I don't seem to be able to go to Lowe's without encountering a gigantic Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana' for $5 and having to take it home. The first time it happened was last June, and the plant was badly sunburned from being outside in the summer heat. A few days ago, I ran into another one, and this time I'm not quite sure what the problem was: it doesn't seem to have anything obviously wrong with it.
The sunburned plant has more or less recovered, though it did lose a growing tip (which is okay: more are beginning to break). The original plan, to try to sell it for a profit by taking it to a consignment store, is still theoretically operative, though I've become a little bit attached to it by now and would kind of rather hold on to it. I mean, after all, I saved it from being destroyed by the heartless Lowe's bastards, so how mean would I have to be to send it back out into the cold, cruel world to be bought by someone who doesn't know how to take care of plants?
The newer plant is in a more ambiguous place: I couldn't find any pests on it, and the stems felt solid. The only real problems it had as far as I could tell were that some of the lowest leaves had gone black and crispy, which doesn't necessarily mean anything, and the stems were a little wobbly in the pot, which isn't especially easy to fix but isn't unusual for Dracaena fragrans either. It might also have gotten a little chilled on the way out to the car (Lowe's offered no protective plastic bags), though so far all that's happened is that one of the sprouts has died. Even if it did get cold, though, this isn't likely to be fatal to the plant as a whole, and there are plenty of growing tips to work with.
These aren't usually in bad shape, of course. In fact, Dracaena fragrans is one of the easier houseplants out there. Lowe's just isn't all that interested in taking care of its plants.1 Am I complaining? Little bit, yeah. I do have a tendency to anthropomorphize plants (Which you may have noticed.), and consequently it pains me to see plants on the discount rack that didn't have to wind up there. Though I'm not above encouraging this kind of behavior by taking said plants home, either.
Dracaena fragrans is native to Africa,2 where it does double duty as an understory plant and as a full-grown tree, though it has long since expanded its range: it's been an indoor plant in Europe since the mid-1700s.3 The wild plant is plain green; the variety with the yellow stripe down the middle is a variety called 'Massangeana,' and is of unknown (to me) provenance. There is also said to be a variety called 'Lindenii,' in which the colors are reversed (yellow margins and a green stripe in the center of the leaf), but I've never seen such a plant in person.4
Plants will not grow corn, and don't even look that much like the real corn plant (Zea mays). There is enough similarity between the leaves that I can see where the common name came from. Once in a while I've allowed myself to think, whoa, look at all the Dracaenas! when traveling through rural areas around here in the summer. Knowing better is no reason not to entertain the occasional illusion.
Historically, most Dracaena fragrans sold in the U.S. are grown two times: the first time is on farms in Central America (or, once the global economy got really pervasive, anywhere else with an appropriately tropical climate), where canes are periodically harvested and cut to specified lengths (usually two, three or four-foot long pieces). The ends of the cane are then given a quick coat of wax,5 to keep the canes from losing too much water during transport, and then they get shipped to growers in Florida, or, to a lesser extent, other states which produce tropical foliage plants (Texas, California), where they are stuck in their final containers, the foliage is allowed to resprout, and then they are shipped to retail stores to be purchased by consumers. The staggered-cane style is used because it gives the impression of base-to-top foliage that would be more or less impossible to achieve with single-cane plants, or multiple canes of the same height, since the plants normally drop lower leaves as they grow.6
Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana' is very easy to grow, and isn't particularly picky about most aspects of its care, though there are things that will make it look better or worse than others.
The biggest issues revolve around water: like with most other Dracaena varieties, this one can roll with periods of neglect, but will not put up with overwatering for long. This is especially the case when the plant is kept in a relatively dark spot: it will downshift its metabolism to match the light it's getting, and if you don't reduce the water to match, you'll have some rotted canes on your hands. The other issue is that, as with Chlorophytum comosum, these plants are sensitive about fluoride levels, and will develop burnt tips if they're getting too much. Since most of these plants are watered in place, without any dumping of the water that flows through the soil, and since many people water too little at a time anyway, most plants will eventually build up enough fluoride in the soil to have problems. The solution, or at least one possible solution, is to make a point of periodically flushing the soil well with large amounts of water, say every three months, every six months, something like that. This isn't the ideal solution, but it's one that most people could probably pull off if they really had to. Another way to go would be to water with distilled water only – that might get expensive, but at least you won't be adding any fluoride.
