Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Black Sheep (Dracaena surculosa)

Dracaena surculosa -- often still referred to by the now-obsolete name D. godseffiana1 -- is not my favorite plant. I have one, though, since January 2007. During that period of time, my specimen has been kind of trashy-looking and lacking in redeeming qualities, as have most of the others I've seen. Plus, they're everywhere: grocery stores, garden centers, big box stores. Inescapable.

The only "person" I could come up with who ticked all the relevant boxes -- trashy, ubiquitous, without redeeming qualities -- was Ke$ha,2 but after a little research, I decided that whatever the plant had done to me, it didn't deserve being compared to Ke$ha.3 So instead, "Black Sheep." This is a reference to the un-Dracaena-like growth habit: instead of a strong central stem with a dense fountain of attached leaves at the top, as is typical for the genus, D. surculosa has long stretches of bare stem, punctuated at intervals by whorls of two to five short, leaf-shaped leaves.4 The leaves are covered in yellow dots, which turn white with age, giving the plant its common name, the "gold-dust plant" or "gold-dust dracaena."

A more or less typical whorl of leaves -- IN 3-D! (To see in 3-D, you have to sort of let your eyes cross so the images overlap. Like one of those "Magic Eye" pictures that were so popular however long ago that was.) Not that it's especially worth seeing in 3-D, but, you know. I'm just trying to make the experience special.

We always had some of these in the garden center when I worked there, and not once was it because we actually wanted them. Whenever we ordered an assortment of foliage plants, we got some D. surculosa in the mix (usually along with D. sanderiana, which we never wanted either). This was irritating because I don't think I ever saw a customer buy one.5 Once, I tried to combine multiple 3-inch pots to create really dense 6-inch (15 cm) pots, on the theory that perhaps the small pots weren't selling because they looked too sparse and weird. Nobody bought the 6-inch pots either, though.

Why did customers shun this plant? My suspicion is that most of them thought it was the same thing as the gold-dust croton, Codiaeum variegatum 'Gold Dust,' which likewise has lots of yellow dots on leaf-shaped6 green leaves. PATSP readers probably wouldn't make that mistake, because we pay attention to these sorts of things, but if you were a regular non-obsessive grower of house plants, and you saw these two side by side, you'd probably assume that the Codiaeum was the better plant. The color of the dots is uniform on the croton, the leaves are evenly-distributed up and down the height of the plant instead of clumping in whorls of leaves, and there are likely more leaves overall.

Top: Dracaena surculosa. Bottom: Codiaeum variegatum 'Gold-Dust.' Yes, I know that both pictures suck. But you can tell me again if you really need to.

So even among the larger houseplant community, Dracaena surculosa is something of a ne'er-do-well. But it does have a few things going for it.

The emergence of a new D. surculosa shoot.

As sparse as a new plant may be, it will fill in. The species name "surculosa" means "suckering." New shoots will appear from beneath the soil. Plants grown outdoors,7 where they are sometimes called "Japanese bamboo," can sucker to the point of becoming a solid clump of stems several inches in diameter.

A fully-grown D. surculosa 'Punctulata.' Photo credit: Jayjayc. Used with permission.

Also, some of the cultivars aren't that bad looking. Here's 'Milky Way,' for example:

D. surculosa 'Milky Way.' Photo credit: public domain photo by Mokkie, at Wikimedia Commons.

Of the other cultivars, 'Florida Beauty' (the most prevalent cultivar in the trade, from what I've seen) has very dense yellow dots that fade with age to white. The dots can be dense enough that the center of the leaves is entirely yellow/white, though there's no clear line of demarcation like on 'Milky Way,' and light intensity influences how dense the dots are. 'Juanita' resembles 'Milky Way' but has a narrower center stripe, which is dotted in green. 'Punctulata' appears to be the type usually grown outdoors; it has both rings and dots of light green. I've never seen 'Punctulata' for sale as a houseplant.

D. surculosa 'Punctulata' close-up. Photo credit: Jayjayc. Used with permission.

In good outdoor conditions, D. surculosa can get to be about six feet (1.8 m) tall. Jayjayc.com says 'Punctulata' can reach 11.5 feet / 3.5 m outdoors, though that's apparently specific to the variety, not a general feature of the species. Indoors, you're more likely to top out at three feet (0.9 m). I have seen photos of alleged indoor-only plants which were five feet (1.5 m) tall, though, so it may just be a matter of good care and sufficient patience.

