winter.
If your D. fragrans or other Dracaena will be set outside in the summer (out of direct sunlight, please), make sure to keep an eye on the nighttime temperatures. They will not tolerate frost and do not like temperatures much below 50°F (10°C).
If your plant starts to show brown leaf tips, it may want a bit more humidity. You can place a small humidifier near the plant to raise the local humidity in the room.
Potting Soil and Containers
The ordinary potting soil you have on hand will do fine for these plants. However, make sure the pot and the soil have good drainage. That way the soil can dry between waterings.
If your Dracaena needs to be repotted, try to do it during the growing season, preferably in the spring.
General balanced houseplant fertilizer is all a Dracaena needs. Fertilize your plant when you water it; every two weeks to a month during the spring and summer should be sufficient. Use a diluted solution, following the instructions on the package.
During the winter months, fertilizing can be infrequent or skipped.
When using commercial fertilizers, salts can build up in the container’s soil over time and harm the plant. Flush the pot in the sink by running water slowly until it drains freely out the bottom drainage holes for several minutes. Do this about twice a year. Or repot with fresh soil.
Many people have several Dracaena because they are easy to find in many different shapes, sizes, and colors. Long, sharp, or sword-shaped leaves with a multitude of variations and the visual appeal of the central cane as the plants get larger make Dracaena feel exotic.
Add a few low-maintenance dragon trees, snake plants, Janet Craigs, and corn plants to your home and wow your friends with your “green” thumb.
You don’t have to tell them your dracaenas are easy to care for!
About the Author:
Mason Roberts has been a houseplant fanatic for 10+ years and shares his experience on Just Houseplants. He enjoys hunting down, propagating, and sharing any indoor plant he can get his hands on. In addition to houseplants, Mason also enjoys working on his small outdoor garden.
I have lucky bamboo that I have kept alive for close to twenty years. Some of it has recently died, but of five stalks, three maybe four are still going strong.
I find a few things to be important. If growing in sand as I am, do not use dyed sand. Water only with distilled water and don’t let it dry out.
I have a D. marginata, Madagascar dragon tree that is 44 years old. It’s going to outlive me. 🙂
Congrats on that! ?