The large-leaved dragon tree is a wonderful, showy foliage plant
with large strap-shaped leaves in rosettes at the tips of the branches,
ideal for shady areas.
It is an evergreen, usually single-stemmed small tree that grows
between 2-5 m tall. The bark is tan-coloured and patterned with
leaf scars. The leaves are crowded towards the top of the stems
and are glossy-green, leathery, strap-shaped and half drooping.
They can grow up to 1 m long. Tall spikes of sweetly scented, tiny,
yellow-green flowers occur on the plant during summer (from November
to February). Beautiful orange berries follow these.
Dracaena aletriformis occurs from Port Elizabeth eastwards
to KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland and into eastern and northern Gauteng.
It has been found in a variety of habitats, most commonly in the
shade of coastal dune forest and densely wooded ravines near the
coast. Inland, it occurs mostly in deep shade along streams in evergreen
montane forests but also in shady places in the dry bushveld, always
in humus-rich soil. Most of the populations recorded so far grow
in areas with either sandstone or quartzite. It is frequently found
in dense stands.
The berries of the large-leaved dragon tree are very popular with
many of the fruit-eating birds.
The flowers draw insects such as butterflies and bees with their
complementary following of insectivorous birds, so this is an excellent
plant for the bird garden. The strongly scented flowers open in
the late afternoon, lasting till the next morning to attract their
night-active pollinator moths that enjoy the nectar of the flowers.
Larvae of the bush night fighter butterfly, Artitropa erinnys,
feed on the leaves.
Derivation of the name
The name Dracaena is derived from the Greek word drakaina
= a female dragon, perhaps because the milky juice of Dracaena
draco dries to a resinous powder used as a colorant, 'dragon's
blood'. There is also a mythical explanation: Ladon, the hundred-headed
dragon and guardian of the Garden of the Hesperides, was killed
by Hercules (or Atlas depending on the version told) whilst collecting
three golden apples to complete the eleventh of his twelve labours.
Dragon trees sprung from where Ladon's red blood flowed out on the
land. The alleged location of this fabled Garden is an island beyond
the Atlas Mountains, which seems to point to the Canary Islands
and D. draco as being the basis for this legend. The species
name aletriformis means resembling the genus Aletris.
The genus Dracaena was described by Linnaeus (1767). It
was originally placed in the family Liliaceae (lily family) but
was later transferred to the Agavaceae (sisal family). Recently
it has been placed in the Dracaenaceae (dragon tree family). There
are some 120 species described in the genus, most of which are mainly
distributed in Central Africa and Southeast Asia. South Africa has
three recognized species, D. aletriformis, discussed here,
D. mannii and D. transvaalensis, each of which occurs
in totally different habitat types. Like aloes and palms, dracaenas
In Eastern Cape, the root of Dracaena aletriformis is crushed
and used as a wash to drive away evil spirits.
In the Canary Islands, the red, resinous, blood-like sap of
D. draco has long been used magically, medicinally as well as
practically, e.g. it is used as a wash to promote healing and stop
bleeding, internally to treat chest pains, internal traumas, post-partum
bleeding and menstrual irregularities; it is regarded as a herb
of protection, purification and energy; and is also used in mummification,
and as a colouring agent in furniture polish, varnish, paint and
plaster. It was well known as the source for the varnish used by
18th century Italian violin makers.
Growing Dracaena aletriformis
This relatively fast-growing, beautiful plant requires deep, rich
soil and shade. So plant it in fertile, well-drained, compost-enriched
soil and keep out of direct sunlight, or the leaves will burn. It
requires consistent watering during the growing season and less
during winter. It is frost and drought sensitive therefore in colder
gardens it will need a very protected position. Due to its tolerance
for fairly poor light conditions it makes an exceptional container
plant for indoors or for a shady patio providing a bold and attractive
D. aletriformis is popular with landscapers. It is used
extensively in gardens and makes an ideal specimen plant on lawns
in coastal and subtropical areas. It is also perfect as a foliage
plant to act as a filler in any shady gap, as well as providing
texture and height. It grows particularly well with or under established
trees and shrubs.
There is some confusion between Dracaena and Cordyline
plants because they look and grow so similarly. As a general rule,
Cordyline roots are white and Dracaena roots are orange.
Propagate this tree from seed or stem cuttings. It grows easily
from fresh seed. Remove the sticky, orange pulp before sowing as
it contains a growth inhibitor that will slow germination. Sow in
the warmth of the spring or summer months in a compost rich mixture
and keep in the shade. Stem or side-shoot cuttings will root well
in a sand/fern fibre mix. Dracaenas are relatively disease-free
and any sign of poor health will most likely have something to do
with incorrect watering or positioning. Snails can do some damage,
check carefully amongst the leaves where they seem fond of hiding
when damaged leaves or 'snail trails' are noted.
- HESSAYAN, D.G. 1980. The house plant expert. PBI Publications,
- JACKSON, W.P.U. 1990. Origins and meanings of names of South
African plant genera. University of Cape Town Printing Department.
- JOFFE, P. 2001. Creative gardening with indigenous plants.
Castle Graphics, Johannesburg.
- JOFFE, P. 1993. The gardener's guide to South African plants.
Tafelberg, Cape Town.
- PIENAAR, K. 1985. Grow South African plants. Struik,
- VENTER, F. 1996. Genus Dracaena L. in South Africa.
Aloe 33: 62-64.
- VENTER, F. & VENTER, J. 1995. Making the most of indigenous
trees. Farmers Weekly, 24 March: 66-67.
- COCKS, M. 1995. The commercialization of plants in the eastern
Cape. Notes from the Selmar Shonland Herbarium, Grahamstown,
South Africa, Issue No.2.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden