Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Fall Guy (Dracaena marginata)

Dracaena marginata is right up there with Spathiphyllum cvv. and Sansevieria trifasciata as a common indoor plant that everybody grows at some point, but almost nobody ever grows well. A lot of this is because of the way they're sold: they're a common component of mixed "tropical plant" containers, where they are typically planted with things that need entirely different care,1 but even when they're on their own, retailers tend to portray them as good, dependable, low-light plants that are super-easy to take care of.

Dracaena marginata 'Colorama.'

And they kind of are super-easy to take care of. Or at least they're about average.2 But there's the kind of super-easy that means you can do whatever you want to them and they'll be fine, and there's the kind of super-easy that means that their very specific requirements aren't hard to meet and mostly involve pretending that the plant isn't there. Dracaena marginata is firmly in the latter camp.

Hence our "person" for this profile. Dracaena marginata is the plant that gets blamed when people say they can't grow houseplants, it's the first plant in a group planting to die,3 it's the six-foot-tall (2 m) stick with the tiny tuft of limp leaves at the top that nobody wants to look at but won't throw out, either, for fear of feeling guilty.

I was unable to find much trivia: they're native to Madagascar, and according to Lynn P. Griffith (see sidebar for who he is), they're called "money tree" in Hawaii, because the first ones brought to Hawaii were planted around the Bank of Hawaii. Which is only just barely interesting. The usual common names are "dragon tree" and "Madagascar dragon tree."

Dracaena marginata, possibly the cultivar 'Tarzan.'

I'm not aware of very many cultivars, but there are a few:
  • 'Tarzan' is similar to the species but with larger leaves, slower growth, and supposedly more reluctance to drop its old leaves. The odds are pretty good that any floor-sized specimen of a green D. marginata you encounter is a 'Tarzan,' though the species is still sold here and there.
  • 'Magenta' has wider and darker marginal stripes on top of the green: despite the cultivar name, they're not magenta in any sense of the word. Dark purple, maybe.
  • 'Bicolor' is a slower-growing variety with mostly cream-colored leaves, which have green and pink stripes.4
  • 'Colorama' is the only variety I personally own, and was the hot seller at work as well: its leaves are pinkish red with a few green stripes underneath. New growth on 'Colorama' is sometimes slightly cream-colored.
All sizes of plants are sold, from tiny specimens only 4 in / 10 cm tall all the way up to 8 ft. / 2.4 m monsters (and I'm sure bigger ones exist if you've got the money). Since one plant by itself is not likely to be very full-looking, pots larger than 4 in / 10 cm usually contain multiple canes planted together. Canes may also be cut back and allowed to resprout multiple heads; this also gives a fuller look but takes longer to produce, so it usually costs more.

Dracaena marginata. Photo by BotBln, via Wikipedia.

"Character" plants have been manipulated so that the different canes grow in different directions, with crooked stalks, and are more interesting to look at (in my opinion) than the strictly vertical plants, but they also take up a lot more room, and not everybody is a fan of long stretches of bare cane. I've also seen plants with stems that had been tied in an overhand knot. I don't understand why anybody thought that was a good idea. (No pictures, alas.)

Care for any of the varieties, sizes, or shapes is essentially the same.

LIGHT: Though often listed as a low-light plant, and although they will tolerate low light for a while before showing any ill effects, this is not a low-light plant and should not be treated as such. Plants which are not getting enough light will produce small, limp new leaves.

Outdoors in tropical areas, they can be grown in full sun; however, the plants you purchase as houseplants are usually shade-grown, to prepare them for indoor light levels. Plants so grown will burn up and die if suddenly exposed to long periods of full-strength, outdoor sun.

I also don't recommend full sun, or even afternoon sun, for indoor plants. Direct sunlight seems to be a spider mite aphrodisiac.5 Filtered sun, a couple hours of morning sun, or bright artificial light should be fine, though.

WATERING: Sites talking about Dracaena marginata as an outdoor plant will tell you it needs a lot of water, and to keep it moist. If you're keeping one inside, forget this completely. I probably shouldn't even have mentioned it.

This plant is very easy to overwater. Never ever ever ever ever leave it to stand in drainage water or put it in a pot without drainage holes. Soil should be very quick to drain (no peat!), and don't water if the soil feels even remotely wet, as far down as you can get a finger. This is especially important if the plant is in a large pot, and super-especially important if it's in a large plastic/glazed/ceramic pot: soil can stay moist at the bottom of such a pot even when the top is very dry. When in doubt, don't water.

Ignoring the above advice is just begging for a visit from the Fusarium fairy. Whom you do not want to meet. (see PESTS)


Dracaena marginata 'Colorama.'

TEMPERATURE: No colder than about 60F (16C) or warmer than about 95F (35C). Plants that are exposed to temperatures below 60F/10C are not necessarily dead, but it's more dangerous to the life and appearance of the plant the colder you go. Cold temperatures are more dangerous if accompanied by extremely dry air or high winds. (Also the case for other Dracaena spp.)

If you have exposed your plant to extreme cold, there's really nothing you can do except get it back to desirable temperatures as quickly as possible and hope it forgives you.

PESTS: This part's going to be long, so brace yourself.

Mealybugs on a Dracaena marginata 'Tarzan.' I think these are the long-tailed mealybug, Pseudococcus longispinus. There are many mealybug species. You'd think with lots of species to choose from, that at at least one of them would be really pretty, or have musical mating calls, or would shoot candy out of their butts, or something cool like that, but no. All of them suck.6

Most Dracaena species are pretty good about pests, in my experience, but not Dracaena marginata.7 They're especially bad about getting spider mites, but I've also recently spotted plants with mealybugs at multiple garden centers in my area. (They all looked like 'Tarzans,' too, by the way.) This could mean that there's a single supplier somewhere in Florida that's having a really bad mealybug infestation right now, or it could mean that mealybugs are a bigger problem with D. marginata than what I had previously thought. Either way, it's a good idea to watch your plants for signs of infestation, and check plants carefully before you buy them. Neither spider mites nor mealybugs are particularly easy to eliminate entirely, though spider mites can be kept under control by spraying foliage with soapy water and giving the plant a good shower every so often.

Also, overwatering tends to bring on bacterial and fungal infections. The most common bacterial infection for D. marginata in my experience is Erwinia, which produces mushy stems with a horrible odor. (Seriously. The worst smell I have ever smelled in a houseplant-related context was from a D. marginata cane at work that we'd been trying to propagate. I tore the stem open and got hit with a blast of . . . well, it smelled like pain. The only specific comparison I remember is "ammonia." The rest of my impressions were, I assume, wiped from my brain as the noxious gases dissolved the responsible neurons.8)

This was probably brought on by us keeping the cane too wet while waiting for it to root. Erwinia is not usually a problem indoors: it needs very moist conditions, and tends to happen primarily during propagation (when the plant is injured and more susceptible to infection), Griffith says.

With Erwinia, by the time you smell the smell and feel the mush, the plant is probably already too far gone to try to save.9 If there's a non-mushy section near the top of the cane, you can try to cut that off with a clean knife and root the top (see PROPAGATION), but you're probably best off to cut your losses and throw the whole thing out, rather than try to save it.

Never did figure out exactly what was going on here. It doesn't really look like an aerial root, and I don't think Dracaenas grow aerial roots anyway, but if it's a stem, then it's growing the wrong direction, and I'm not sure what other possibilities there are, if it's not a root and it's not a stem.

A fungus called Fusarium oxysporum is much more common indoors, and also caused by overwatering. With Fusarium, the plant will continue to look more or less fine, except for a dark spot on the cane. The dark spot is subtle: it's not an oozing black mess or anything, just a slight darkening at one particular point, usually about halfway up the stem. As things progress, the stem gets slowly and invisibly hollowed out, leaving just a thin layer of bark. The top of the plant will continue to grow, albeit a little sluggishly. People typically don't notice anything is wrong until they happen to grab the cane and feel a weird hollow spot, or the stem actually bends over.

There's not really any treatment for Fusarium either, though it's slower, so the odds of being able to salvage something are higher.

PROPAGATION: The most typical way (maybe the only way) to propagate D. marginata is by taking a tip cutting. Planting a cutting directly into soil is, in my experience, a good way to lose it to Erwinia, but damp perlite or vermiculite make good rooting media for a lot of things, and are sterile,10 so one might try that. I've never water-rooted this particular plant, though I've done so for similar and related species (Yucca guatemalensis, Dracaena fragrans) and had that work out relatively well.

