Tuesday, March 2, 2010

It Girl (Dracaena reflexa 'Riki')

According to Wikipedia, the term "it girl" was coined for Clara Bow, the hot silent film actress of the time, and has been used ever since as a term for the hottest, most popular actress of whatever given moment you're talking about. I'm not sure who the It Girl of 2010 is, but I'm pretty sure Julia Roberts was the It Girl of 1990, if that tells you anything about the term.

Clara Bow, 1927, in the movie Wings. Photo from Wikipedia.

Anyway. In 1927, Clara Bow starred in the silent film It. The movie was an adaptation of a story by Elinor Glyn. And Elinor Glyn defines "it" in the story thusly:
"IT" is that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force. With "IT" you win all men if you are a woman—all women if you are a man.1 "IT" can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction.
and also,
Self-confidence and indifference whether you are pleasing or not—and something in you that gives the impression that you are not at all cold. That's "IT".
In other words, mostly sex appeal.2 But sex appeal that's not superficial, or at least, sex appeal that's not only superficial. What might be termed "charisma," or "star quality," with a certain amount of popular-for-being-popular in there too.

Clara Bow ca. 1924. Photo from Wikipedia.

Anyway. So that's what I mean by "it" and "it girl."

Cameron Diaz (of There's Something About Mary -- a film title which is itself about "IT," except in this case "IT" is "Something," which doesn't sound as neat) is my guess for who would have been the It Girl of 1998, though one could make a solid case for Gwynneth Paltrow. Either way. The reason 1998 is important, and how it ties into our plant here, is that 1998 is when the cultivar Dracaena reflexa 'Riki'3 was officially patented. According to its patent, it was discovered in 1993 as a naturally-occurring sport of Dracaena reflexa 'Song of India,' among a group of plants being cultivated in the Netherlands.4

Dracaena reflexa 'Riki.'

Now, to me, what's interesting about this is that 'Riki' and 'Song of India' don't really look anything alike. This is Dracaena reflexa 'Song of India:'

Dracaena reflexa 'Song of India.'

Compare to the picture of 'Riki,' further up the page. Would you think they were the same species if I hadn't just told you they were? Hell, no. The coloration is backwards: 'Riki' has dark green leaves with a yellow-green center; 'Song of India' has light yellow leaves with a greenish gray center. 'Riki' has fairly stiff, thick leaves with ridges running their entire length; 'Song of India' has lighter-weight, smooth leaves. 'Riki' has long, narrow leaves -- the plant of mine I've had longest has leaves two feet (61 cm) long -- while 'Song of India' has leaves that are only about 4 to 6 inches long (10-15 cm).

So this seems, you know, very weird to me. Not impossible to believe, because plants do weird things all the time, but I think it's interesting that 'Riki' wasn't a sport of 'Song of Jamaica,' which at least has similar coloration. That would be more believable. But anyway.

Dracaena reflexa 'Song of India' (L) and D. r. 'Song of Jamaica' (R)

I don't recall seeing 'Riki' in stores prior to August 2007, when I started working in the greenhouse, but boy howdy did they make an impression on me the first time I did see one.5 Three plants to a pot for $50, though, put them out of my price range. So I did the logical thing -- and divided one of the three-plant pots into single-plant pots, priced them each at $15, and sold one to myself.

It did very well. So I bought a second one. And then some time later, Lowe's had some on the clearance cart for $2. So I bought them out, winding up with another four. And they've all been great. Seriously. 'Riki' is going to be huge someday. (With any luck, they'll replace Dracaena marginata.) Whatever "it," the quality that makes a plant a star, actually is, 'Riki' has it.6 And I'm not the only one who's noticed: 'Riki' won the UK's Office Plant of the Year for 2009, the first year it was given, beating out office standards like Spathiphyllum spp. and Sansevieria trifasciata.7

Dracaena reflexa, the species, has a kind of scary reputation, as Dracaenas go: supposedly they're fussier, quicker to drop leaves, and that sort of thing. This may be true, to an extent, but it's been my experience that 'Riki' actually holds on to its leaves quite well. Much better than D. fragrans, for example. I also don't find them fussy at all as far as what conditions they require, which is perhaps a good lead-in to the care instructions:

LIGHT: Indoors, these seem to do best with partial or filtered sun: an east or west window, maybe a south window through a sheer curtain. 'Riki' will grow in much, much less, but without at least some sun, the yellow coloration pretty much disappears.8 Very low light will also cause the new leaves to narrow, though aside from leaf narrowing and darkening the plants seem to accept their situation just fine.

