Dracaena aletriformis (Haw.) Bos (= D. hookeriana)
Common names: large-leaved dragon tree; grootblaardrakeboom (Afr.)
SA Tree No: 30
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.
Distribution and habitat
Dracaena aletriformis occurs from Port Elizabeth eastwards to KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland and into eastern and northern Limpopo. 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.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
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 are monocotyledons.
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.
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.
The berries of the large-leaved dragon tree are very popular with many of the fruit-eating birds.
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: for example, 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 focal point.
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.
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, Herts.; England.
- 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, Cape Town.
- 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
Plant Type: Shrub, Tree
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo
Soil type: Sandy, Clay, Loam
Flowering season: Spring, Early Summer, Late Summer
Flower colour: White, Cream, Yellow
Gardening skill: Easy