Whatever you decide to root it in, to get the cutting, just take a clean, sharp knife and cut straight across the cane, then stick the cutting in whatever rooting medium you've chosen, and wait. With water-rooting, you'll be able to see when roots begin to grow, and you can pot the cutting into soil, preferably in the smallest pot the roots can fit into, once the roots are a couple of inches long. With perlite and vermiculite, wait a couple months after planting, keeping the medium damp but not soaking wet, then gently pull the plant out to see if it has roots (it very likely will). If it does, you can plant it in soil immediately.

Air-layering is also done with this plant, I'm told, but I've never air-layered anything and don't want to explain how to do it. So I won't. It's my blog and you can't make me.

Dracaena marginata.

GROOMING: Something that occasionally freaks out D. marginata owners, especially owners of large, floor-sized plants, is the appearance of clear, slightly sticky droplets on the underside of the leaves. This will usually be mostly on the topmost leaves, not all of them, and the droplets themselves will be close to where the leaf attaches to the stem. I don't have pictures, sorry.

This is just guttation. It doesn't mean much, though one should keep an eye on plants that do this because 1) it may indicate overwatering, and 2) insects (particularly ants, Griffith says) are occasionally attracted to the droplets.

It's normal for a few leaves to drop every so often, as the plant grows, so there is a little actual grooming required occasionally.

Plants also have pretty thick, quick-growing roots, and will typically need to be repotted every year or two. Don't repot just because the year is up, though: make sure the plant actually needs it.

Plants that have gotten too tall for their space (Depending on who you believe, mature plants can get between 6 and 20 feet tall, with most sources saying 10-15.) should probably be cut back and/or air-layered. This is kind of a high-class problem to have, since most Dracaena marginatas don't get old enough to outgrow their space.

Dracaena marginata 'Magenta.' The difference between this and the species is kind of subtle; I tried taking a picture of 'Magenta' and the species side-by-side, but it didn't show the difference very well.

FEEDING: Feeding is sort of a tough topic. Outdoors, Griffith tells me that these are fairly heavy feeders, but indoors, a lot depends on how much your plant is actually growing. There's no point in supplying nutrients that your plant isn't going to use, and Dracaenas can get tip burn from excess fertilizer, so too much is actually worse than not enough.

My recommendation would be to go with a normal houseplant fertilizer, ideally something with a 3-1-2 NPK ratio11 and micronutrients,12 and mix at about 1/4 of the strength recommended on the package. I don't follow this advice personally, because for reasons of historical accident, cost, and convenience, I currently use a 14-14-14 time-release Osmocote fertilizer on everything. (It's a long story, and nobody ever believes me once I reach the sentence that starts "So Scott Baio is all, 'I thought you were going to spray-paint the goldfish, and I was going to hold them down,'" so I'm going to skip the retelling. Another time, perhaps.)

I suspect this profile makes D. marginata sound like a bigger pain than is actually the case. I have seen a lot of plants that got mealybugs, spider mites, or Fusarium (in fact, probably 90% of the specimens I've seen with a problem had one of those three), but I've also seen plenty that didn't have any problems at all, and my own personal plant at home has never really given me any trouble. I'm just not a huge fan of the way the plant looks,13 and I was also frustrated by the way the customers at work always seemed to settle on either one of these or a peace lily, even when shown plants that were way easier or more interesting. The customers' behavior isn't really the plant's fault, of course. But it's tempting to blame the plant anyway.


Photo credits: All mine, except the one from BotBln.

Another site of interest: (many pictures of outdoor-grown plants, including inflorescences)

1 The point, with a mixed planting, appears to be to cram a pot full of a number of different plants in a way that resembles a flower arrangement. Which is to say, the point is not whether they are mutually compatible plants, but whether they fill up all the available space and fit a certain kind of stereotyped, overfull look. Generally there's a tall thing, a trailing thing, and a medium-height thing, one or two of which may also contain some kind of non-green color which matches, or at least harmonizes with, the pot. Dracaena marginata, when used, typically fills the "tall thing" spot. The pots for group plantings typically have no drainage either, making the whole situation a death trap for any plants involved.
I dislike pretty much everything about group plantings of indoor plants. I don't like the concept, I don't like the execution, I don't like the aesthetic. I mind less with outdoor group plantings, in large part because from here it looks like it's easier to match cultural needs for outdoor plants, and also because outdoor container plants usually aren't expected to stay together for more than a season. Though outdoor group plantings still often look crammed full of plants in a way I don't like.
2 "Average" difficulty, as measured by the PATSP difficulty levels, is consistently in the range of 3.5 to 4.0, though it varies slightly depending on which average I use (mean / median) and whether I'm looking at the original set of numbers or the expanded set I came up with recently. Dracaena marginata, at 3.0, is slightly to the easy side of average.
3 Because the tendency is to kill new plants by overwatering and old plants by underwatering, the plant that's most sensitive to overwatering in any group planter is generally the one to kick first.
4 'Bicolor' sounds like it would be pretty, from that description, but I'm not a fan: unless you're right up next to the plant, all the narrow stripes of color blur together into the average of cream, green and pink, which is sort of a tan.

Dracena marginata 'Bicolor.'

5 It's actually probably more the heat sunlight generates, instead of the light itself. Spider mites love heat. (They are adapted to the conditions in their native habitat, which is Hell.)
6 Unless you're an ant, in which case some of them do shoot candy out of their butts.
7 Dracaena thalioides, sad to say, appears to be another one of those: my plant at home has been having ongoing troubles with spider mites since I bought it in June, and those troubles have gotten really serious since I stopped being able to take it outside to water. I'm told the other specimen they brought in at the same time at work (which has since sold) also had an ongoing spider mite problem.
8 "Did I fall asleep?"
"For a little while."
"Shall I go now?"
"If you like."
9 (And if you've smelled the smell, there's a good chance you're pretty far gone yourself.)
10 One warning, though: perlite does usually contain some fluoride, to which Dracaenas are sensitive, so if you're given the choice, go with vermiculite over perlite. If you don't have a choice, wash the perlite first by putting it in a colander or strainer and running cold tap water through it for a few minutes. It won't work miracles, but it's better than using perlite straight from the bag, and also makes it a little less dusty to work with. Distilled or reverse-osmosis water would be even better than tap water, but they're also a lot more expensive than tap water.
If it helps, D. marginata seems to be a little less touchy about fluoride than D. deremensis varieties or D. fragrans.
11 NPK ratio: the three numbers on a package of fertilizer which tell you what percentage of the product is nitrogen (chemical symbol N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K), respectively. They should be prominently displayed somewhere on the packaging.
Theoretically, any numbers that total less than 100 could be used, but in practice, most fertilizers sold for houseplants have ratios of either 1-1-1 (most commonly 20-20-20) or 3-1-2 (usually 24-8-16).
12 Some fertilizers will contain, in addition to nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, trace amounts of various micronutrients like iron (Fe), calcium (Ca), copper (Cu), manganese (Mn), boron (B), and sulfur (S), though these are present in much smaller amounts and are reported differently on the packaging. Micronutrient deficiencies are rare in indoor plants, though they're not unheard of, particularly iron deficiency. I keep meaning to write a post about this, but it has the potential to be really technical and contentious, so I've been putting it off.
13 'Colorama' gets a pass because of its color, which I find pleasant, especially when backlit. I also came close to buying a small 'Magenta' while writing this, but managed not to. Yay me.


CelticRose said...

Yay! Finally a profile on D. marginata! :-D When I bought one of these plants the first thing I did was check your blog for advice. I was so disappointed not to find anything.

I bought a plant in poor condition thinking I could rescue it (I won't do that again). It turned out to have a bad case of root rot. I had 4 canes, but only one survived.

The surviving cane is doing well, but I sure could have used your advice on light levels. I had it in an area that didn't get much light, and it did okay except for a drooping leaves and brown leaf tips. However, I rearranged the furniture and had to move the plant next to window, and the difference was amazing. The leaves have really perked up, the new leaves are standing up straight, there are no more brown leaf tips (maybe it's growing fast enough now to use the fertilizer?), the leaves have much more of the gorgeous purple color (I think it might be a "Magenta"), and it's growing like mad. I never would have thought that changing a plant's location would make such a big difference.

My only complaint about this plant is that it attracts dust. I've never seen a plant get so dirty so quickly.

mr_subjunctive said...

I know, I know, I should have done this one earlier. An awful lot of the determination for what plant gets written up, and in what order, depends on whether or not I can think of a valid-sounding "person" to go with it.

Karen715 said...

I loved this post, especially the part about the natural habitat of spider mites. A rare, true laugh out loud moment for me.

I put D. marginata on my never-again list, not because they are problem plants, but just because I don't find them appealing. Though I am over it now, there really was a time when I had to persuade myself not to acquire plants just for the sake of acquiring plants. I really don't need to try everything out there. I try now just to buy those I really like, or am truly curious about.

Araceae said...

