Dracaena marginata, formerly classified as D. reflexa, is a Dracaena species with extremely narrow, strappy, long leaves that emerge from the tops of gray stems. The specific epithet “marginata” is a reference to the leaves, which are green with pinkish-red margins.
In the spring, plants can develop small white flowers followed by orange berries, but those grown indoors will rarely bloom.
Also known as dragon tree, Madagascar dragon tree, Spanish dagger, red-marginated Dracaena, or Song of India, this plant is native to Madagascar, where it can grow up to 20 feet tall. In the home, however, it stays about half that tall.
Often, this tree is sold pruned to remove the top and encourage branching. These will typically have a flat cut at the top with multiple stems emerging from the sides of the cut. These plants tend to have a fuller canopy, while those left untopped will have a single crown of leaves.
- Genus: Dracaena
- Species: marginata
- Native To: Madagascar
- Sun Exposure: Typically bright indirect or diffused light
- Soil Preference: Well-draining loam or bark and moss
- Soil pH: 5.0-6.0
- Leaf Color: Green, red, yellow, pink
- Toxicity: Contains saponins. Mildly toxic to humans, cats, and dogs if ingested.
Caring for Dracaena marginata:
A single plant makes a clean, architectural statement, but you can also grow multiple plants of different heights together for a fuller, bushier appearance. As the plant ages, it drops the lower foliage, giving it a tree-like appearance.
In nature, this plant grows in warm, temperate climates. It needs to be in an area that stays above 45°F, but 60-80°F is ideal. Basically, if you’re comfortable, your plant will be comfortable. This plant will be killed by freezing temperatures but is hardy enough to survive anything down to freezing for a brief period.
It can also tolerate heat up to 100°F for a brief period.
Most purchased plants have been kept in darker conditions than this species can actually tolerate. For that reason, you want to either maintain the same level of light or gradually expose it to brighter light.
Many people are under the impression that this plant should be protected from direct light, but it grows in full sun in its native environment.
If you’ve purchased your plant, avoid exposing your plant to bright, direct light at first. The exception is if it’s morning sunlight, which tends to be cooler and less harsh than the afternoon sun. Place the plant right next to a north-facing or east-facing window.
A few feet away from a south-facing window is good, too. If you place the plant within a few feet of a west-facing window, it should have sheer curtains to protect the plant from the heat of the direct afternoon sun. You can keep the plant in this light exposure or gradually introduce it to brighter light.
Don’t place the plant in an area that’s too dark. The characteristic multi-colored leaves will lose their vibrancy in low light. The plant might also grow at an angle as it reaches for the light, and it will grow slowly.
If you want to provide more light, which produces healthier, more robust plants, gradually introduce it to brighter light. The thing to avoid is the harsh heat of afternoon light. You can also take your plant outside during the summer. You’ll want to harden it off over a period of a week or two by introducing it to direct light a half-hour at a time.
Once it can tolerate full light, place it somewhere that it will be protected from the hottest part of the afternoon, but in direct sun the rest of the time.
Dracaena marginata isn’t fussy about soil. Any standard potting mix will do so long as it’s well-draining. This plant won’t tolerate wet roots.
Look for something loose, loamy, and water-retentive. Most potting soils of this nature have a mixture of loam, vermiculite or perlite, and moss. You can add extra vermiculite, perlite, or rice hulls to increase porosity and drainage.
You could also mix equal parts orchid bark and potting soil to create a loose, well-draining mixture.
Be sure to use a container that has good drainage to prevent root rot.
As we mentioned, these plants can’t tolerate wet roots. They can handle some drought, so if you aren’t sure, err on the side of too dry rather than too wet.
Use a moisture meter to help you determine when the plant needs water. If the meter reads on the higher end of dry, it’s time to water until it reads as moderately moist. Otherwise, simply use your finger as an indicator.
Stick your finger into the soil. Once it feels dry up to your second knuckle, add water until it feels like a well-wrung-out sponge.
Reduce water in the winter when the plant is dormant.
Dragon trees do best in average humidity environments, with relative humidity between 30-80%. It will grow fine in lower humidity, but it will likely develop brown leaf tips.
If you have extremely dry air and you’re seeing brown leaf tips, you can group plants together or keep them in a bathroom or kitchen, where the humidity tends to be higher
Dracaena marginata isn’t a heavy feeder, but it will look and grow better with regular feedings. There’s no need to overdo it, though. Three times a year with a mild, balanced fertilizer is fine. Look for a water-soluble fertilizer with an NPK of 3-3-3 or 5-5-5.
