How to Take Care of Your Dracaena
Dracaena plants are incredibly diverse and if you know anything about them, you know that their greatest feature is that they are some of the most low-maintenance houseplants out there. Being a genus of about 120 tree and shrub-like species, they vary in shape, size and colouring. The main characteristic that they all have in common is that their long leaves grow up and outward from a central stalk, often called a cane, which can be tall or short. These canes are incredibly sturdy, lending an architectural element to the quirky foliage, which, although there are some differences between species, is usually long, thin leaves with a slight arch.
As your plant grows, leaves at the base of each cane (i.e. the older leaves) will naturally yellow and drop off, leaving the stem with its very own detailing.
△ 10" Dracaena Marginata Kiwi
The majority of Dracaena originate from Africa and Southern Asia through to Northern Australia, with a couple of species found in tropical Central America. The word “dracaena” is actually derived from the Ancient Greek word for “female dragon” due to the red, gum-like resin in the stems of certain varieties that was likened to dragon blood. Their stems branch from nodes after flowering (or when the growth tip is severed) and the overall plant can grow quite large in the wild - generally reaching no more than 6-10 ft. tall indoors. This size can easily be maintained by removing the top portion of a plant because new growth will form where the cut was made and you can even propagate the cut section.
Fun Fact: Snake Plants, or Sansevieria, are now classified as Dracaena due to some molecular discoveries! Despite this fact, we still refer to them as we all know them separately and to keep confusion at a minimum: Sansevieria and Dracaena.
Practically all of the different varieties are easy to care for and it is no wonder why they are so attractive, but let’s go over some of the more popular options available to us:
Dracaena Marginata, aka Madagascar Dragon Tree, typically has dark green and red striped, narrow leaves. It is very easy to care for and can provide a dramatic presence in any room. The photo shows a Marginata Staggered but there are other options including the Marginata Open Weave, Marginata Kiwi, and Marginata Bicolor
Also known as the Song of India, this is a bush variety with striking dark green and chartreuse stripes on narrow-lanceolate leaves. They are in a swirled arrangement and will gradually die off revealing a stem with an interesting pattern.
NASA lists the Dracaena Reflexa as one of the most efficient plants at removing harmful toxins from the air
Dracaena Fragrans (or Deremensis)
With typically sword-shaped leaves that arch beautifully, the Fragrans usually require very little maintenance to keep their natural charm. There are plenty of options that reside in this classification, some with thick stems, some with thin, some with long leaves, some with short and bushy, but they all have their individual character. The photo shows a Dracaena JC Compacta but the Mass Cane, Limelight, and Janet Craig also fall under this species.
Often sold as Lucky Bamboo, Sandariana are not, in fact, actual bamboo, only resembling them superficially. They are especially popular for ornamental uses due to their intricate shapes around Chinese New Year.
Even if you are unsure what a Dracaena is, you have most likely seen them in office buildings or malls because they are very hardy and tolerant of most conditions, while also requiring very little maintenance. They can handle most light levels, don’t need to be watered very often, can handle most humidity conditions and still provide plenty of payoff foliage-wise for minimal effort. With diversity like this, we know there is at least one variety that will pique your fancy and why wouldn’t you want one in your possession if these are the positives? Let’s get into their care!
When it comes to the Dracaena, you can place them almost anywhere in your home. The main thing that they cannot handle is prolonged, direct afternoon sun, as this will scorch and burn their leaves, or very low light. Although they can handle most light on the spectrum of indoor lighting, keep in mind that their growth habits will change depending on the light levels. They will thrive in bright, indirect light, but they can also tolerate medium to lower light levels. Just remember that low light doesn't mean no light and plants will only grow based on how much light they receive.
Remember to dust off your plant's leaves every once in a while! This is especially important for plants that are in lower light areas as the dust will block some light from the plant. Gently wipe off the leaves using a soft, damp washcloth, or shower off the plant. Removing this dust also opens up their pores for air exchange.
Generally, the lower the light your plant receives, the higher the chances of its growth becoming either stunted or extremely leggy over time, meaning the leaves will be more spaced out and new growth less compact. In ideal conditions, the speed of growth is moderate so in lower light, this means the growth will slow quite a bit. These are some things to keep in mind when you place your plant in dimmer settings, because, as with all plant growth, the speed and quality of that growth depend on how much light is received.