Newly-purchased plants are especially susceptible to being overwatered, since cane-type plants like these (Dracaena, Yucca guatemalensis, etc.) are often not very well-rooted when they're shipped out. A cane two inches in diameter might only have one tiny little root, which could easily be overwhelmed by too much water. After you've grown one for a while, especially if it's in good conditions (warm, bright, humid), a root system will get going and you can water more like for any other plant, but until you've seen the roots for yourself, it's good to assume that there really aren't any.
Propagation isn't easy either, though the difficult part is mostly getting the opportunity: the plants grow slowly, especially indoors, meaning that a typical indoor gardener in a temperate zone isn't terribly likely to have a lot of spare canes laying around to experiment with. So it's not like you're going to be able to propagate at will, like you would for Pilea cadierei or Philodendron hederaceum or something.
Propagation is almost always from pieces of woody cane: green cane, like from a side sprout, is theoretically possible, but the growers' guide advises against it, and my one (failed) attempt at propagation of Dracaena fragrans thus far was with green cane, which succumbed pretty quickly to rot, so I tend to agree with him.
Woody cuttings are supposed to be relatively easy, though I haven't tried any myself. The usual procedure is to cut the cane into three- or four-inch segments, plant them upright in soil, and wait for them to root and break buds. The growers' guide says that rooting hormone should speed up the process, and even goes so far as to say that cutting the base of the canes around the edges with a circular saw every couple inches will induce more rooting. This probably isn't practical for people in home situations, but I suppose one never knows.
Thinner canes are said to root better, but thicker ones are more likely to form more growing tips. It seems not to be an issue particularly if you have to plant a cane deeply, or compact the soil around it (the commercially-produced variety, obviously, needs this in order to stay upright, whether it's good for the plant or not, to cover up the fact that it probably has no roots to speak of). Tenting the cutting in a plastic bag, or placing it in a warm, bright (no sun), humid space should also improve your odds of success, though rot is always a potential issue. If you're really worried about rot, cuttings can be rooted in sand, which may or may not be a more sterile medium. Misting isn't a good idea, according to the growers' guide. It's pretty much always going to be a slow process: figure about eight weeks.
It may go without saying, but: the plant won't root upside down, so if you're cutting up a long cane, be sure to have some kind of system in place so you can keep track of which end to plant. If the cane rolls off the table and spins around on the kitchen linoleum and you have no guess which end is up, you might be able to get it to sprout sideways, if you lay it half-buried in whatever soil you're planning to use, though I have no suggestions for how to deal with the resulting sprouts, which will not necessarily line up well with any roots that form.
Rooted canes can sprout in a variable number of spots. If a cane sprouts only once, the growers' guide recommends removing that bud, the idea being that usually the plant will respond by growing multiple heads. If, on the other hand, the problem is too many heads (too many will result in reduced development and / or greater incidence of tip burn, as well as just looking a little weird), removing all but the biggest few is said to help.7 My June rescue plant had a couple of sprouts when I bought it that it later dropped, and is presently starting another set of them: I'm unsure about whether to encourage this or not.
Other cultural conditions are not going to be that big of a deal for most indoor growers. Dracaena fragrans tolerates low humidity, though very low humidity levels may lead to tip scorch, especially if it's also dealing with high fluoride levels: the growers' guide recommends humidity of at least 40% at all times, which most people, most of the time, should be able to get. Winters, obviously, are tough, but that's true for a lot of plants. Temperature can be a touchy subject, especially during transport: cold injury begins to happen around 50ºF (10ºC), and wind makes the resulting injury much more severe. Typically, cold will lead to brown margins on the most exposed leaves, plus the possibility of dead bands across the leaves that emerge from the growing tip for a while thereafter. Heat injury is less common, both because the plant tolerates heat reasonably well and because it's somewhat self-regulating: the growers' guide says that in hot weather, the leaves twist themselves so as to be less directly exposed to the sun (they then go back to normal when they're cooler). I haven't seen that myself, but I'm going to be watching as we head toward summer, because that kind of adaptation always impresses the hell out of me. If heat does cause damage, it's usually expressed as burned tips and margins. Excessive sun exposure will bleach leaves out permanently, as well, though these photos don’t show it well:8
(Which, now that I put this up, I'm realizing that there's an older Dracaena fragrans at work that got badly burned last year in the greenhouse, which would have been a much better case study to photograph, and I forgot to take pictures and now it's too late to do anything about it. Oh well.)
