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."
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.
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.
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.
Also, some of the cultivars aren't that bad looking. Here's 'Milky Way,' for example:
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.
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.
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.
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.
9 (HOW IN THE HELL IS THIS EVEN LEGAL?!??!?)
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.