Plant Profile: The Dracaena Genus

The Dracaena clan is a marvelous group that consists of the patriarch (Mass Cane), the offspring (Janet Craig and Warneckii), the diva (Marginata), the red-headed stepchild (Lucky Bamboo), and the crazy cousin (Pleiomele) who can’t decide which house to live in.

I’ve been spending a few days poking around the histories of these plants and I’ve discovered somethings I thought were quite interesting. Because there is so much information, I thought I would start off with Dracaenas in general and mass canes in particular. Later, I’ll talk a little more about some of the other Dracaena species.

Background

Most Dracaenas are native to Africa, while a few come from southern Asia where recent research suggests they originated. Currently, they are placed by most botanists in the monocot (plants whose seedlings have only one embryonic leaf, such as orchids, grasses, grains, bulb plants, and palms) Asparagaceae family with Agave, Beaucarnia, Chlorophytum, Cordyline, Sanseveria, and Yucca. I say “currently” because there are still some botanists who prefer to put them into the Agavaceae or even the Lilliaceae families. There are an estimated 40–100 species of Dracaenas. The range is springing from the differences between juvenile and mature forms. Often times, sports and variations are mistakenly assigned to their own genus and/or species. Another factor is the apparently unending botanist debates about what is and isn’t a Dracaena.

Fact

Here are a couple of botanical factoids. Dracaenas have something called Dracenoid thickening, an adaptation in the meristem area of the main stem that allows them to increase the width of their stem/trunk. While thickening of the meristem is common in dicot plants, monocots don’t have this and generally don’t increase their girth from the meristem. Another botanical peculiarity is that the main stem doesn’t branch until the stem is injured or the plant flowers.

History

Dracaenas have been used by people for a long time. The name comes from the ancient Greek word for female dragon. Pliny the Elder (A.D.23 – A.D.79) thought that the Dracaenas sprang from the blood left behind after a legendary battle between a basilisk and an elephant. Oddly enough, or maybe not so oddly, since any fact or opinion is sure to provoke someone to a differing view, some people say the “Dracaena” comes from Sir Francis Drake, the famous explorer of the 16th century, who supposedly carried some specimen home with him. Anyway, the Dracaenas Pliny referred to as “dragon trees” also featured red sap called Dragon’s Blood. People have used these in medicine, alchemy, and magic for thousands of years.

More recently, Dragon’s Blood was a vital ingredient in the varnish used by Italian violin makers of the 17th century. Today, it’s important in Chinese herbal medicine as an astringent and treatment for ulcers and for a blood clotting agent. Asians have long considered it good luck to have one in the yard.

When the European botanists started showing up in Africa and Asia during the in 1700’s/1800’s, they could easily see the relationship between the “dragon trees” and the bush-like plants such as masale, and so they all became Dracaenas. Dracaenas first appeared in the horticultural reports around the 1820’s and by the late 1800’s they were a fairly common household plant.

DRACAENA fragrans

dracaena fragransOur wonderful workhorse, the ubiquitous mass cane, turns out to have an amazing history. The same attributes that have endeared it to our industry – adaptability to sun or shade, ability to withstand prolonged drought, and rooting easily from a piece stuck into the ground – also made it attractive to the people of long ago.

It was use by native people in Africa thousands of years ago. Found throughout tropical Africa, the major areas of use were Tanzania in West Africa, Nigeria, and Cameroon in East Africa. People believed that the plant had a calming, cooling, steadying affect, soothing ruffled tempers, and promoting reason and sensibility. Carrying a leaf was like carrying a white flag in Western culture – a sign that combatants wanted to parley.

Known as masale or masae, by the inhabitants of northern Tanzania around the Mt. Kilimanjaro area, it’s been used as a boundary marker, and grave and temple sanctification at least as far back as 1000 BC. Today, it is still used that way in some areas. Because of this, archaeologists see a grove of Dracaena as marking a good place to look for artifacts. Even today, the saying goes, when a fragrans blooms in your care, good fortune will abound (interesting story to tell if you have one that flowers in an office). An exciting innovation going on right now is experiments to learn how to make paper from the corn plant’s leaves.

The species name, ‘fragrans,’ comes from (not surprisingly) the intensely-scented flowers, which support a number of moths, bees, hummingbirds, and others in the wild. (The next time someone visits Kilimanjaro, please bring me back a jar of Masale Honey.)  Also, Swynnerton’s robin, a rare bird of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, builds its nests almost exclusively among the leaves.

In the wild, the multi-caned plant can grow up to 50 feet. It is most often seen in clumps composed of some tall canes and others that are growing horizontal to the ground with many smaller canes rising from them.

Fragrans, commonly called a Chinese money tree and fortune plant, had appeared in England by the 1870’s. The marketing of rooted tip cuttings was widespread by the 1920’s and Sylvan Hahn of Pittsburgh (of Sanseveria ‘Hahnii’ fame) was apparently the first to introduce the marketing of staggered size cuttings in the 1930’s. By the ‘50’s it was a common houseplant, as well as a staple in the young interior landscape industry.

There are a few cultivars. The most important, popular and thus most common (by about 90%) than the plain green fragrans is the ‘Massangeana’. It sports yellow variegation in the middle of the leaves. Common names include “happy plant”, corn plant, and mass cane. The name means “of Massanga,” but since there are several Massangas in the tropical Africa the origin of the name is obscure.

The first ‘Massangeanas’ were imported from Trinidad in 1905. Paul Oskierko from Homestead, FL was marketing tip cuttings by 1926. The Great Depression and then the 2nd World War curtailed the development of the foliage industry, but mid-century saw the rise of tropical foliage for home and business. It was led by the “happy fortune plant” and its kin, which we continue on to this day.

Dracaena fragrans ‘Massangeana’ by Wendy Cutler
D fragrans photo by Forest & Kim Starr

Marlie Graves, known as The Ficus Wrangler, has been keeping plants beautiful, training techs and relating to clients at half a dozen companies for 30 years. She studied creative writing and psychology in college and went on to start an independent film company with her first husband. She decided to focus on plants full time after completing the NYBG Horticulture School interior landscaping course. Marlie is retired, operates "The Ficus Wrangler" YouTube channel, contributes regularly to several houseplant forums, and is working on a plantcare book based on professional methods.

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