I have one of these that was only about 2 feet last summer, it is now about 3 feet tall and i have luckily had no problems with it! :D
(i am 14)
here are some pictures

Leap'n Lemur said...

WooHooo! - so glad to find also, that there's a profile here - and I'm a bit chagrined to ask the next question because I realize how clueless I've been with care of two D. Marginatas that have been with my husband and me over five years. We just let them grow on their own and that's what they did - we just watered them when soil was beyond bone dry, gave them some fertilizer from time to time and they seemed grow quite contentedly - but then became spindly, stalks became so knarled, and leaves became thin and dull. So...we decided recently to repot them from their original pots to give them a new lease on life - but we're trying to find out whether, instead, we've done them in..YIKES! Both were IMMENSELY - and that's an understatement - root bound. We had to remove all the soil from both containers to get the plants loosened and then engage in a death-match wrestling scnenario to try and get the roots wrested from each pot, cutting off quite a bit of the roots, leaving enough on both plants to fill the new containers while leaving room for new root growth. We also cut the stalks back to six to seven inches tall to coax new stalks from the originals. So, both greatly pruned DMs are now in new, larger containers. We watered them initially and watered again after 3 weeks. Soil is still moist and we intend now to leave them alone and let the soil dry out based on what we're reading. So - here comes a three-part question: Have we doomed them, and if not, how can we encourage new plants and how long does it take for new stalks to grow out of the originals?

mr_subjunctive said...

Leap'n Lemur:

Have you doomed them? Not necessarily. It's sort of hard to predict. It sounds to me like they probably really did need to be repotted, though I would have waited to do so until the days are longer and the temperatures warmer, and I wouldn't have repotted and cut them back simultaneously: they'll dry out more slowly after a repot, and they'll dry out much, much more slowly after being cut back. So rot is a concern: I won't lie.

Plus, rot is a concern because the roots had been wounded. Some plants handle root pruning really well (Spathiphyllum, Ficus), and some don't (Peperomia, Haworthia). Not sure which side Dracaena falls on.

How to encourage new growth? Heat and light. I'm assuming from the descriptions that there are now no leaves on the plants at all; if that's the case, then I would stick the plants in the largest, sunniest window you have, and keep the room warm (80F/27C would not be out of the question), and hope for the best. If you don't have a large, sunny south window, go with the largest unobstructed[1] window you've got, give it a little extra heat if you can, and cross your fingers.

Supplementary light could also help: I don't know how far you're willing to go with this, but extending the length of "daylight" for your plants might make it more inclined to sprout too. I'm not saying the light should be on 24/7, but having a nearby lamp, or shop light, on a timer so it's giving the remaining stump a solid 14-16 hours of light per day, in addition to the natural light through the window, could help. Though for the cost of a decent shop light and bulbs, you could probably get a replacement plant that would look a lot better than the original plants will, so weigh that accordingly.

How long does it take? It can vary a lot, so I'm hesitant to give you a number. If the stems go mushy, give up. If it's been such a long time that you feel like giving up, give up. If it's October and nothing has happened yet, give up. Odds are, if something is going to happen, you should be seeing signs of it by at least May 15.

Also: you didn't mention what you did with the tops you cut off. It's possible that they could have been rooted and turned into new plants, by water-rooting or damp-vermiculite-rooting or something.


[1] (I.e., not blocked by shrubs or overhangs or trees)

Leap'n Lemur said...

Thanks so much for your answers - for the facts about rot and the info about heat, light and the time it may take. We know we're likely on thin ice regarding the rot and so we'll keep an eye on the stems, plus leave the soil alone for now. There are no leaves; just six to seven inch stems. We have both plants in a south-facing large floor to ceiling window/sliding glass door arrangement, so they're getting lots of sunlight, especially from the winter sun which provides heat and light through the glass, albeit shorter hours. We have thought about getting a new plant, but we want to give these a try since they've been with us for several years. Unfortunately, we did not keep the tops that we cut for additional rooting, and didn't think that DMs would root very well. If we're fortunate enough to have new growth, we'll try that because we like the two we have. Our gut feeling is that we may not see much for the next two months and definitely if we don't see any growth by May, we'll likely get a new plant family member. Again, thanks and we'll keep in touch regarding how they both fare, plus we really like your site, so we'll be frequent readers!

Ashleigh said...

I have one of these plants and my cat tore the ends of most of the leaves off... Is there any hope the plant will re-grow its leaves?

I have been searching online and this was the first page I found with ANY information on the plant. Oh, and GREAT pictures!

mr_subjunctive said...


Well, the damaged leaves won't repair themselves, if that's what you're asking, but new leaves will grow from the top of the plant. They're slow growers, though.

Given enough time, the older, damaged leaves will yellow and drop, but I'd advise you not to take them off before they go yellow. (You can trim up the ragged ends with scissors or something if you want to tidy up the appearance, though.)

sally said...

I have a 20 year old Draecena Magenata that my mother — now gone— gave me and I am very attached to. This plant has been through everything: A kitten who is now an old lady cat, scratching one of its canes to shreds; a bad relationship in a dark and gloomy loft where it had some root rot undoubtedly, and several moves around the City where I live, Chicago. The plant is now around 8 feet tall, has three canes and has that spindly mop-topped look with droopy leaves. IT has had a nice Eastern exposure place to live for nearly a decade now so it lives, but of course, I worry about quality of life and I want to prune it. I do have a Southern window I can move it to and it sounds like it might need that. I need real details about what to do because the thought of pruning it down to stalks without leaves really scares me. HOnestly, though, the stalks rise up bald for about 4 1/2 feet and then sprout little spindly offshoot branches with uffs of leaves on the ends . From your authoritative post here i can tell you will tell me truth on this one. How brutal must I be?

mr_subjunctive said...


I'm not entirely clear what you're asking me. You already seem to accept that you need to cut the plant back, and probably move it to the south window (I'd agree in both cases). The actual procedure for cutting back is pretty much just what it sounds like: you get some shears (scissors / knives / razor blades might all be made to work, but a cut with shears will be much easier and cleaner; just be sure to disinfect the shears first with rubbing alcohol), cut the cane back to whatever height you want the new growth to start, and then water very, very carefully (feel the soil by sticking a finger in, or stick a pencil in and see if the wood is wet when you pull it back out: if you detect any dampness, don't water) until the plant is back to using water as fast as it used to.

It might be better to wait to do this until the summer, when you can cut the plant back and then put it outside in a partly-shady spot: plants that are cut back indoors, in my experience, have a tendency to die instead of resprouting, and the season, heat, humidity, and light will encourage resprouting a lot more than anything you could do inside.

For right now, you might want to check the roots: if the plant is rootbound, you could repot now, though don't move it into a pot that's much larger than it's in already. (The rule of thumb is 2" steps in pot diameter, so if it's in a 14" now, move it to 16", and so on. For pots above 12", you could maybe jump three inches at a time if you have to.) If the plant's been in the same pot for many years, too, you should probably change the soil as much as possible while you change the pot -- gently pull roots apart and shake out the old soil, then replace it with new soil from a decent potting mix. Don't feel compelled to get out every last trace of the old soil, and don't use Miracle Gro potting soil as your replacement.

If you repot and/or change the soil now, wait three or four months before cutting the canes back and moving the plant outside, to give it time to grow some new roots and get settled.

If it's not possible to put the plant outside (you're in the wrong hemisphere for that, you rent and don't have a suitable location, etc.), you can still try it -- at this point it sounds like you don't really have much choice but to cut the plant back -- but the chances of resprouting are not as good. There isn't much I can do about that. Do move the plant to the south exposure after cutting it back. You might also try to root the tops you cut off in water or perlite, or air-layer a cane or two without cutting them off immediately (use a search engine for advice how to air-layer); this would give you more chances of salvaging part of the plant, in the event that resprouting doesn't happen.

Jen said...

Hi! I have had one of these plants for about 11 years now. I bought a $2 single cane all that time ago. I did cut it back once, hoping that it would sprout multiple heads. It started two, but the one lower down the stem took off and left the other a stunted runt of a nub.

Now, the long spindly cane is just really sad. I want to cut the top off, stick it back in the pot to grow (hopefully) and most of all, I want to encourage the cane to grow more than one head. Are there any tricks?

I have often thought about cutting into the cane to encourage a new head to grow. Is this even a good idea?

Thanks for your help!

mr_subjunctive said...


I know it's long, but -- did you read the post? 'Cause pretty much everything I know about cutting off the top of a cane and re-rooting it is in the post.

I don't know if cutting into the cane to start a new head will work, but it probably won't hurt anything. Sterilize the knife first with rubbing alcohol or a flame.

