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OBSERVATIONS

GARDENS : A Legend Among House Plants : Each Kind of Dracaena Has a Quality All Its Own

September 27, 1987|BILL DOWNER

IN ANCIENT TIMES, there appeared in the marketplaces of the Mediterranean a mysterious, red, resinous substance that was used commercially and medically. According to a legend of that time, it was the "blood of two brothers"--spilled in a fight to the death between a dragon (a basilisk) and an elephant. The basilisk, having a particular liking for the blood of his brother, the elephant, attacked and in Dracula-like fashion relieved him of his blood, killing him. There came a day, however, when one of the elephants collapsed and fell onto the dragon, crushing him. The result was an outpouring of the blood of the two onto and into the earth of the Islas Canaris (so named because an early expedition to these islands found that their principal inhabitants were very large dogs; today these islands are known as the Canary Islands). The dragon blood, having been absorbed into the earth of the islands, was drawn up into a tree native to the area, which then produced the resinous sap. The tree was later named Dracaena draco in honor of the dragon.

As time passed the use of the "dragon's blood" fell out of favor medically, but its use commercially continued. The Romans, for instance, used it to color marble, and later the Italians used it in the varnish they applied to their violins, leading to their rich dark-red coloring. In the opinion of some, the addition of the dragon's blood enhanced the tone quality of those exceptional instruments.

Today, Dracaena draco is occasionally found in indoor plantings, but generally it appears as a landscape specimen throughout Southern California. Its relatives, though lacking such an exotic legend, have become very popular as indoor plants. And though they are somewhat similar in form, each has its own particular quality.

Most dracaenas available today are natives of the same general area as the Dracaena draco --the Canary Islands, Guinea, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Madagascar. The indoor dracaenas found in our nurseries and plant shops, however, are from stock grown in Hawaii or imported into Florida from tropical South America. In Hawaii, some of dracaenas, such as Dracaena marginata , are planted as windbreaks, resulting in gnarled trunks and branches, or canes, as they are called. Those are cut, rooted and potted in such a way that they become what designers of interior plant-scapes call stump specimens.

Then there are the dracaena forms known as "tips," which have leaves starting at the base of the plant and continuing up its entire height, be it one foot or 15-plus feet. Or a series of "canes" of different heights are taken from full-grown, woody plants and potted--the rosettes of foliage the feeling of a flower arrangement. The cane-type dracaena can be found in heights ranging from around three feet to as much as 25 or more feet.

Finally, there are what are called the living sculptures--found in Dracaena fragrans , D . fragrans 'Massangeana' and D . marginata . These are created by using the trunks of very old plants, leaving the stubs of their branches intact and rooting them. The result is clusters of foliage here and there, around and about, and atop the trunk. These are extremely dramatic specimens but are apt to be more difficult to find and more costly than the not-so-sculptural versions of the dracaenas.

Whatever version of these hardy plants--and they are among the hardiest of plants for indoor use--their culture is principally the same. Give them as good light as is possible but no direct sunlight. Remarkably, most will, if it is demanded of them, endure much lower light levels than the average house plant. Water them evenly and well when you do water them, but let their potting material become dry to the depth of about two inches before watering again. Flush their potting material very well every four to six months. This will help avoid one of the dracaena's problems--leaf-tip burn--brought on by salt buildup. Fertilize the plants very lightly with any complete fertilizer every four to six weeks during the longer days of the year, and cut back one-half during the darker, cooler times. Trim the leaf ends, and gently pull off any dead leaves.

Dracaenas are relatively pest-resistant, but occasionally mealybugs appear. Particularly with D . marginata , spider mites can become a problem. Mist the foliage of the marginata from time to time, and check the undersides of its leaves for tiny little spider-like webs. Have your nursery suggest the best material to rid your plants of these destructive insects.

A clean healthy plant can, and usually does, resist infestation, so carefully wash and wipe the foliage of dracaenas. However, make certain that no water is left in the crowns or leaf axils of the plant. Water not removed can cause tip or leaf rot--and the destruction of the plant. Carefully tip the plant on its side, and gently shake it to dislodge any water that might be there.

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