Apply the fertilizer following the manufacturer’s directions once in the early spring, again in the beginning of summer, and once more at the end of summer.
Don’t use a foliar fertilizer, as this plant can be sensitive to some chemicals.
As the plants age, the lower leaves will drop off, leaving small, diamond-shaped scars on the stems. It’s nothing to worry about and all part of the nature lifecycle. You can gently pull the leaves of as they turn brown to improve the appearance of the plant.
If you don’t pull them, they will eventually drop off the plant on their own.
This is a slow-growing plant, so it doesn’t need regular repotting. Watch for roots growing out of the drainage holes or circling the rim of the pot. If you see this, remove the plant from the container and brush away as much soil as you can.
Loosen up the roots and place the plant in a larger container. Fill in with fresh soil. Don’t reuse the old soil.
Even if you don’t repot the plant, every five years or so you should remove all the soil and replace it with fresh soil. As potting soil ages, it tends to compact, lose nutrients, build up minerals from the water, and can become hydrophobic.
All this will have a negative impact on your plant, leading to yellowing leaves or slowed growth. It can also contribute to root rot.
You can trim your plant if you’d like to encourage it to send out more stems, if it has gotten too leggy or tall, or if you want to propagate new plants. We’ll discuss propagation shortly.
Use a clean pair of pruners in the later winter to cut off the plant wherever you would like it to send out new growth. Don’t worry that you might be cutting off all the leaves. Wherever you cut a trunk, it will send out new stems. Usually, you’ll see three or so new stems at each cut.
New growth begins to develop a few weeks after cutting, so care for the plant as normal as you wait for the new growth to emerge.
Occasionally, topping the plant will also encourage new growth to emerge from the base. You can leave this or cut it off if you don’t like the look.
If the ends of the leaves turn brown for any reason, you can prune these off to give the plant a tidier look.
Best Species and Cultivars
As we described earlier, the species has strappy green leaves with pinkish-red margins. This is the most common one, and you’ll find it at almost any store that sells in houseplants. However, there are a few cultivars that have additional coloring, but they can be a bit more challenging to find.
‘Bicolor’ has lighter green leaves and paler pink margins than the species.
An exciting addition to the dragon tree family, this plant completely reddish-pink leaves that are slightly wider than the species.
‘Tarzan’ has similar coloring to the species with green leaves bordered in reddish-pink, but it has thicker, wider leaves
‘Tricolor’ looks the same as the species except that it has a yellow stripe inside the red margin.
If you’d like to start a new plant, the process is about as simple as it gets. Cut off the top of the plant as described under maintenance. Take the cut top and cut the base of the cutting at a 45-degree angle.
This provides more surface area for roots to grow, and it prevents the plant from sealing onto the bottom of the glass that you’re going to place it in.
Fill a glass with lukewarm rainwater, distilled water, or filtered water. Place the cut top into the glass of water and put it in an area with bright, indirect light.
Change the water every few days and if you ever see algae or fungal growth. A drop of bleach can help prevent fungal growth if it becomes a reoccurring problem.
After a few weeks, the cutting should have developed roots. Once you see roots that are at least an inch or so long, plant the cutting into a potting medium like the one we describe above. Now, you can treat the plant as you would any other dragon tree.
Common Problems, Pests, and Diseases
Dracaena species are sensitive to fluoride, so if your municipality adds fluoride to the water, use distilled, rain, or other fluoride-free water. Brown leaf tips can be a sign of fluoride damage.
Although the lower leaves will naturally fall off the plant as it ages, if many of them are falling at the same time or the dropping seems to have accelerated beyond the normal pace, it’s usually a sign that you are underwatering or the plant is lacking nutrients.
Revisit your watering routine and ensure you’re adding moisture once the top two inches of soil have dried out.
If all of the leaves begin to droop, it’s most often because you’re overwatering. Again, be sure that you aren’t watering until the top two inches have dried out.
This plant is susceptible to infestations from all the typical houseplant pests. There are aphids, mealybugs, scale, and spider mites. Typically, only stressed or sick plants will be infested. If you see any of these pests, they can be wiped off or treated using insecticidal soap.
Isolate any infested plants while you’re treating them.
This plant is generally untroubled by disease. However, overwatering can lead to root rot. When a plant is overwatered, the roots aren’t able to access the oxygen they need and they essentially drown. Above the soil, the leaves will droop, turn brown, and will drop from the plant. If you dig out the plant, you’ll see that the roots are brown or black and mushy.
If you catch the problem early enough, you can drastically cut back how much you’re watering and the plant will usually develop new roots.