Letting the plant have a summer outside in a shady, protected location might do more to encourage branching than anything you can do by cutting the plant. Just be careful to acclimate the plant gradually, lest it sunburn, and bring it inside at night unless the low temperature is supposed to be above 60F/16C.

growin said...

I have a tree ('tricolor') that has been a family member for about 40 years, but who knows how old it really is? It's lived in 3 states that I know of, been moved about 10 times by me in the past 20 years, blow over a few times, and my son broke the main trunk once.

Another tree, possibly a 'tarzan' is about 9 years old and last year it grew 2 new tips from the trunk at the soil level.

Don't be afraid to cut off tips and stick them in the mama pot (or their own pot.) The top of the cut trunk should then make new tips, several. Other plants, like spider, at the bottom can help with fullness.

Both thrive on lots of light, outside for summer in morning or afternoon sun. In cool (60-65) but bright room for winter. I've always had them in at least half mulch with some top soil and composted leaves, lots of space to grow roots. Don't be afraid to trim roots, you will have a much healthier plant by doing this vs. letting it become potbound.

mr_subjunctive said...


It has been my consistent experience that cutting off tips and sticking them in soil results in rot.

Anonymous said...

This post repeatedly brought smiles to my face. You have a wonderful writing style and I love the footnotes! Most gardening books (and posts) are so boring and dry. You, on the other hand, are pure delight to read.

Someone gave me a "Fall Guy" seven years ago, with 3 canes, about four feet tall. After many misadventures: sunburning away all the leaves by forgetting it outdoors in full sun--not once, but twice, my cat using its pot for a potty--until I erected a small fence, suffering through 9 months of dry, wood stove heat every year and, of course, my habitual underwatering, it is right at 7 feet tall. Would be 8' plus, but the tallest top is growing sideways at the moment, probably looking for window light. Even with the numerous upper canes tied together, it's about 4 feet wide. Reminds me of some sort of green, woolly-headed monster. Oh god, and it's in maybe a 14" pot. I shudder to imagine it without the bamboo stakes. I wish I could take some credit for this, but it loves to be left alone, to do its own freaky thing.

It has nubs on it here and there, similar to the photo you posted, almost looking like would-be-aerial roots or confused new stems. I was contemplating tying on a plastic bag of damp material to see if I could get one of them to root. But, after reading all of this, I've decided it really deserves to enjoy its peaceful existence. Maybe I'll get it a bigger pot one day...

Anonymous said...

So yeah, D marginata 'Bicolor' does sort of look tan from a few feet away. The one I'm growing was the 'tall' plant in a plant arrangement containing a green shefflera and a trailing pink, cream and green job that I think now was probably a hoya and others I don't remember (didn't live long). Only this and the shefflara still survive. But since they came via my brother's funeral service, I call them funeral plants. A lot of plants growing here weren't purchases, taking up residence from various sources.

But a question. You suggest using alcohol for the cutting blade. But isn't alcohol really only a solvent? Therefore just a cleanser, like soap or detergent? The flame would disinfect, but alcohol wouldn't exactly, would it? I remember reading (a footnote maybe...) you are a chemist by education so I know you can be clear on how they work (I've never been altogether sure). Wouldn't bleach (Clorox) be another viable means of disinfecting cutting tools?

Texas anon

mr_subjunctive said...

Texas anon:

Alcohol works for most stuff because it denatures proteins and dehydrates cells. Bleach works differently, but it would also work.

I usually see alcohol recommended as a disinfectant for horticultural cutting tools, probably because bleach is more corrosive to metals and would damage them faster. If you're using a disposable razor blade or something, bleach is as good as alcohol, but if it's a knife you intend to keep for a while, alcohol is probably better.

Francine said...

I noticed a post not to repot in miracle grow. I just repotted my 5 ft colorama in MG. Will it dye? Also I have 2 babys growing between 3 full 5ft canes. Will they be able to prosper with no room for the leaves to fan out? They have the most beautiful bright pink leaves.

mr_subjunctive said...


It won't necessarily die. It won't necessarily not-die. I really don't know. I can tell you that Miracle Gro tends to stay wetter longer than is usually desirable for houseplants, so your plant will be more prone to rot and fungus in Miracle Gro than it would be in a less peaty soil mix. Miracle Gro soil also tends to repel water once it's dried out, too, so wet MG is too wet, and dry MG is too dry.

That said, D. marginatas are pretty cheap and easy to replace, so I wouldn't necessarily recommend that you replace the soil with something else. If it dies, you can get another, and if it doesn't die, you can use a different soil next time.

If the plant's in bright enough light, the baby canes should be fine.

Francine said...

What causes the little brown scabs on the leaves? I'm not ready to give up on this plant, I am spraying it with seventh generation soap and water and wiping every leaf. Are the brown scabs just going to come back?

mr_subjunctive said...

If you have brown scabby-looking things on the leaves, and they aren't actually scabs but they wipe off, and they come back after you wipe them off, there's a good chance you have a scale infestation. I'd recommend finding some neem oil and spraying the plant down with it according to the label directions. It's kind of terrible: 1) plants that have been sprayed need to be kept out of sun for a few hours afterward, 2) it smells awful, and 3) you have to do it consistently over a fairly long period. But it does work, which is the important thing.

If you have a photo of the "scabs," I may be able to give you a more definite diagnosis. The only other causes I can think of for spots on D. marginata would be fungal or bacterial infections, which don't wipe off.

Neal Roberts said...

Just bought a Marginata from Walmart. I have a large South facing window with a hot water register below it. Just wondering if it hurt the plant to be near the register?

mr_subjunctive said...

Neal Roberts:

It wouldn't be where I'd recommend, no. Especially in combination with the direct sun from the window, you could be putting the plant in a lot of hot, dry air. Though I don't know how often it'll be on, what temperature you're planning to keep the room at, etc., so I couldn't say for sure that it'd be a problem.

I suppose my advice would be to go ahead and do what you were going to do, but keep a watch out for burnt leaf tips and spider mites, and if you see either starting to become a problem, move it away from the heat.

Francine said...

Here's a good one for you. Where are these spider mites coming from? I live in a meticulously clean home in FL. and have monthly pest control, How do they get on the plant? Are spider mites contagious to me or my furniture?

mr_subjunctive said...


I don't know that I've ever seen a definitive answer on the subject, but if you'll allow me some wild speculation:

Where spider mites come from in the first place

The most obvious source of new infestations is from new plants. It's basically impossible for a retailer to ensure that they're selling only clean plants, because they can't ever be 100% certain that they're buying clean plants. Wholesalers typically have huge operations, and in a big greenhouse, there's a lot of places for a small colony of mites to survive and spread. Pesticides help, but they're not 100% effective, and populations eventually become resistant. (Also: the pesticides used in home pest control won't necessarily do anything about mites; I don't know what pest control services normally use, but there's a good chance that it overlaps with what the garden center or wholesaler was using, and if they managed to survive that long enough to make it to your home, they're likely already resistant to that. Besides that, not all pesticides work on all pests -- if they're spraying something specific to insects, it's not going to affect your mites -- and the spider mite life cycle is fast enough that once-a-month spraying is probably not frequent enough; the population can rebound between sprays.) So when you pick up a new plant, there's a possibility that it has a mite or two crawling around that hasn't caused any visible damage yet, and there isn't really any way for you or the retailer to know about it.

The other way new populations enter the home is through the windows and doors. When you're as small and light as a spider mite is, you can float in the air for a long time, and since they're outdoor pests too, new mites will occasionally get lucky enough to float into your house and land on your croton.

How spider mites get around once inside

Once in your house, mites will: 1) land on a plant that they can't eat at all, in which case they starve and die and your problem goes away; 2) land on a plant that will barely support them, in which case you may not know they're present, but there's always a small number of them hanging out, or 3) land on a plant that they can really thrive on, in which case you know there's a problem almost immediately.

2) is the really dangerous case, above, because if they're present but you're unaware, you can easily transfer them from plant to plant through handling, by rearranging plants, by floating around through the air, or by having plants close enough to touch one another.

With a plant population the size of mine, I've basically learned to accept that there will always be some mites, and adjust my expectations accordingly. It's a bit better now that I've pretty much stopped buying plants, and watering in the tub like I do, with a sprayer, physically knocks off enough mites that they mostly stay under control. If I notice there's a big problem, I'll spray with soapy water or neem oil, or sometimes soapy water followed by using the sprayer to try to wash the plants off.

The biggest success I've had, though, has come from just declaring some plants too mite-prone to bother trying to grow. Nothing will resolve your mite problems like declining to grow the plants they prefer.

Francine said...

Thank you for all this information! At least I know they won't want to populate on me and my furniture.

Gösser said...

The Maginata my wife and I have has this white sap covering it. It's the only plant in our collection with this sap. It's really sticky. What is the cause of this?

mr_subjunctive said...