They'll also flower indoors, occasionally. This happened to me once, shortly after I got my plant.

They're not actually this yellow; in person they were basically white. There's been a photography learning curve. Also, I feel like calling your attention to the similarity between this and the flowers of the semi-related plant Sansevieria trifasciata.

The fragrance is strong, mainly nocturnal, and in my opinion not-unpleasant, though some would disagree. Glasshouse Works said at one time that the flowers smell like [model] airplane glue, which I didn't get that at all: to me it smelled like a generic perfumey floral smell.8 In any case, plants will flower more freely outdoors. Mine hasn't tried to rebloom. If the flowers are pollinated, reddish-orange berries will result.

There don't appear to be a lot of practical applications of D. surculosa, though I did find one scientific paper testing compounds isolated from the plant against human leukemia cells. Were the Journal of Natural Products not charging $35 to read the paper,9 I could even report to you about whether or not it seemed promising, but they do, so I can't.

As with most Dracaenas, surculosas are pretty easy houseplants, though there are still a few non-negotiable points to remember.

LIGHT: D. surculosa will put up with moderate indirect light but would really prefer bright indirect, or even some filtered sun. (Outdoors, I read that they can handle a few hours of direct sun, even.) Insufficient light will reduce the number and color-contrast of the spots. My personal plant has been under bright artificial light since we moved in June 2009, and accepts that as sufficient.

WATER: D. surculosa seems to prefer to be slightly wetter than other Dracaenas, but they also need a good, well-draining soil mix that permits air to reach the roots. With my personal plant, not only have I occasionally been neglectful and let the soil dry out too much between waterings (which leads to leaf drop), I also should have changed its soil some time ago. I think the delayed repotting is responsible for the chlorosis10 I've been seeing.

This, I'm aware, is also a crappy picture. The reddish/yellowish color of the leaves toward the top of the photo is mostly a side effect of the lighting, not the actual color of the plant, though some of the upper leaves do have worse chlorosis than the lower ones.

TEMPERATURE: Well, again, they're supposed to be hardy to USDA zone 9, which means a minimum winter temperature of 20F / -7C. I wouldn't bet on this indoors, though, since the other Dracaena species, which mostly come from the same part of Africa, start to show cold damage at around 55F / 13C. I wouldn't go any colder than 55F/13C.

HUMIDITY: More is nice, but dry air is well-tolerated. Extremely dry air may encourage spider mites, and one should keep all houseplants out of the path of air conditioning or heating vents, but humidity is otherwise not normally an issue.

PESTS: No pests stand out as being particular enemies of D. surculosa, but anyone growing houseplants indoors should be familiar with the signs and treatments for spider mites, scale, and mealybugs, at least.

PROPAGATION: I've never done it, personally, because my problem has historically been too many D. surculosas, but it's supposedly possible to cut off a stem, stick it in damp soil, and have it root. Mass production involves stem cuttings stuck in soil/coir or coir/sand, enclosed in plastic, out of direct sun; they're supposed to root in about 3-4 weeks. I accidentally broke a stem off of my plant in the course of writing this post, and I stuck it in damp soil but didn't cover the plant with plastic: I'll let you know what happens.

Stems are also said to root in water. Large plants may be divided or air-layered.

GROOMING: This isn't a particularly messy plant, but leaves will fall from time to time. Sometimes individual stems will die, at which point they can be broken off.

It's a slow grower, too, which may or may not be an undesirable feature for you.

FEEDING: I didn't see much in the way of specific advice about D. surculosa feeding anywhere, so I assume that using a basic houseplant fertilizer at quarter-strength with every watering should be fine. That's more than I usually suggest for Dracaenas (I feed D. deremensis or D. fragrans very lightly and infrequently: they get by fine without, and leaf tips and margins burn when the soil is too salty.11), but normal for houseplants in general.

I'm not sure how to wrap up this profile. It's easier to do a conclusion when the plants are really wonderful, or when they're really awful: something I have strong feelings about. I did learn the origin of the term "black sheep," in the course of writing this, but it doesn't really apply: black wool was worth less than white, back in 18th and 19th century England, because it couldn't be dyed. Black wool is also a recessive trait, which would pop up occasionally in flocks of otherwise white sheep. Hence, "black sheep" for a strange or shameful member of a family.