WATERING: Normal procedure for a Dracaena is to let the soil dry out almost completely, then saturate it with water, let the excess water drain out, and then wait for the soil to get almost completely dry again. Keeping it steadily moist over a long period is bad. Pots with no drainage are almost certain death. Using very water-retentive soil (like Miracle Gro straight from the bag, or anything with a lot of peat in it) won't dry out fast enough, which is bad. I occasionally see the advice that 'Song of India' and 'Song of Jamaica' prefer to be wetter than other Dracaenas; I'm not positive that this is true. I don't think I've ever actually had a Dracaena of any species or variety complain about being too dry, come to think.

TEMPERATURE: As with Dracaenas generally, don't go below 60F (16C) if you can help it at all. And if you must go below 60F, then at least try to keep the plant out of strong winds, which will damage the plant a lot more than cool temperatures on their own.

HUMIDITY: This is the one area where D. reflexa is supposed to be substantially different from other Dracaena species; they're said to need high humidity. All the books say so. It has not been my experience that 'Riki' requires high humidity for good growth, however. In fact, it seems to do really well in low humidity.

PROPAGATION: Is just not really very practical for most people, if you're wanting to produce ever-larger numbers of plants. As a way to salvage a too-tall or ailing plant, propagation is still not incredibly easy, but it should be doable. I have not yet tried propagation with 'Riki,' but I've rooted a stem cutting of 'Song of India' in water before, and then transferred it to soil when the roots seemed substantial enough to get by.

Whether the old stem would resprout or not, I don't know. We cut back some plants at work once due to mealybugs, but ended up throwing the stumps out because they got mold on the cut almost immediately. Even if it had resprouted, there's no particular reason to think that it'd look particularly pretty: I expect that if they resprouted full, lush heads after being cut back, we'd be seeing them sold that way, as is done for Yucca guatemalensis and Dracaena deremensis 'Janet Craig.' It could also be the case that they'll sprout new heads, but do it so slowly that it's not economical to produce them as staggered-height canes. More investigation is clearly needed.

PESTS: If 'Riki' has a weak spot (and I'm not conceding that it necessarily does), this would be it. They're mostly resistant to spider mites (they can get mites, but it doesn't happen easily, and when it does happen, it isn't particularly disfiguring or hard to treat), and I can't imagine that thrips or aphids could get much of a population going, but they are susceptible to mealybugs in a way that most Dracaenas aren't (except maybe for D. marginata, q.v.), because of the way the leaves are constructed.

The leaves on 'Riki' have lengthwise ridges and grooves.9 Unfortunately for all involved, the crevices are deep enough, and the leaves stiff enough, that pests like mealybugs can hide in the grooves and be more or less protected from sprays. We had one shipment of 'Riki' come in with a few of these in the leaves:

I wasn't sure what they were. I would have mentioned it to our supplier, but I'd complained about several other pest-related issues in the previous order and didn't want to give her a hard time over nothing, especially if I wasn't sure what they were. It was a weird location for mealybugs, it looked a little too "tidy" for mealybugs, so I told myself it was probably a spider egg sac or something, took a picture, wiped off the few that I saw, and went on.

Shortly thereafter, all the new 'Rikis' from that batch had mealybugs, but it still wasn't conclusive, because there were other plants near them that did too. The mealys might have gone from the 'Rikis' to the other plants, but they could just as easily have gone from the other plants to the 'Rikis.' By the time anybody noticed, it was way too late to tell what had happened. So I never figured out whether I should have said something or not.

I don't think they're particularly likely to get mealys in the first place -- the plants in that one batch are the only ones I remember ever seeing anything questionable on -- but this is a factor in how you have to approach getting rid of them, if it happens. You will probably have to get some Q-Tips and rubbing alcohol and clean out the grooves in the leaves, one by one; it's too easy for a spray to miss them. Imidacloprid, or some other kind of systemic insecticide, would probably help too.

GROOMING: Pretty minimal. Like other Dracaena species, they are sensitive to fluoride, which will cause burnt leaf tips. In my experience, it's easier to water thoroughly and flush any fluoride out of the pot when you do so, so it doesn't ever have the chance to build up, than it is to water with unfluoridated water (distilled, reverse-osmosis, rainwater), so it never gets added to the soil in the first place. But do whatever works best for you.

FEEDING: As a general rule, Dracaenas need little food, and they don't need it very often. You could probably go to a quarter-strength with each watering, or even every second watering, and be fine. Too much food will just burn the roots and set the plant back.

I've only had my original plant for two and a half years, which is long enough to know that I like it, but probably not long enough to have seen everything it's capable of (whether good or bad). So there might still be some kind of huge personality flaw that's going to keep 'Riki' from taking the world by storm. Maybe after a 'Riki' plant hits six feet tall it spontaneously catches on fire or something.