I have no idea. My guess would be that either it's not a Dracaena marginata or the white stuff isn't sap.

Generally, sticky stuff on a plant that will reappear when you wipe it off is either guttation (which in my experience only occurs in a few discrete spots on a plant, typically on the underside of the topmost leaves, near where they connect to the main stem) or it's honeydew from an insect infestation: scale, mealybugs, and aphids can all produce honeydew. Neither guttation nor honeydew are white; honeydew can sometimes foster the growth of a black mold, so I suppose a white fungus might not be out of the question, and honeydew can be produced by mealybugs, which are white, but those are the only things I can think of.

If you can e-mail me pictures of 1) the plant as a whole and 2) the sticky stuff, I might be able to identify what's going on more definitely.

zees5 said...

I have been looking for the tri-color. I can only find the green in my area. I'm going to keep looking though b/c this is beautiful. These and succulents are the only plants I don't kill (:

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU! I've only just found you - and wonder why I've been reading other things! You explain well and amusingly - your reference to the native environment of Red Spider Mite being an Example of Excellence. I've learned a lot - now to try to apply it ... !

Anonymous said...

I've always wanted a "colorama" since first reading this profile (which wasn't long after having gotten into the houseplant hobby). I've had a "bicolor" for a while now that's gotten pretty tall and full (without any pest problems, luckily) and hopefully I can "ignore" the colorama enough so it gets as elegant as its sibling.

Linda said...

We have had a marginata for four years and, to our surprise, it recently bloomed. It's amazing to see (I couldn't resist taking photos) but the odor is overpowering. Can you tell me how common it is for these plants to bloom?

mr_subjunctive said...


I'm not sure I've ever heard of anybody's D. marginata blooming. (D. fragrans, yes, eventually, for pretty much everybody, but not marginata.)

I'd be interested in seeing pictures, if you were at all interested in e-mailing them to me.

Linda said...

Thank you for your response. Hopefully you received the photos I sent you via email yesterday. I look forward to hearing from you. Linda

Glenn said...

Once I read this I immediately checked for pests. No mealy bugs, but what are signs of spider mites?

mr_subjunctive said...


Mostly washed-out, dusty-looking leaves (that aren't actually dusty). In slightly worse cases, you'll get debris sticking to the underside of leaves in webs you can't quite see. In worse cases than that, you can see the webs. In worse cases than that, the individual mites will be visible as little dots hanging around in the webs.

But mostly the dusty-looking leaves. If a previously healthy-looking, glossy-leaved green plant suddenly turns bronzy and dull, it's usually safe to assume that it has mites.

Glenn said...

Thank you. I'll keep an eye out for that. Plant looks healthy and green so far. Great resource here, as I've started to add plants to my small condo. I've got a snake plant (laurentii), peace lily, and the marginata so far. Probably will add a yucca shortly.

Quick question, I like to leave my unit on the cool side (~18-20c) in the winter to save on heating costs. Do any of these plants require warmer temps 22c+? I ask this because I've noticed my 2 week old peace lily starting to droop.

mr_subjunctive said...


18-20C should be fine for the plants you have so far, and also a Yucca guatemalensis, should you add one. I'd be careful not to go much lower than that, though: I've seen Sansevieria survive very cold temperatures (~3C / 38F) before, but only if they're very dry. My Yuccas complain if they get much below 16C/60F. I haven't tried with Dracaena marginata, but the usual advice is to keep them above 60F.

Spathiphyllums can normally take a bit more cold than most tropical indoor plants; if yours is drooping, it's more likely related to water (either too much or not enough -- they respond the same way to both situations) than to temperature.

Glenn said...

Thanks for the insight. I'll watch how I water the lily more closely.

Darkroomwithaview said...

Hi, found your article whilst searching for why my Drac. has started producing clear sap.

I enjoyed reading & as a thankyou I took a couple of pics this morning of the sap with macro lens, I'm not sure if you go back & add/edit articles but you are welcome to use the Drac. images. - My next step is to propagate the Drac. fingers crossed.

wildelover said...

Hello! My fiance has had one of these for six years, ever since his grandfather passed away. The pot is nowhere near large enough for it any more, as it is about 8 feet tall on its tallest point. Our ceiling, coincidentally, is also 8 foot, and so he has said we should get rid of it. Since it is a reminder, I was hoping there might be a way to get a cutting from it. The three taller "stalks" or stems or trunks are all bent, but there is one small roughly 3foot "baby" that grew off the main roots about a year ago. I can't separate it from the bottom of the split stem, and I don't know how to try to repot something like this. If you could give me any tips, I would appreciate it. Since we're in Iowa also, there's no way we can transplant it outside.

mr_subjunctive said...


Did you read the post? (Specifically the PROPAGATION and GROOMING sections.)

The container can be moved outside for the summer in Iowa, though you will have to watch the weather forecast and bring it inside when the temperatures drop below 60F. Also, keep it in a spot where it's protected from direct sun, especially when you first put it out, because plants that have been indoors for a long time will sunburn if exposed to direct outdoor sun.

If you let the plant acclimate outside for a couple weeks, you can cut the stems back and it will probably grow new branches. You won't have much control over where it grows new branches, but generally a stem will produce at least two replacement tips for each main stem you cut. The pieces you've cut off, you can try to root. (I'd try either water or perlite. I don't know that those will necessarily work, but my attempts to direct-stick D. marginata cuttings have ended in rot, so I'd recommend you not try to direct-stick the pieces in soil.)

Indoors, a cut cane may or may not resprout; the added warmth, humidity, and light from being outdoors will give you a better shot, though.

wildelover said...

Thank you! I did read the post, twice actually, but I have very little experience with plants being cut and rooted (I have little luck even with transplanting healthy plants, so I tend to just look on). What I was trying to get at is an approximation of where I should cut (three inches? six? a foot?). I had never heard of terms like "air layering" and have no idea what one would consider a "tip" for "tip cutting."

However, I apologize for bothering you about the matter. If it isn't too much difficulty, would you kindly recommend a book or other source that could educate me more effectively on the subject?

As we live in an apartment on the third floor, the only outside place we could take the plant would be out by the dumpster, and I don't think that would end well for it.

mr_subjunctive said...


If there's not a place to put the plant outside, air-layering is probably your best bet. It's fairly simple to describe -- you basically cut partway through the stem, wedge the cut open, and then put something wet and soil-like around the cut so the cut part will grow roots into it, and then when it's got some roots, you cut the stem the rest of the way through and give the tip its own pot. Google can help with the details -- lots of sites describe it, but they all say pretty much the same thing.

I don't know if there's really a right or wrong length for cuttings; the important thing on this plant is to have enough of a stem that you're not burying the leaves below the soil, but not so much of a stem that it's going to look leggy or be top-heavy or whatever. I'd think 3 or 4 inches below where the leaves end should be adequate, but you could double that and still probably be okay, if you want to start off with a taller plant.

For water-rooting, it'd be basically the same as far as length, but water-rooting is more of a gamble.

The old stems could still resprout indoors, but probably only one new sprout per cane, if that many. Giving the plant a lot of light while it's thinking about whether or not to resprout will be helpful.

Also it's going to use water much more slowly once the leaves are gone. If you're not already deciding whether or not to water according to whether the soil is wet, and how deep it's wet, you should start doing that, because it'll be more important after the plant's beheaded. If you take the top off of one cane at a time -- cut, root, wait for new growth, cut the next one -- you won't have to worry about that quite as much, though you'll still want to hold back on the water a little bit. (If you can afford to cut the canes one at a time like that, I'd recommend it, but the down side to doing one cane at a time is that each cut/root/wait cycle may take three or four months, so you'll be living with a partly-beheaded plant for a very long time.)

I wouldn't try to take the top off of the new sprout that's come up, since it's short already and not causing any problems.

Also don't move the plant to a bigger pot before you do this, or before it's grown a decent amount of replacement foliage. Bigger pots mean more soil, and more soil means it'll dry more slowly, and it's already going to be prone to rot without a bunch of new wet soil sitting around the roots.

The above also applies if you manage to air-layer successfully: don't give the new plant a lot more pot than what the roots will fit into. People sometimes put tiny plants into big pots on the grounds that the plants will grow into the pots, but roots need air too, and too much wet soil keeps air from reaching them.

Use a clean, sharp knife when you make the cut. It might not even be a terrible idea to swab the spot with rubbing alcohol first. I mean, I've never done that -- I only thought of it just now -- but it can't hurt, and it might help.

Also, once you've taken the top off of a cane, you'll probably have a pretty tall stump left; you can, if you want, cut more of the cane off after that. The new growth, if any, will most likely start from the top of the stump, so decide what height you want new leaves at, and cut accordingly.