"Shameful," obviously, is a little extreme, but I can believe that the other Dracaenas might think surculosa is a little weird. And it's sort of an oddball in the retail world too, because of how it's not really, you know, good at anything except not-dying and making leaves with spots on them. I suppose the cliche that applies here is "takes all kinds."


References (some may also be linked in text):
Davesgarden.com page for D. surculosa
Davesgarden.com page for cv. 'Florida Beauty'
Plant-care.com page for cv. 'Juanita'
Curiousgardener.com page about Dracaenas in general
Photo of cv. 'Friedmannii'
Dractax.myspecies.info page about D. surculosa, including native range map
Jayjayc.com page about D. surculosa, primarily as an outdoor plant
BAR Digest page about mass production of D. surculosa in the Philippines

Photo credits: My own, except as otherwise noted in the captions. The original map in footnote 7 came from freeworldmaps.net and is based on information from dractax.myspecies.info.

1 (Godseffiana is probably still more commonly used in the horticultural world, actually.)
2 And then I was like, Oh! I could make a series out of it, and do plant profiles based on Ke$ha, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Taylor Swift, or something like that. I got as far as deciding on a plant for Lady Gaga (which I may still use someday, so I'm not going to tell you what it was) before realizing that I didn't want to ruin an otherwise perfectly nice plant for myself by comparing it to Katy Perry, who I hate only slightly less than I hate Ke$ha.
3 Probably no plant deserves to be compared to Ke$ha. Or at least, not unless the comparison cuts heavily in the plant's favor. Like, I think IQ comparisons would be okay.
4 At least as compared to the other Dracaenas regularly grown as houseplants, which means D. marginata, fragrans, deremensis, sanderiana, and reflexa, plus very occasionally arborea, goldieana, and thalioides.
I looked on Google to see if I could find other Dracaena species with a habit like D. surculosa -- it's always bothered me that the taxonomists put it in the Dracaena genus when no other Dracaena looks like that -- but the more obscure species either looked just like D. deremensis or D. arborea, or there were no available photos at all. This doesn't prove that there are no other Dracaena species with widely-separated whorls of leaves, but it's, you know, Google-level proof, which is at least half a step above Wikipedia proof. (Perhaps there should be a word for Google-derived evidence, to go with "wikiposedly" for Wikipedia evidence. "Googleparently?" "Googlegedly?" "Googlestensibly?" They all scan the same as "wikiposedly." I think I lean toward "googlegedly," but I'm willing to consider arguments for other words.)
5 They did still leave the store, as part of group plantings put together by the flower shop. It's a pretty common plant for dish gardens or terrariums.
6 The actual botanical term would be lanceolate, or maybe elliptic (I'm not sure where one shades into the other), but I think "leaf-shaped" covers it pretty well.
7 Supposedly they're hardy to USDA zone 9, though I have my doubts about this. They're native to the coast of West Africa, specifically the east-west line that runs from Guinea eastward through Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, and Cameroon:

That doesn't seem like zone 9 kind of conditions to me, but I don't know enough about Africa to be sure that it's impossible.
8 Glasshouse Works is not, as I write this, actually selling D. surculosa, but they have in the past, which is where the airplane-glue comparison was made.
10 Chlorosis is a yellowing of leaves where the primary veins stay green. The most common cause is a micronutrienta deficiency, though not always, and there are several ways nutrient deficiencies can happen, which require different sorts of treatments. Some plants are more prone to it than others.
     a Micronutrients refer to minerals that plants require in small quantities, relative to nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (the three "macronutrients"). Iron, copper, magnesium, sulfur, and boron are all micronutrients. Fertilizers do not necessarily contain micronutrients; read the label to find out whether they do or not. Usually nutrient-deficiency chlorosis means the plant can't get enough iron, magnesium, or both for its needs.
11 "Salty" in the chemistry-class sense, where the product of any reaction between an acid and base is a "salt." I don't mean table salt, sodium chloride. Table salt is a salt, but not all salts are table salt.


Ginny Burton said...

I vote for "Googlegedly" if you're taking votes. It rolls trippingly off the tongue.