△ 6" Dracaena Limelight
Let’s outline the lowest light conditions that your plant can handle:
- A couple of meters from an East, West or South-facing window over
- A meter or so away from a North-facing window
- Next to a North, East, West, or South-facing window that is facing a courtyard or is blocked by a nearby building or tree
Varieties with darker green foliage, such as the Dracaena Compacta or Janet Craig, are much more tolerant of lower light conditions because they have more chlorophyll. However, if your plant doesn’t appear to be thriving where it is, and this is not due to improper watering measures or pest-related issues, then it may be wise to keep your plant in a location that receives brighter light. Most tropical plants will prefer a location that receives that coveted bright, indirect light.
Try not to be concerned about every yellowing leaf on your plant. If there are no pests on your plant and it is pushing out healthy, new growth, your plant will shed its older leaves over time, sending the energy to this new growth. Some yellowing leaves are natural.
Now that we know the lowest light your plant will need to remain healthy, here are some ideal light conditions that we would recommend:
- Directly next to a North or East-facing window
- Next to, or close by, a South, Southwest, or West-facing window that has sheer curtains (only a couple millimetres thick) for some bright, indirect light (keep in mind, they cannot handle prolonged, direct sunlight so the curtains keep the leaves from getting burned)
- About a couple of meters away from a South, Southwest, or West-facing window without curtains
- In a lower light location but with a grow light shining on it
Check our Ultimate Lighting Guide for all the light levels possible in a home. Also, it is important to keep in mind that light levels change throughout the year, as there is plenty of light during the longer, warmer days of spring and summer, and less in the shorter, cooler days of winter. You may have to move your plant in order to avoid too much light or not enough light. As long as your plant can "see" the sky from where it sits, then it will be receiving some sort of natural light, which is necessary to support its growth.
Dracaena are very low on the totem pole when it comes to thirsty plants, they will actually do better if left alone rather than when they are watered too much. Rather than watering your plant on a schedule since there are many factors that go into watering (i.e. light levels, time of year, humidity, etc.), keep an eye on your plant's leaves and the look and feel of the soil. Allow your plant's soil to mostly dry out before watering again, at least the top three-quarters of the plant can be dry before giving it another drink. If you are ever confused, your plant will communicate to you when it is thirsty - droopy or limp leaves, loss of vibrance of colour, or if it is often getting brown tips.
All Dracaena varieties are quite sensitive to the fluoride in tap water, which can cause brown tips on otherwise healthy leaves. This is why it would be best to use rainwater, distilled water, or tap water that has sat out overnight to allow the harmful chemicals to evaporate out.
When it comes to Dracaena’s, it is always safer to underwater, rather than overwater, as they are much more tolerant of dryer conditions and will not put up with waterlogged soil, which can lead to rotting roots and fungal issues. However, even though they are tolerant of sparse waterings and periods of drought, it is important that, when it is time to water, they are watered fully, until the soil is evenly moist and there is water coming out of the drainage holes. If the soil is not absorbing the water, try either aerating the soil with a chopstick or bottom-watering, where you let the plant sit in a bowl of 2-3 inches of water for at least 45 minutes until the soil is moist. Remove the plant from the bowl and let any excess water drain out. Wait until the soil is mostly dry before watering again.
Although most Dracaena’s prefer to be root-bound (their root system is quite shallow), it is still important to repot them once in a while. This may take up to 3-5 years but if you see signs of stress, wilting or unhealthy new growth for no other reason, it may be time. Be especially careful with thick, multi-stem, cane varieties as you want to make sure they are still standing up straight after being repotted.
As for the frequency of watering, that will depend on the light your plant is receiving, the warmth and humidity of your home, the size of the pot, as well as the pot that the plant is planted in. Generally, no two plants will be on the exact same watering frequency, as everyone's home is different! Expect to water more often in the spring/summer months, when the days are longer, warmer, brighter and plants are actively growing, and less often in the winter months when the days are shorter, cooler, darker and when plants are usually dormant. You should also expect to water a plant that is receiving higher light more often than the plant that is receiving lower light.
If you want to reduce the size of your plant, or you simply just want to propagate it, cut off the top cutting of the plant and pot that up into some fresh soil in an appropriately sized pot, or place it in a cup of water. The original, cut stem will produce new growth at that point and the propagation will become a new plant! Check out our Propagation Series for more information.