If any canes turn mushy or hollow themselves out while you're waiting for new growth, they're rotting. If there's still a firm section of cane near the bottom, you can go ahead and try cutting it back to the solid, non-rotted cane, but anything above the mushy part is probably not salvageable, and anything below is something of a long shot.

E-mail if you have further questions. I'm sorry for being a little snippy in my earlier response.

The Appliance Nerd said...

Hey! I was looking for information about my plant, and this was it.

Stupid question about my stupid screw-up: took my D. marginata outside during this past heat wave (I know...STUPID!) because I wanted to let it get some water and drain well on the porch rather than in the rolling dish it usually stands in.

Predictably, some of the leaves fell off (no more than about 10 out of over 100). It's about 5 years old and about 4 feet tall above-soil. All the leaves at the top are pretty much fine, and most along the stem are, too.

I'm sure it will be fine, but was curious if there's anything other than keeping it inside (it's inside now) that I can do to aid its recovery. We don't go crazy with watering, though I did make sure to drench it once a day during the hot weather, as the soil would completely dry over the course of the day. Thanks in advance!

mr_subjunctive said...

The Appliance Nerd:

Apologies for the delay; Google sent your comment to spam, so I didn't see it until today.

It might help to keep it outside for the summer, if 1) you have a place for it that's sheltered from wind and direct sun, 2) you can bring it in easily if the temperature drops below 60ish, and 3) you can keep up with the watering. But it doesn't sound like it was particularly traumatized, so the plant probably doesn't really need anything special.

Herr Unglaublich said...

Your blog is great! There's so much good information, and it's always entertaining to read.

I have managed to kill several dracaenas (2 Marginatas, 2 Warneckiis, and two Janet Craig Compactas). I clearly overwatered the first of each of these guys (and learned my lesson!). But I was EXTREMELY careful about watering the second of each of these plants that I bought.

Now I typically weigh the plants when I buy them and record the weight. These were all larger (8 - 12 lbs, 3 - 5ft tall or so) sized plants. Then I wait until they are bone dry as far down as I can dig into the soil, and weigh them again. Sometimes I wait another several days and weigh one more time to make sure they haven't lost even more (water) weight.

When I'm confident that the soil is just about as dry as its going to get, I record that weight as the "dry" weight, take them to the tub, and give them a good soaking with room temperature tap water that has been left out for several days (generally until bubbles stop appearing in the clear jug I use). I water until all the top of the soil (or lava rock as the case may be) is wet and water has been dribbling out of the bottom of the container (always plastic with drainage holes) for a while. I let them drain in the (dry) tub for a bit and then put them back. I only water them again when they reach the "dry" weight that I recorded. I'll add a few drops of liquid fertilizer (Schultz 10-15-10) to the watering can just about each time I water them (it's usually several weeks between waterings).

I have a southwest facing apartment with lots of light streaming through translucent curtains. My south and west walls are mostly window. I've tried them both near the windows, as well as 8 ft away. Regardless, I think they should be getting plenty of light as there is really no dark part of the apartment. I live in Los Angeles, so humidity is low, climate is very temperate, and most days are sunny. Temperatures in my place will range from about 65 degrees at night in the winter, to perhaps 85 degrees in the middle of the day during the summer (when I'm away I don't have the A/C on). So I think I have a good environment for these plants.

I frankly suspect that the second of each of these plants may have already developed the beginnings of root rot when I bought them. The Warneckii stems started to get squishy after only about a month - when I had watered it just once since buying it. The Janet Craig started to lose leaves (yellowing followed by browning) shortly after I bought it and before I even watered it for the first time. The Marginata started rotting perhaps a couple months after I brought it home. I also noticed a dark, blackish coloration on the exterior of one stem when I bought it. But I squeezed the cane and it seemed firm at that point.

Pardon my ignorance, but is it possible that the fungus or bacteria that may be causing the rot are now "living" dormant in my apartment and infecting any new dracaena I bring home? I do have one small (18" tall or so) marginata that I've had for about three years now. It seems to be doing fine. I soak it when the lower leaves droop and fertilize it every 6 months with a time release fertilizer and it seems okay. If fungus or bacteria were hanging around, they would have attacked this guy already, right? So maybe I've just been having bad luck buying infected dracaenas recently? Or am I still not caring for these plants appropriately?

Sorry for the long post! Thanks so much for the blog and for any advice that you may have!

mr_subjunctive said...

Herr Unglaublich:

I wouldn't be surprised if some of the plants already had rot when you bought them; it should be fairly difficult to rot a Dracaena through overwatering within a month of purchase, even if you were trying to do so. The main thing to consider before you run off and accuse the store of selling you bad plants is: if you repotted, you could have injured roots or stem during that process and introduced fungus or bacteria to the stem then. It's not a certain thing, but it does happen.

As to whether your home has a reservoir of fungal and bacterial spores, waiting to infect future plants: it might, but I suspect that it wouldn't matter either way. Potting soil is a fairly likely source all on its own, and it's difficult to sterilize completely (which I'm guessing is why companies like Miracle Gro don't even try, and consequently why Miracle Gro soil is always full of fungus gnats).

I'm also concerned about overpotting (plants in containers which are much too large for them) in your case. The general process of weighing the plant and pot to determine how much water it contains, more or less, seems reasonable, but in a low-humidity area, with warm daytime temperatures and adequate light, a Dracaena shouldn't be needing to go "several weeks" between waterings. Depending on your understanding of "several."

My Dracaenas, for comparison, are kept at a pretty steady 72F/22C year-round, with mostly bright artificial light. The humidity in here varies but should be roughly comparable to your situation. Most of mine (12 out of 18) get watered at least monthly, and virtually all of them (16/18) get watered at least every six weeks.[1] So I'm wondering if you're not either 1) underwatering in an attempt to make up for overwatering earlier, or 2) putting your plants in such large pots that they take forever to dry out, in which case even underwatering is still sort of overwatering, because the damp soil remains around the roots for a long time and will rot them out even if the soil gets to dry out between waterings.


[1] In fact, I just looked at the spreadsheet, and out of 998 plants, total, there are only 32 that I water less than every four weeks, and only 7 plants that I water less than every six weeks.

Herr Unglaublich said...

Thank you for such a quick response!

Out of the six plants that have died, I have only repotted one - the first Marginata. After I had it for about six months, the leaves started to droop a bit. But then I'd water it (at the time, by running tap water directly into the pot in an attempt to "flush" it and keep minerals from building up from hard LA water) and the leaves would perk back up. Eventually, they stopped perking back up after watering. Since it was planted in lava rock, I (mistakenly, I suspect) assumed that it needed soil which held more moisture and replanted it with half the original lava rock and half "well draining" soil "that prevents over and underwatering" (I think it had synthetic spongy crystals in it that held water and released it over time). Looking back, that was probably exactly the wrong soil for that plant. Shortly after that, the plant began to rot.

With the exception of my small, still thriving Marginata whose lower roots were pushing up the entire soil pack from the bottom of its pot (and thus were totally exposed to air), I haven't repotted one since. So they are kept in their original plastic planter pots, which are then placed into enameled ceramic pots (which I make sure to clean out with bleach after a plant dies and before I stick a new one in there).

As far as frequency of watering goes, I'd say on average I watered these plants approximately every three weeks in the summertime, to approximately every six weeks in the dead of winter. I should have been more clear on what "several weeks" meant. So it seems like I'm at least within the ballpark of a reasonable watering timetable.

mr_subjunctive said...

Herr Unglaublich:

Did you buy all (or most) of them from the same source? 'Cause I'm leaning pretty hard toward the they-were-sick-when-I-bought-them theory, now that you've explained all that.

Herr Unglaublich said...

No, actually. If I recall correctly, I think only the first marginata and warneckii came from the same nursery. All of the other plants came from different nurseries or hardware stores.

Despite that, it's sounding like there's a good chance I just had really bad luck with the last three dracaenas. All of the other plants I have seem to be doing reasonably well. So perhaps I'll give dracaenas another shot.

Thank you for all of your advice!

William Pieters-Verbiest said...

I've bought a D Marginata about a month ago, and thought it needed medium watering once a week (as the card attached to it said so), so I kept it semi-wet all the time (the soil on top was still moist when I gave it water through bottom). Now recently, all the leaves have started drooping down, and dropping off one by one slowly (instead of all standing upright). Even the newer leaves look very light green (white-green even) and start to droop collectively towards the side too, while the tip of the 3 canes where the leaves sprout out of feels soft, compared to the hard stem. Is there anything I can do to save the plant or is it done for? (PS: it's getting colder & rainy all the time here in Belgium, so putting in full sun / warm places isn't an option really).