And wow, the 'Milky Way' version is a knock out! It looks like the kind of plant that you'd see in one of Sylvie Maugham's rooms.

Garden Hints said...

I liked the 'Milky Way' too. It is true about rooting in the water. I have bunch of stems from last trimming that I stuck in the glass with water and now it is full of roots, and cuttings actually started to grow new leaves right there. I really need to find some time to pot them.

Lee said...

From what I have read from Dracaena in West Africa, it seems that there are at least two other species that share similar growth habit with Dracaena surculosa, namely D. camerooniana and D. ovata.

By the way, it was quite interesting to see an inflorescence of D. surculosa var. surculosa. Most, if not all, of D. surculosas grown in Korea are D. surculosa var. maculata and they have single glomerule at the end of axis, rather then several glomerules along the axis, like your plant.

Lee said...

Uh, and I forgot to add this.... I have downloaded and read the research article, and the compounds they isolated from the plant doesn't look so promising.
Among the nine compounds isolated, only 3 of them showed any cytotoxicity, and all 3 were less effective than etoposide, which was used as the positive control.

Ivynettle said...

I agree with Ginny, "Googlegedly" is the easiest to pronounce.

I've never had a D. surculosa. Never had room, and the ones we had at work weren't exactly ... encouraging. Constantly ugly and chlorotic. Though I like the look of it... more than that croton. Not so impressed with 'Milky Way', but I just don't like plants with too much white in the leaves.

About the hardiness, could it be that the roots survive even if the above-ground parts are damaged by cold, and will send up new shoots?

mr_subjunctive said...


So they're not even good for that. No wonder the other Dracaenas find them embarrassing.


Possible. Maybe even likely. A lot of plant-reference websites don't make a distinction; even if it has to start over from scratch after a cold snap, it still counts as "hardy."

It's also sometimes the case that people assume that all winters are the same, so if they're in zone 9 and they've had a plant for a couple years, they'll tell the internet that it's hardy in zone 9 even if those weren't typical winters. A lot of that seems to be happening with the information for Schefflera actinophylla, which I've started researching today.

Jenn said...

Ha. I wonder if it would wither under the heat here in Phoenix. I have a nice north facing patio.

I do like the mature look of this plant.

Pat said...

"Googlegend has it that..."

Perhaps the extremes of Googlegit and Googlibel?

No use to you yet but Crug Farm has some hardy Scheffleras that can take Welsh winters.


Tigerdawn said...

I also like Milky Way and the big mature plant. And Googlegedly.

Tom said...

I just saw a patch of these at the Lincoln Park conservatory in Chicago today and they actually looked really nice. Of course I didn't have my camera but they had no chlorosis and since it was a patch of them they actually looked kind of full. It wasn't anything stunning but it was certainly the nicest they've ever looked to me. I wish I could find the Milky Way one, it's very attractive in a strange way.

Bom said...

I find the "Milky Way' interesting. The fully grown plant does not look so bad. The close-up of the leaves though has me fearing questions from non-gardeners about plant diseases.

allandrewsplants said...

I like "Googlegedly", 'Milky Way' is a pretty nice looking plant and I also like the mature plant but I can't help thinking I'd find it much more attractive with solid green leaves. Or variegated with solid green margins. I don't really like spots on leaves I guess.

Anna said...


I'm a big fan of your blog! Are you actually interested in reading the scientific paper you mentioned? The place I work in (University) is subscribing this journal so I can send it to you. It's totally legal :)


mr_subjunctive said...


Well, I'm willing to trust Lee's summary of the paper, earlier in the comments, but if it's not a lot of trouble for you to send it, sure, I'm curious enough to have a look.

Lauren said...

Oh, thank you! I had thought a plant I rescued about a week ago was a Croton for the longest time. I kept it at arms length until finding out it was indeed this plant. Now I like it for all of its lanky, weirdo self.

LiisK said...

Thank you for the article, I have been eying the plant for 1,5 years now and cannot bring myself to buying it - it costs 20 euros a pot :S. I could not believe it could be so common in florist shops someplace else :D.
I love the way it resembles real bamboo leaves (shudder to think of sanderiana) and so far I know it is the only one.

foxhead128 said...

Thanks for posting this article. I impulsively bought a basket of several plants today and wanted to know what they were. One of them appears to be a D. surculosa 'Florida Beauty'. Unfortunately, it's sharing a pot with a few other plants, including what I am convinced is an Epipremnum aureum. Guess I'll have to do some repotting here if I want them all to do well.

sum527 said...

