Sandy’s Garden ... The Madagascar Dragon Tree

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I am a great picker-up of leaflets.

Leaflet stands always attract my attention and merit a few minutes of careful consideration before I make my choice of the handouts which appeal to me. And please note that I am not a collector of fliers and pamphlets; I am a picker-up of such ephemera, who reads them and then usually discards them immediately after digesting their contents. The few that are kept for future reference will still have limited lives, for I regularly go through the small number which have survived the initial cull and transfer any which have gone out-of-date or now seen as irrelevant to the waste paper bin. But I am a great picker-up of leaflets.

This characteristic explains how I came to be browsing a flier from one of my local garden centres in which the virtues of the Madagascar dragon tree were being promoted. And let’s be clear that, despite the inclusion of the word ‘tree’ in its common name, Dracaena marginata is a houseplant and not what we would normally call a tree. To quote Wikipedia, The name “Dracaena, derived from the Romanised form of the Ancient Greek δράκαινα – drakaina, ‘female dragon”, is a genus of about 120 species of trees and succulent shrubs” … and Dracaena marginata comes into that latter category; it is a small shrub. Many members of the family are actually trees, with the majority coming originally from Africa, although a few originated in southern Asia. They resemble palm trees … although they are not related to true palms … and the smaller varieties were popular as houseplants in the United Kingdom during Victorian times. They became unfashionable in the Edwardian era and have found favour again only in relatively recent years.

The Madagascar dragon tree … often sold under its proper botanical name of Dracaena marginata and equally often sold simply as Dracaena … is very easy to grow and to care for. It is very slow-growing, although it may reach a height of one-and-a-half metres … say, five feet in old money … in ten years, so don’t think of it as a small plant for the centre of the coffee table. Its stiff, colourful leaves, liking for warm indoor conditions, willingness to grow in shade, resistance to disease and pests and tolerance of neglect are the usual reasons for its addition to the household decorations. But it does have an additional benefit; it is one of the plants on NASA’s air filtering plants list … part of the NASA clean air study … that reduces benzene, formaldehyde, xylene and toluene, within the air. (NASA is, of course, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, an independent agency of the executive branch of the United States Federal Government responsible for the civilian space program as well as aeronautics and aerospace research.) This characteristic, allied to its striking appearance, makes it a popular plant in the lobbies, atriums and waiting areas in public buildings.

Dracaena marginata probably has only one drawback, and even that is limited to certain households. It is not a wise choice where there is a cat or a dog, for the leaves are toxic to both; and some cats and dogs enjoy eating the leaves, perhaps because their shape misleads the animals into supposing that it some kind of grass. But for pet-free homes Dracaena marginata has a lot going for it, and the variety ‘tricolor’ rejoices in having a band of yellow separating the red and green stripes in the leaves, giving an overall … and very attractive … effect of greenish-gold foliage. And I have to admit that I simply do not know the answer to the most obvious question about Dracaena marginata; why is it called the ‘dragon tree’? Your guess is as good as mine!