The dragon tree is a majestic species that grows massive outdoors but remains manageable when grown indoors. You’ve decided to diversify your indoor garden with the inclusion of a dragon tree, but this will be your first one. In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about its care.
Here’s how to care for a dragon tree:
- Water when the topsoil dries out
- Provide bright, indirect light
- Use well-draining, loose potting mix
- Choose a semi-porous pot like glazed terracotta
- Set temps to 70-80°F and more than 50% humidity
- Fertilize monthly during active growing season
Keep reading for more information on the above care facets as well as a discussion on which pests you might encounter as you grow your dragon tree!
Dragon Tree Overview
Before I get into all that, I want to take some time to explain this indoor tree so you understand where it comes from and how large it may grow.
The Madagascar dragon tree–often referred to as just the dragon tree–or Dracaena marginata is a tree species that’s grown indoors and outdoors alike. Its average indoor height is six feet, which isn’t small, but not nearly as tall as the tree can grow when planted outside!
Some dragon trees grow as tall as eight feet indoors, but they usually won’t get any taller.
The variations on its trunk, the interesting colors of the tree’s leaves, and even the size of its leaves make the dragon tree a unique plant to grow.
Most dragon tree leaves will be long and skinny, like blades. Depending on the type of leaves, you might see additional colors besides green. The leaves can feature red edges, yellow striping, or areas of dark red.
Granted, none of this growth happens overnight; not even close. The dragon tree grows super slowly. To put it into perspective for you, this tree won’t even be five feet tall until around its 10th birthday, maybe even longer!
If you’re willing to put the time, care, and patience into the dragon tree though, you’re rewarded with a plant that’s very neglect-tolerant.
Caring for a Dragon Tree
Now that you understand the dragon tree a little better, it seems like a good time to delve into its care routine. If you implement these care habits from day one, you’ll have a better chance of seeing your dragon tree sprout up faster!
Watering a Dragon Tree
Despite its massive size, the dragon tree does not require a deluge of water. When its topsoil is dry, then it’s time to water it.
Topsoil refers to the outer or top layer of soil. I recommend the fingertip test to determine how dry the topsoil is because eyeballing it isn’t enough.
The first inch should be dry at least, but if another inch or two has dried out as well, that shouldn’t spell disaster for the dragon tree.
To reiterate (as I’ll remind you throughout this article), the Madagascar dragon tree can handle some neglect. That includes underwatering.
Overwatering though is something this palm-like plant simply can’t withstand. Bad watering habits can lead to root rot, which can kill your dragon tree before it ever gets a chance to start growing.
Watering this plant is a careful balancing act. When the time does come, you need to water generously seeing as how the dragon tree usually goes through long bouts without water.
When caring for a dragon tree indoors where you’ll be growing it in a pot of some sort, using a pot with adequate drainage holes is a must.
The type of water you use for the dragon tree is important too. Avoid tap water, as it contains too many salts and fluoride.
These chemicals will cause the dragon tree’s leaves to become crispy and brown, which is true of other Dracaena as well.
Non-fluoridated water, filtered water, or distilled water are all safe for the dragon tree.
Dragon Tree Light Requirements
The dragon tree will grow at its steadiest when it’s continually exposed to bright, indirect light.
As a refresher, bright, indirect sunlight is that which comes from a window with a medium between the sun and your plant. That medium is usually a curtain, but you can use something else if that suits your fancy.
If it blocks the direct stream of sunlight, then it works.
Easterly-facing windows are a safe spot to position your dragon tree. Even northerly-facing windows can work.
Avoid southerly-facing windows though, as these get the most direct light. That bright sun will scorch the slim, fragile leaves of the dragon tree until they’re brown.
If you must use a southerly-facing window, consider keeping it as far from the window as possible while still receiving some light from the window.
If you can’t quite meet the lighting requirements for the dragon tree, that’s not such a big deal to this plant. Dimmer conditions than bright, indirect light won’t hurt the dragon tree, per se.
What will happen though is that the already slow pace at which this plant’s growth occurs will slow down even more.
Make sure you keep your eyes peeled for signs your dragon tree needs more sunlight. Its leaves might become dull and lose their coloring. The leaves can also drop.
In those cases, increase the amount of light the tree receives immediately.
Best Soil for a Dragon Tree
The Madagascar dragon tree does best in a well-draining but loose potting mix that prevents standing water.
If you’re going to the store or shopping online for potting mix, look for a loamy kind.
When you see potting soil that describes itself as “loamy”, it just means it will contain sand, clay, or silt.
You can always make loam using biodegradable mulch and compost or manure. If you don’t yet have a compost pile, I couldn’t recommend starting one enough. It will come in handy so often!
Getting back to the dragon tree’s soil requirements, using a few soil amendments is wise. However, since your soil mix is already loamy, you probably don’t have to add too many amendments. Sand will aerate the soil, after all.
In case the soil your dragon tree is currently growing in seems to be lacking in nutrients or isn’t as rich or well draining as you’d like, here are a few of the common amendments you can mix in with your existing potting soil to breathe life into it.
I guarantee your dragon tree will thank you.
Peat moss absorbs moisture, holding onto it so your dragon tree doesn’t become bone-dry. At the same time, the moss will also help water drain.
Perlite, which looks and feels sort of like popcorn, will also augment drainage and aeration.
A touch of vermiculite might be fine, but do keep in mind that besides aerating, the mineral increases water retention, which you don’t want to a large degree.
The dragon tree prefers soil with a pH of 6.0 to 7.0, which is slightly acidic to basic. Check the pH of your soil amendments before adding them so you don’t upset the dragon tree’s pH balance too much.
For example, peat moss is slightly acidic to more neutral, so it’s fine. Perlite has a pH of 7.0 to 7.5, so don’t dump it in the dragon tree’s pot in large quantities, as it might make the soil too alkaline. That’s true of vermiculite as well, which has the same pH.
Best Type of Pot for a Dragon Tree
With its no-standing-water policy, growing your dragon tree in a semi-porous pot will likely suit the dragon tree best.
Glazed materials like clay or terracotta are good picks. They’re usually highly absorbent, but the glazing treatment makes them less porous.
The result is this. When you water your dragon tree, the water won’t linger, but it won’t be gone so quickly that you have to turn around the next day and water the tree again. This can keep root rot at bay.
A plastic liner at the bottom of the pot is a good stand-in for the glazing treatment. Plastic is nonporous and will hold onto the water until it reaches the pot’s walls, where the water will then be absorbed.
Dragon Tree’s Ideal Temperature and Humidity
Attesting to the dragon tree’s nature as a neglect-tolerant plant, its temperature preferences are nothing special. It likes temperatures between 70- and 80-degrees Fahrenheit.
Is this a little over room temperature? Yes, but it’s still not hard to keep the temps in your home or office a little balmier for the dragon tree.
I wouldn’t recommend pushing its temperatures too high beyond 80 degrees. Where there’s heat, there’s usually sun, and you know already that the dragon tree cannot handle direct sun. You could burn its leaves and induce heat stress.
Heat stress leads to water loss. This might sound like no big deal for the dragon tree, which doesn’t love standing water anyway. Yet water loss in any plant is dangerous, the dragon tree included.
First, heat stress will cause the tree’s leaves to wilt and drop. Any remaining leaves will become brown and crunchy and eventually die.
Watch out for cold temps as well, which are just as dangerous if not more so for the dragon tree.
Once the temperature drops below 65 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s too cold for this Madagascar tree. Should the temps continue plummeting to 55 degrees, now your tree will begin exhibiting signs of cold stress if it hasn’t already.
At worst, cold stress can cause the plant cell walls to turn to ice, where they later rupture. Your dragon tree can easily die from ice exposure.
Hot and cold air can come from lots of places, not only an open window. Position your dragon tree away from drafts such as from an old door or window, appliances like your refrigerator, or your radiator or air conditioner.
The dragon tree will be just fine in average relative humidity between 30 and 50 percent. If you can increase its humidity such as with a humidifier, you could potentially speed up its growth.
Best Fertilizer for a Dragon Tree
Between the spring and summer is the dragon tree’s active growing season, so plan to fertilize it during this time.
You can fertilize it monthly using nitrogen-rich fertilizer. The ratio of macronutrients should be 3-1-2, with the 3 for nitrogen, the 1 for phosphorus, and the 2 for potassium.
If the fertilizer has iron, copper, manganese, sodium, and zinc in small quantities, this will support the growth of your dragon tree as well.
Some indoor gardeners fertilize the dragon tree twice a month. Since fertilizer is plant growth fuel, I can understand why.
You can try doing the same, just make a point to keep an eye on it looking for potential signs of over fertilizing to make sure you’re not doing more harm than good.
How will you know if your dragon tree is being fed too much fertilizer?
Its leaf margins will turn yellow, and its leaves will begin to wilt. Over fertilized soil will develop a white fertilizer crust that will cover the top of the topsoil. You can often see this either in spots where you’ve watered the soil or in between waterings you’ll notice it around the edges of the container its growing in.
Common Issues with the Dragon Tree
The dragon tree doesn’t develop diseases often, but it’s still prone to some pests. In this section, I’ll tell you which ones and provide removal solutions so you can get your dragon tree on the path to wellness again.
Thrips are slim, winged insects with mouthparts designed for sucking on plant juices until they’re gone. There are about 6,000 thrips species and some can cause diseases.
Said diseases could destroy the rest of your indoor garden rather than your dragon tree.
Sticky traps will prevent thrips from getting around your dragon tree. You can also remove them by shaking the affected branches and dropping the thrips into a bucket to remove them from the plant.
Mealybugs love warm, moist environments, and so does your dragon tree, so you can see where there’s a problem.
Like thrips, mealybugs will happily nosh on houseplant juices, including plants like subtropical trees.
Interestingly, mealybugs and ants share a symbiotic bond. The mealybugs make honeydew from plant juices, which the ants consume. If you see ants in your indoor garden, mealybugs are likely not too far behind.
Isopropyl alcohol on a cotton ball or cotton swab will treat your mealybug issue, as can combining isopropyl alcohol with water and dish detergent.
Scale insects can also invade your dragon tree. These very small insects produce a layer of wax to safeguard themselves from predators.
That same wax layer can make scale insects hard to treat, as the bugs don’t always die from insecticides.
Okay, so how can you remove scale insects from your dragon tree? Plucking or flicking is one option.
Yes, you’d do this by hand (or with a chopstick or a similar instrument). Put the scale in a container and dump them outside.
Treating scale insects with neem oil or isopropyl alcohol works as well. Just dip a cotton swab in the neem oil or isopropyl alcohol and then rub it where you see the scale insects.