I was looking for a spotted plant and tried others and fell in love with gold dust draceana.
Many new house plant books say it needs humidity and warmth of a green house. But it's thriving in my cool dry bedroom.
If you don't want the leaves so white don't give it so much light. Also I don't use typical fertilizers with salts in it. I use Root Tone by Espoma and my plant has no chlorosis at all.
I let my water in my watering can stand for 3 days or forever and there are no leaf tip burn. Hmmm.

simplesue said...

Thanks for this information. Your blog is the only internet source I found that explained the difference between the Florida Beauty and the Gold Dust Plant.

Mr me said...

Here is mine, house plant in the winter, out door in summer. London UK.

Its about 63inches tall.
Very nice plant.

ILEXEUEL AMERIE Lazaro said...

I like that plant D.surculosa, we had much of that in the Philippines and it really nice when flowering. I remember my grandfather has that when we were small and until I got married. It lives longer and survives under the sun other than outdoor plants.

wildflowerfever said...

Thanks for the post! I just picked up one of these plants at my local grocery store. I had one years ago, and it bloomed once. I remember the fragrance was wonderful and reminded me of jasmine. I hadn't realized my plant was about to bloom, but the scent bowled me over when I walked into the house. Hope I can get this one to bloom eventually!

River P said...

Oh heavens alive, thanks for that!!! I never knew this plant was a Dracaena! I thought it might be some sort of grass. Always wondered but never got round to looking it up.

For some reason they always catch my eye when Im plant shopping. I always pick the tiny little pots up in my fingers giving them a twirl studying the cute little bamboo stems and pretty leaves then put them carefully back thinking next time. Just I've never gardened in miniature and thought you needed a goldfish bowl or something for this one.

Eventually however on a slow day plant wise one with a very nice large variegation, down the middle of the leaf like Solomon's Seal's variegation (a plant I could never grow in the tropics) convinced me to buy it. Not knowing what it was and still not entirely convinced I needed to I planted it incorrectly, deep shade under a massive shady longan tree where it completely vanished. It was so small the pot was thimble size. Here I hardly ever saw it but somehow it managed to avoid being trampled to death by the many heavy feet of the fruit pickers who come around once a year to harvest the honey sweet dusty longans. The tree is also a heavy shedder and once a year a thick carpet of leaves forms on the ground then flowers fall even more profusely than the leaves. So when I did eventually see it again it was up to its neck in a rich leaf mould. It had survived and sent up long hair thin stems with leaves along intervals. I liked the arrangement of the leaves so cut all the stems off for a vase in one of the guest rooms. I never do this as Im not much of a cut flower fan outside of exquisite designer hotel lobbies where the unusual and vampy colour and arrangements always lure me in. My niece was coming to stay and the plant looked like it needed a prune. To my surprise they lasted and lasted in the vase, one month, two month, three month and on and on long after my dear niece had already finished her PHD and travelled around almost the entire globe. They had rooted in the vase. Suddenly I had many, very many and any other oxymorons to express my utter amazement.

I stuck them in various places in the garden where some found ideal spots and took off . Im always hoping to find new ones now. While I still think they aren't much as a single specimen they do grow through other shortish plants very nicely and as they take pruning very well work as ground covers. I've been experimenting and use them in large pots now as a hanging arching ground cover for specimen plants.

Sometimes I smell a heavenly sweet scent in the garden suddenly but have never worked out where it's coming from. Drives me around the bend, I dart of in different directions trying to track it down but never have. Maybe this is it! The smell of Africa after the first rains! Im rather charmed it comes from West Africa too. It was there with Lord Snowdon (very sadly recently deceased) who is very much my senior we were totally marooned in the only Rolls Royce in Africa on that longitude this side of Cairo. The very first rains to fall on Gambia's blood red earth after a long parched drought were falling in a blinding curtain of water. The smell was like nothing I've ever smelt before. Rich, earthy, sweet and utterly African like pressing your nose deep into a damp hyena's fur and inhaling deeply. The smell of the night the stars and everything. Unfortunately our car was by then sucked to a stand still in the soft clay and the driver still trudging the thirty kilometres to find help.