But I really doubt she's hiding anything like that. I think we're looking at a star here, and if you haven't seen one in your area already, you're going to, soon. So get used to this face, 'cause there's just something about 'Riki.'


Photo credits: Clara Bow pictures are public domain photos from Wikipedia; 'Riki' and other D. reflexa pictures are my own.

1 The word "heteronormative" had not yet been invented, so sweeping generalizations about what you could do to all men or all women seemed more reasonable back then. Apparently.
2 Dorothy Parker's observation about Clara Bow: "'It,' hell ... [S]he had those."
3 Occasionally misspelled 'Rikki.' But the second "k" is wrong. I've also seen it spelled 'Ricki' on-line. Still wrong.
4 The patent seems fairly straightforward on this point, and yet I found websites claiming other things. One said it's a variety of D. deremensis that was discovered in "the cutting fields of South America" (ref.); another calls it a variety of D. fragrantissima (ref.), which is an obsolete synonym for Dracaena fragrans, and which is likewise wrong. I mean, if we believe the patent. Which I think we ought to.
5 It seems unlikely, but I suppose it's possible that we had the very first 'Rikis' in town. When I interviewed for the job, I was already pretty hardcore on the plant-collecting (I think I remember writing in my application that I had 208 plants at home), so it seems like if anyone else in or around Iowa City had had them at the time, I would have already owned one personally, and wouldn't have been as impressed by them a few months later when we got the first ones. But then I think about how much other stuff I've failed to notice, through the years, and . . . well, maybe we weren't. I don't know.
6 I hasten to point out that I think the plant's sex appeal is questionable. I mean, I don't want to. I'm sure there's somebody. But no, I don't find the plant sexy in any but the most metaphorical sorts of ways. Just in case you were, you know, worried.
7 It's questionable whether this means anything; the award may be wholly arbitrary, as a lot of industry-related awards tend to be. But it sounds sorta impressive, right?
8 This is semi-reversible: once a leaf goes dark green, you can't bring back the yellow on that particular leaf by giving it better light. However, new leaves on such a plant will begin coming in variegated again. In any case, the claims I've seen on-line that it maintains its variegation in low-light situations is a lie straight from the depths of Hell. Unless we have a really different understanding of what constitutes "low light," in which case it's only a misunderstanding from the middle part of heck.
9 On some leaves, the margin of the leaf is also folded over on itself. This is something you wouldn't notice unless you inspected them pretty closely, and I don't think it matters in any significant way, but it's another weird thing from an already-weird plant. 'Song of India' doesn't do anything like this as far as I've seen.


Joseph said...

Gotta say... doesn't have "It" for me. Riki leaves me cold. I wouldn't actively kill one if it was given me, but I wouldn't pay money for one either.

mr_subjunctive said...


Well, that is because you are a big poopy-head.

Karen715 said...

^^^^Such language.

I think 'Riki' has it, at least as far as Dracaenas are concerned. I'm not a huge Dracaena fan, but I really like all of the D. reflexas I've seen. (Unless D. marginata has really been reclassified as one. I hate those.)

Great profile, and nice to know that you are not "that" kind of plant fancier. ;-)

Ivynettle said...

One of the plants I'm constantly drooling over - but I have absolutely no room for one. They don't seem to sell small 'Riki's here. *pout*
The footnote about the plant's sex appeal nearly made me spit my water all over the place. And reminded me of a lovely misunderstanding at work once - I don't know what I actually said, but the response was, "What? You have an affair with a bamboo stick?!"

Tigerdawn said...

I think Riki is very beautiful, but I actually like Song of India more. Does that make me backward or something?

mr_subjunctive said...


Hard to say. If you like 'Riki,' that's good enough for me, even if you don't necessarily like it better than any other plants.

I've seen some really nice 'Song of Indias' ('Songs of India?') before, but when they get mad about something and shed their lower leaves, they get that kind of scraggly, tiny-tuft-of-leaves-on-a-long-bare-stick thing, like Dracaena marginata, which I find unattractive. 'Riki' is vastly better at holding its leaves, and doesn't do that, is why I like it better.

Tigerdawn said...

Good point. Maybe I just really like the particular Song(s) of India(s) you have posted here. The Riki that Bunnygirl just got looks really nice!

Lena said...

I feel so plant stupid when leaving a comment as everyone else seems to be so much more knowledgeable than I but I'm developing a love for plants and enjoy reading your blog. This weekend when my mother said she wanted to buy me a new plant for my bday I looked around the nursery, picked 3, looked them up on your blog and made my decision with which one to go with and the Riki was it! Thanks for giving practical advice and in depth knowledge that is reader friendly to those of us that are new at this!