Dragon Trees: Their History and Varieties

Growing out of doors in their native habitat, Dragon Trees, dracaena grows into an amazingly huge tree that can live for hundreds of years. Believed to have been named for the Greek word for a female dragon, dracaena are a member of the Asparagaceae family, subfamily, nolinoideae. This makes it a distant relative of asparagus officinalis, or the asparagus that is commonly served as a vegetable. The genus sansevieria, which includes houseplants that are well known as snake plant, mother-in-law’s tongue, or jinn’s tongue, are also related to it. 

Origin of Dracaena

Dracaena or Dragon Trees are native to parts of Africa, Asia and Australia, as well as Central America and the northern part of South America. There are more than 120 different varieties of dracaena, ranging from the noble trees found in Africa, northern Australia and southern Asia to smaller plants that are more properly classified as shrubs. They are prized as houseplants because they can withstand low light and quite a lot of neglect. Indeed, as a desert plant, they prefer thorough, but infrequent, watering.

Unfortunately, naturally occurring Dracaena trees, especially the species originating in the Canary Islands, are rare. The original trees produced fruit that was the primary food of the dodo. The dragon tree seeds adapted to being processed through the digestive tract of a dodo. Today, the seeds must be processed before planting.

Climate, Soil and Rainfall for Growing Dracaena

Dragon trees are remarkably hardy when grown in warm climates. Some specimens found in the Canary Islands are believed to be thousands of years old. They prefer growing zones 16,17, 21, 22, 23 and 24. They are a good choice for coastal areas because they are able to withstand salt spray and a high salt content in the soil. In areas outside the zones named here, dragon trees can be grown as houseplants. Since they are slow growing, they can be contained ordinary growing pots for several years. Larger specimens, which might be ten or fifteen feet tall, make excellent ornamental accents for lobbies or similar spaces where there are high ceilings. They prefer deep watering, rather than frequent watering and require well-drained soil.

Outdoors, they make charming accent plants and are naturals for xeriscape gardening.

Varieties of Dragon Tree

Of the 120 known species of Dragon Tree, some are more well known than others. Here are a few of the better-known types:

  • Dracaena Americana. As you might guess from the name, this type grows in Central America and the northern parts of South America, with a few examples appearing in southern Mexico. A specimen is listed in the Kew’s Garden Herbarium.
  • Dracaena Arborea. A variety that is frequently grown as a house plant. Since it is slow growing, it can start out in a small pot. But as it grows, it needs to be repotted in successively larger containers. When the roots begin to coil around in the pot or grow out of the drain holes, it is time for repotting.
  • Dracaena Cinnabari. Also known as the Socotra dragon tree, or the dragon blood tree. It produces berries that can take as long as six months to grow, ripening from green to black. The flesh is a dense orange-red. Birds love the fruit, and help spread the trees. Unfortunately, grazing, and other environmental changes have slowed the production of the trees, along with harvesting the red, resinous sap to use in such fine work as sealing the surface of violins.
  • Dracaena Draco. This variety is widespread throughout its growing zone. The northernmost species is found in Spain, the southernmost is in Victoria, Australia. In between these two extreme locations, dracaena draco can be found in a remarkably wide variety of places, ranging from low lying deserts to mountainous be warm areas.

Growing as a Houseplant

Dracaena is a nearly foolproof as a houseplant, as long as it is kept warm. As a desert plant, it prefers a good soaking once in a while rather than reliable, scheduled sprinkling. Although it does need repotted occasionally, it grows slowly. After a time, it does need a high-ceilinged room, as it can reach ten or fifteen feet indoors. Dracaena can tolerate low light levels, making it an easy plant for apartment or basement dwellers. 

Not a Good Plant for Pets

Dracaena might have adapted to be the primary food of the Dodo and has continued to be a good food for birds, but it is moderately toxic to cats, dogs and horses. Symptoms include vomiting, not eating and general malaise. If you have pets, but still want one of these amazing, pre-historic plants, it is a good idea to dedicate a room to plants and keep your mammalian friends out of it. Considering what cats can do to a lovely window ledge of plants, that might be good idea, anyway.

With that said, Dracaena plants are beautiful and unusual. They are easy to grow if you are in the right zone, and not too difficult as a house plant.



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