William Pieters-Verbiest said...

Also, I don't really understand when people comment on "cut the stem and replant it to grow a new plant" (both on this plant and others like Tradescantia Zebrina), what exactly is the stem, how far must "it" be cut? ... does anyone have pictures on what the stem of a plant is?

mr_subjunctive said...

William Pieters-Verbiest:

Well, the first thing to do is stop keeping it semi-wet all the time.

It's very hard to tell what's going on from the description you've provided. Not that there's anything wrong with the description, it's just that droopy leaves and light-colored new growth are sort of ambiguous signs. I can try to give a better diagnosis if you want to e-mail me some pictures. (Address is in the sidebar under "infrequently asked questions;" be sure to read and follow the instructions therein.)

My gut feeling is that the plant is beyond recovery, because 1) my gut is just naturally pessimistic about everything, and 2) showing changes in a month is very fast, compared to how most D. marginata problems go.

As for the second comment: the stem is, you know, the stem. The central thing, often vertical, from which the leaves and branches sprout. On a Dracaena, the base of the leaves is directly attached to the stem, which is mostly vertical; with Tradescantia, the leaves are directly attached, but the stem is usually only vertical for the last few leaves, and is otherwise horizontal.

A lot of plants also have petioles, which resemble the stem, but aren't vertical, and attach to the stem on one end and the leaf on the other. (Aglaonema is a good example of a plant with petioles and vertical stems.)

Some plants are more or less entirely stem, like Schlumbergera. (What everybody thinks are "leaves" are actually flattened segments of the stem.)

Andrea Wong said...

Hi there, thank you for your blog post. I have one of these plants, and I think I overwatered him over a week ago. Now it's dying rapidly. The leaves are falling off and are no longer green. What do I do? Should I repot it with new dry soil? Please advise asap. Thank you!

mr_subjunctive said...

Andrea Wong:

Is the stem still firm, or is it mushy? If it's still firm, and the roots look okay (you can knock it partway out of the pot to look at them; the plant won't mind), then repotting into dry soil should be fine.

Anonymous said...

Dracaena Marginata - at the top of the page is a 3.0 -

is 3.0 what a moisture meter should read for the Dracaena Marginata?


mr_subjunctive said...


No. It is my assessment of how difficult the plant is to grow, on a 0-10 scale (0 being easiest).

Jakub said...

Hello, I have been trying to identify various plants I have in one public spot, and how to take care of them, so I have been reading from various sources. Wikipedia states: D. marginata Lam. – a name found in horticulture – is a synonym of Dracaena reflexa var. angustifolia

Do you know something about this? How do you choose names for the plants if there are various synonyms?

mr_subjunctive said...


Each species is kind of its own judgment call, but for species which are well-known already, I go with the well-known name, and for species that are obscure, I go with the "correct" name. Mostly.

Joel E. said...

My 15+ year old Colorama 'tree' suddenly sprouted two canes with green leaves like the green marginata. First time since the plant existed. Any explanation?

mr_subjunctive said...

Joel E.:

Some variegated plants can revert to the ordinary color if they're not getting enough light. Unusual coloration caused by a mutation in the plant's genes can sometimes spontaneously mutate back. It's likely one or the other of those.

Sometimes it's possible to remind the plant what it's supposed to be doing by increasing the amount of light it's receiving, though I'd be surprised if that worked in your situation. If it's a mutation causing the coloration to revert, it's not likely to return to normal, since they have more chlorophyll and can grow faster as a result. All-green reverts have a tendency to take over when they appear, so unless you want that, you should probably take them off. If you're so inclined and the shoots are of decent size, there's a chance you might be able to root them in water and pot them up as a second, boring green plant.

sociallyawkwardgirl said...


I've had my braided 5 Ft D. Marginata for almost 3 years. It was repotted into a huge pot about 2 years ago and has been doing amazing. I always water very sparingly in the winter with my tropicals, using the finger trick and the plant itself to let me know when it's time to water. However, the past week and a bit I noticed a few of my lower stems were bent over and the stem is mushy (despite the vibrant green of the leaves). I felt the soil and it was dry so I gave a watering. Today, I noticed that another stem has bent all the way over and the bent area is shrivelled. Unfortunately, it seems one of my braided stems of the 3 main large ones is mushy down towards the base of the tree. Is there any way to save the other two since they are braided together? Should I try repotting and cutting away as much of the root rot from this third dying stem? Help!



mr_subjunctive said...


Unless there's some compelling sentimental reason for trying to save everything, I'd say, consider the mushy-stemmed one and any of its branches or suckers lost causes. Get the plant out of the pot, separate the root systems, and do your best not to cut or bruise the healthy individual plants while you're getting the diseased one out. Cut the diseased one as little as possible: every cut you make is just that many more bacteria you're setting loose into the soil, on the knife, on your hands, etc.

The healthy ones can be repotted into a new pot of their own, ideally with completely new soil (consider washing the roots off before repotting if it's at all feasible to do so). Use the smallest pot you can fit their root systems into without bending the roots at sharp angles. The new soil may be of a different composition than the old soil was, so you might wind up needing to water more often, or less often, so remember that the new watering schedule may or may not be similar to the old one.

I can't guarantee that this will salvage the plant for you; it's possible that the other individual plants in the pot are already beyond saving even if you do everything correctly. But if they're not showing any signs of rot yet, your odds are good. And it's not like it's particularly difficult or expensive to replace D. marginatas, if things do go bad.

Ed Kramer said...

I had a piano student who, I think, was trying to seduce me (she would lean forward so her beasts would touch my arm when I demonstrated something on the keys) who gave me one of these 20 or 25 years ago. I still have it - lots of branches! By he way, she didn't succeed.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I have a dracaena marginata plant that I recently repotted after owning it for a little over a year. The plant was slightly rootbound, so I moved it into a bigger pot and used some old soil my dad insisted I use. The bag had been lying outside for months, and as reluctant as I was to use it, I did, and a couple of days later I noticed small white bugs in the dirt, and a foreign plant growing in the pot. I immediately went out to buy new soil, and repotted it again, but now a new problem has arisen; I was reading that the dracaena marginata is particularly sensitive to fluoride, and that perlite contains harmful quantities of it? The soil that I repotted my plant with is Schultz Potting Mix Plus, which contains peat moss and perlite.

What should I do?? This plant is extremely important to me for personal reasons and I don't know if it's the extreme fear of losing it that's causing me to notice more burnt tips than there originally was when I bought it, or if there really is damage being done to the plant as a result of the perlite. Should I repot my plant? If so, what soil do I use? Please help me, I can't lose this plant.


mr_subjunctive said...

Anonymous / AJ:

You're probably fine with the Schultz mix. Bagged mixes rarely have so much perlite in them that it's a problem for fluoride-sensitive plants; it's more of a concern when you're talking about someone deliberately adding perlite to make a lighter soil mix. If you're concerned about it, wait until the next time the plant needs water and then give it a good flushing out in a bathtub or driveway or something -- run lots of water through the soil and you wash a lot of the fluoride out. (Since tap water usually contains fluoride, you'll only be able to reduce the amount just so much, but it shouldn't be a problem to get it to a level that won't bother then plant. If you then flush the soil out regularly, the fluoride shouldn't be able to build back up to a level that could bother the plant.)

My best guess from what you've told me is that the plant may be reacting to the double-repotting. (That wouldn't normally kick in until a couple weeks later; I don't know how long it's been since the first repotting.) Even if the roots don't get damaged in the process, it's still sort of a big deal for the plant.

Take a photo of the plant now, and save it somewhere. In a few weeks, compare the plant to the photo: if things are clearly getting worse, feel free to e-mail me about it, but don't worry about the fluoride specifically.

Bryan La Dow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bryan La Dow said...

Please help! My 8 foot tall Dracaena Marginata plant is dying!

The main branch is very wrinkled, has lost all its leaves, and does appear to have a dark spot with thin bark (though it is not hollowed at that point).

More often than not, this would be indicative of overwatering, but at the base of the main branch are two new offshoots that have sprouted and are growing very fast. Concordantly, the large pot is shared by two other canes of 4 and 5 feet in height, that are also doing quite well with no signs of over watering.

What the heck is going on!?

mr_subjunctive said...

Bryan La Dow:

Well, it's not impossible for one individual cane to be rotting out while the others in the pot were fine, though it'd be unusual. And I definitely can't explain why the plant would give up on one growing tip but grow two new ones. I'm curious about how you've been watering (when do you decide to do it, how much at a time, pot size, how long since it was repotted, etc.). Also curious about the temperature where the plant is.

The dark spot and wrinkles suggest Fusarium, in which case you should probably cut the dead part of the cane off while you still can, but I don't know how the Fusarium would be in the main cane but not in the side shoots.