Finally, pests are not often a problem, though Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana' is subject to all the same slings and arrows as other plants: mealybugs, mites, scale, etc. None seem to be especially fond of this plant in particular.
The "fragrans" part of the botanical name refers to the flowers, which are, I'm told, quite impressively fragrant, and can permeate a whole two-story house with their scent, which is said to be pleasant. I've never smelled them myself. (The description I ran into most often was "honeysuckle," which does exactly nothing for me because I'm not familiar with what honeysuckle smells like.) Whether you want that much scent is questionable: it's not unheard of for people to move a D. fragrans elsewhere during flowering, especially if it's in a room they have to be in a lot, for example a bedroom, just so that the smell isn't completely overpowering. Flowers also drip with nectar, which can drip on anything underneath them and, in the worst-case scenario, ruin things. Realistically, it's more likely just to make stuff sticky, but either way, it may be worth your time to grab a dropcloth, if you notice blooming in progress on your plant (and you will notice, if it happens). The flowers can be cut off, if you really can't stand the smell and the dripping, though I think they must not be that terrible, because I don't read about people having to cut them off all that often.
The only real serious down side with a flowering plant is that the growing tip which produced the flower will die when the show is over. It's serious, but not tragic, because the plant will generally have other growing tips on it (they have to be pretty old and large in order to flower), and if it doesn't, new ones will sprout before all the leaves on the old one drop. You just need to be aware that the old tip will die, lest you panic and start messing with the plant after it flowers, thinking that it needs you to do something, when it was already perfectly happy. That's just how they roll.
I'm aware that this post has made them sound troublesome and difficult, so let me just say again that really they're not. The reason you're always seeing them in offices is because they like that sort of thing. Just don't overwater. That Lowe's seems not to be able to understand concepts like overwatering and underwatering isn't the plant's fault, and need not be your problem, either. So go mount your steed and rescue some damsels, if you're so inclined.
Photo credit: flowers - Josh Krup, at the Wikipedia entry for Dracaena fragrans. All others: author's own.
1 Which is not to say that there aren't perfectly nice people working there, and that said people don't care about or like plants. I'm sure some of them do, just by the law of averages if nothing else. But whatever corporate logic dictates the running of the plant departments in Lowe's clearly is not all that interested in the well-being of the plants, which suggests that it's not cost-effective for the employees to care for the plants, which suggests that either the employees are paid remarkably little (not that I'm raking in the bucks myself, but . . . well, actually, I guess there's not much up side to that, really. I'm not raking in the bucks. *Sigh.* Great. Now I'm going to be depressed.), the wholesale prices are so obscenely cheap that they're making huge profits on the plants regardless of what they do, or (most likely) both.
2 Precisely where in Africa is something I'm not really capable of answering: the growers' guide says Upper Guinea; Wikipedia says West Africa, Tanzania, and Zambia. Not only are these not the same place, but they're not even particularly close to one another. If we add in the inevitable confusion from people expanding its range artificially, the original location of D. fragrans gets hazier still. But at least we can nail down a continent.
3 (Says the growers' guide, anyway.)
4 There is a cultivar of D. deremensis called 'Lemon-Lime,' or (less frequently) 'Goldstar,' which has more or less this coloration. I like 'Lemon-Lime' a great deal, but it's kind of obviously not a cultivar of D. fragrans. 'Lindenii' is something else. This site explains away the rarity of 'Lindenii' as a side effect of its sensitivity to fluoride: dead spots appear in the margins and work inward in plants affected by fluoride toxicity, which is marketing death for a plant where the brightly-colored margins are the main selling point. (UPDATE: I actually found and purchased a 'Lindenii' around here, if you want to see what it looks like.) (SECOND UPDATE: It was probably actually D. fragrans 'Sol,' which looks enough like the way 'Lindenii' is always described that it is likely either an improved variety of 'Lindenii' or a renaming.)
5 Or, according to the growers' guide, a wax-concrete mixture, which raises some questions for me that Mr. Griffith leaves unanswered.
6 This is the same reason why Yucca guatemalensis is usually sold as staggered-height canes. People want floor-to-ceiling leaves, so they get floor-to-ceiling leaves, even if the leaves have to be provided by multiple plants. Yucca guatemalensis is also produced on cane farms, in a manner very similar to what's described in the text for Dracaena fragrans.
7 This is the case with Yucca guatemalensis too.
8 The most sunburnt leaves eventually got cut off, either because they were going brown anyway or because the bleaching was too severe for the plant to be presentable.