Dracaena’s are fairly tolerable when it comes to humidity and temperature, so if you're comfortable, your plant is comfortable. That being said, as we have mentioned before, they are prone to brown, dry tips on the edges of their leaves, which can be an indicator of low humidity levels. Even though they are just fine in the average home environment, they will appreciate a warm, humid environment, they are still tropical plants after all! So if you have the time, and want to make the effort, you can:
- Place the nursery pot on top of a bed of pebbles that are just covered in water, this increases the ambient humidity in the air around the plant
- Mist your plant multiple times daily to increase the humidity around your plant
- Purchase a humidifier and keep it in the same area as your plant when turned on
- Group your plants close together to increase the ambient humidity in the portion of the room that they are in.
Remember that just because they are fine with average humidity and temperatures, Dracaena’s still won't enjoy drafts from heating vents, A/C vents, open windows in the winter, or radiators. Sudden cold can damage the leaves, similar to most other tropical or subtropical houseplants. They may not be demanding when it comes to water, but they definitely prefer moisture in the air and it would be wise to offset the dryness of the air with higher humidity levels. Think of their natural habitat and try to mimic that as best you can!
Dracaena are incredibly undemanding in their fertilizer needs, in fact, some even say that you really don’t even have to fertilize your plant at all. But we all know that they will benefit from receiving some sort of nutrients so feed your plant once a month during the growing season (i.e. the spring and summer months). It would be wise to use a low dosage, so an all-purpose, liquid fertilizer diluted to half the recommended strength will do just the trick. Remember to hold off on fertilizing during the fall and winter months as your plant will benefit from a period of dormancy when growth slows down or halts altogether.
Unfortunately, the major downside of Dracaena’s is that they are toxic to both humans and pets, so keep them out of reach of interested hands and mouths. When ingested, it will most likely cause mouth and stomach irritation with a possibility of vomiting. If you have inquisitive pets and children, it would be wise to either keep them up off the ground or tall enough that they can’t be reached.
Common Pests & Problems
Now that we know their general care, let’s get down to the most common problem that they face. Despite the fact that they are typically free from most pests and diseases, there are still a few that you may encounter while owning one of these low-maintenance beauties. These problems usually involve issues with how the plant is cared for rather than something more serious, such as pests (although they can still show their ugly faces off and on). Let's get into them:
If you spy any webs, bumps or spots on your plants, it’s possible that your houseplant is putting up with some unwelcome visitors, such as spider mites, mealybugs, or scale. Shower your plant with some lukewarm water and remove as many of the adult bugs as you can (you can use a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol for this step), then spray your plant with insecticidal soap every 7-10 days, until you are sure they are gone. Please see our Pest Tips & Tricks for further assistance on how to get rid of these pesky insects.
It is often a plant that is weakened or stressed from poor lighting, nutrient deficiency, or improper watering that is more susceptible to pests so make sure all aspects of your plant's ideal environment are met
This can be the result of multiple issues which include:
- Too little moisture - Even though their watering needs are low, if a Dracaena’s soil is left to go very dry in between waterings, and this happens often, or they’re not given enough water each time, brown tips will be inevitable. Proper watering measures are outlined above!
- Low humidity - Again, they can do very well in average conditions but, seeing as they are subtropical plants, they will always appreciate medium to higher humidity.
- Poor water quality - As we have mentioned, Dracanea’s are a little finicky in that they don’t like salts and fluorides in their water. If this is the case, check out what we recommend in the watering section above.
If this is not due to low light levels, pest infestations, or excess watering, your plant is most likely experiencing the completely natural shed of its older leaves. Marginata especially experience this, as their older, thin leaves will often shed (after the initial shed of adjusting to their new home) leaving the classic markings and whimsically shaped canes!
Your plant is most likely quite thirsty! If the soil feels very dry to the touch and appears to be compacted, pulling away from the pot walls, give your plant a thorough watering. Make sure there is a proper drainage hole to allow any excess water to escape.
Although there are some problems that can plague your Dracaena, they are often rather unbothered and tend to be very low maintenance. If you want a plant that doesn’t need to be monitored often and puts up with a lot, you would love one of these beauties. The most important thing is to not water your plant too frequently, and I think most of us can manage that!
Their strength and minimal care requirements will make a Dracaena a great addition to any home so feel free to check out all the options we have to offer here. In addition, you can always reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org for further plant support, we are always happy to help!