So, feel free to send me the pictures. I won't necessarily be able to explain what's going on (and in fact I kind of doubt I can), but if nothing else I'm kind of intrigued by the problem, and maybe something would click if I saw the overall situation.

Anonymous said...

I bought a dragon tree a few months back over the summer. I already have one that's massive and doing well...even got a new shoot at the bottom a few years back. The new plant is not doing well. I'm not sure if I'm over watering it. The leaves are dry and but also look black and moist, I have been running a humidifier by it.. It's losing a lot of leaves. Am I making it worse with the humidifier? Should I just stop watering it and see what happens?

mr_subjunctive said...


I'd be surprised if the humidifier were making things worse, but at this point I kind of doubt that it's making anything better, either.

I think you really only have two options here: 1) restart from cuttings and hope they're luckier, or 2) stop overwatering and hope the plant can fix itself. Based on your description, if it were my plant, I'd go with option 1 if the plant has strong sentimental value such that it would be hard/impossible to replace, and option 2 otherwise.

Ceasing watering entirely will kill this plant (as it would kill any other plant), so don't do that. You can't correct watering too much in November by not watering enough in December. Check the soil: is it moist at all near the center of the root ball? If yes, don't water. If no, water thoroughly, and allow the plant to drain before putting it back.

Noah Kamen said...


i have a mature corn plant, it is spindly looking. a tall stalk with leaves at the top, sort of lollipop looking.

question: is there a way to cause the plant to grow new leaves on the stalk portion? nicking it perhaps?

mr_subjunctive said...

Noah Kamen:

In some cases, though cutting it back and letting it sprout new heads is more likely to work. Both methods are best tried when you have a lot of heat, humidity, and light to work with; late spring / early summer would be the best time to try.

jelena said...

Hi Mr! My Dracaena marginata colorama seems to be fine and I think is time to put her in a new pot. I'd like to know what pot is the best choice for her: wide ang short? Tall and narrow? Does she need a big or smal pot? Thanks a lot

mr_subjunctive said...


I don't think it makes a huge difference, really: my advice would be to go with a new pot that has similar proportions to the old pot, just a little bigger. (The standard recommendation is to choose a new pot that is 2 inches / 5 cm wider across the top than the old one.)

It should maybe be noted that a tall narrow clay pot will dry out faster than a standard-proportioned[1] pot of similar volume, and a tall narrow plastic pot will dry out more slowly than a standard pot.


[1] "Standard" pots are as tall as they are wide, with a slightly wider top than base. "Azalea" pots are 3/4 as tall as they are wide. Either will work fine for most houseplants.

Michael Labadie-Mendes said...

I am a recent transplant to Hawaii (big island) and have the pleasure of having multiple large, mature dracaena plants on my property. One was blocking a passage through the yard, it was so overgrown (we're talking 12-15 footers here, with trunks at least 18" around). I did cut a number of branches off to clear the pathway and the parent plant (or tree) looks fine, no worse for the trimming. I threw the cuttings into a bucket with some water. About a week later, I went to change the water and nearly died from the smell! OMG!

Some locals here have said 'just stick the canes in the ground and they'll grow.' I'm considering it. For the meantime, I'm not overly concerned about the canes sitting in the bucket (I've reduced the water in the bucket to an inch or so and let it dry out because I'm busy). I know I will have more cuttings in the not so distant future.

I also have 4 medium sized plants (5-6') that were planted in the WRONG PLACE. They need to be transplanted before they are 10 footers. lol

I enjoyed reading your blog on these lovely 'houseplants' that grow into trees here in Hawaii.


Carol Smith said...

Hi, we live in West Central Florida and we're buying a house that has what I think is a very, very old Dracaena marginata in the front. We had the inspection yesterday, and the inspector brought to our attention that the base of the plant is up against the house which is not good as far as moisture collection and the foundation. The base of this plant is a couple of feet across and has multiple canes, it's a nice looking plant, so I would hate to have it pulled out completely. Knowing that these are hardy plants, I wonder if I can chop straight down into it with a machete or saw and remove a portion of the base, bringing it away from the foundation. Thanks!

mr_subjunctive said...

Carol Smith:

(with the caveat that growing plants outdoors is not my area of expertise at all and you should really consult with someone who knows more about this instead of taking my word for it:)

I think you should be able to cut off a chunk of the plant and relocate it, yes.

Unknown said...

I got 6 cuttings off one stem. Placed them in water and they have all sprouted leaves but so far only one little root. Can I do anything to help roots along? And the stem that was left in the pot has grown double set of leaves (I had just covered the top with wet paper towel & a plastic baggy) that promoted the new leaves.

mr_subjunctive said...


Can I do anything to help roots along?

Not really. It'll happen when and if it happens. A tiny (like, so small you're like "why am I even bothering to do this?") amount of fertilizer in the water might help, as will changing the water a couple times a week, but it's not a fast process; you just have to be patient.

freebird54 said...

My dad used to say urine was the best for these plants evemn indoors - true!

Once leaves yellow i pull them off

4" or longer cuttings always worked for me

Melanie said...

I have a bi color dracaena that is about 4 yrs old, very healthy and just yesterday a family friends child pulled the entire leaf head off. It was a clean break just below the lowest leaves. I put the leaf top in water in hopes there some stem left to grow roots. What do i need to do to ensure the stem that is still intact in the pot will not die. Is there anyway to save the leaf head?

Magdalena said...

Hi! Great blog!

Okay, so I recently moved to South Dakota for my studies, and this past summer purchased a 10 year old Dracaena marginata from a family that couldn't care for it anymore. When I asked how she would care for the plant. the previous owner told me that she kept it near a west facing window, and would leave it outside during the summer. I live in an apartment west facing windows, and have been avoiding to overwater the plant (can go for more than 2 weeks with the soil still feeling wet). I love my tree, but don't know what is going wrong with it. There are damaging spots on some of the leaves, and some are rust colored (I can send pictures). I know my apartment's humidity isn't a factor because I keep a humidifier near my plants. I looked for root rot, and there isn't any from what I can see. The only thing I can think of is that I need to repot the tree, because its roots are probably too tight in the pot it was given to me. Could it in fact be that? or is it something worse?


mr_subjunctive said...


I don't know that you can ensure that the stump will resprout, but water very carefully until you see new growth, because the stump won't use nearly as much water as it did when it had leaves, and continuing to water like you used to will likely make it rot. Brighter light, warmer temperatures, and higher humidity will give the stump better chances of resprouting, but there are no guarantees.

The head may root in water, given time; warmer temperatures and higher humidity will help there as well. (Brighter light may or may not, depending on what sort of light it was getting before. You probably want to stay away from full, all-day direct sun, regardless of what it's used to getting.) Make sure the water level stays above the base of the cutting, change it weekly (or thereabouts), and you can transfer the cutting to a pot of soil (3 or 4 inches in diameter) if/when roots appear. (I don't know exactly when is the best moment to transfer the plant to soil, not having done it myself, but I would guess once the roots are a couple inches long, they're probably ready.)

mr_subjunctive said...


It would probably help to see the photos; go ahead and send some when you have the chance.

dry chic said...

So I have this plant and two of the trucks are now hollow at the top, and the leaves have died- you can feel the hard core that shriveled about 2/3 of the way down. I'm assuming this is Fusarium oxysporum? Can I just repot and toss those two or is it compromised? Do I need to cut the tops off the others cause the roots are probably infected? Thanks in advance!

mr_subjunctive said...

dry chic:

I'm assuming this is Fusarium oxysporum?

Most likely.

Can I just repot and toss those two or is it compromised?

In theory, you can repot while removing the two dying stems, but in practice, there's a very good chance that the process of repotting will nick or break roots and spread the infection to the currently unaffected plants.

Do I need to cut the tops off the others cause the roots are probably infected?

If it were my plant, I would assume that stems that weren't showing signs of infection were still okay. Often, when I assume stuff like that, I later learn that I was wrong, so if the plant isn't super-valuable to you for sentimental reasons, and you have the money to replace it, it might be better to just get a new one.

If you do want to keep this particular specimen, you could try buying an antifungal powder (garden supply places will usually have at least one), separate the living plants from the dying ones, and dust the roots with the antifungal before you pot them up again. If you can't find a regular chemical antifungal, some people use ordinary spice-rack cinnamon powder, and I think it's effective, but for the amounts you'd need, the cinnamon would probably cost more than a replacement plant. (On the other hand, the plant would smell a hell of a lot nicer, so I suppose that's your call.) There are no guarantees that treatment with antifungal powders will necessarily preserve the remaining canes, so I would only take this approach if you really want to keep this specific plant, or really want an excuse to make your house smell like cinnamon.