Dracaena fragrans (L.) Ker Gawl.
(Asparagaceae – the asparagus family)
synonym: Dracaena fragrans var. massangeana (Rodigas) E.Morren
common name: Happy Plant
Dracæna is Latin for a she-dragon, and fragrans, as you would expect, means fragrant. Massangeana means ‘of Massanga’: there are places named Massanga in Angola, Gabon, Haiti and Mozambique; but I have not been able to discover which of these the variety was named after.
Dracaena originate in the Canary Islands, West Africa and America.The Happy Plant is one of the good, old-fashioned house plants, and even in the tropics is often grown in containers on patios and paved areas. The plants are not as tolerant of salt as many horticulturalists seem to think: many of those on the island are planted too close to the sea, and would be better termed ‘unhappy plants’, with their leaves yellow and withered. Dracaena are propagated by cuttings from the stem sections of mature plants. Once rooted, ‘suckers’ of leaf clusters sprout from the old leaf scars.
This is a slow-growing shrub, often multistemmed at the base. Mature specimens can, given conditions that they really like, reach a height of up to 15 m with a narrow crown of branches that are usually erect. Stems may reach a diameter of 30 cm in old plants. Young plants have a single stem, unbranched, with a rosette of leaves until the plant is either damaged, or produces flowers, after which it branches. After that, branching becomes more prolific following further flowering episodes.
The leaves are a glossy green, lanceolate, 20–150 cm long, 2–12 cm wide; small leaves are usually erect, but larger leaves droop under their own weight. In the most common variety, Massangeana, there is a light green and yellow band down the centre of the leaf.
Flowers are produced in panicles anything up to 150 cm long; the individual flowers are about 2.5 cm in diameter, with a 6-lobed corolla, pink at first, opening white with a fine red or purple line down the centre of each lobe. The flowers are highly fragrant (as you would expect from the species name), and popular with pollinating insects. The fruit is a berry, 1–2 cm in diameter, orange-red in colour, and containing several seeds.
Despite what I have said about its unhappiness, this is, given the chance, a very happy plant, because it normally thrives, whatever is done to it. If a branch is pruned off, it puts out two shoots just below the pruning mark. That new growth can be cut off and stuck in the ground, and will almost immediately take root. It will even form roots in water. Once in the ground, so long as its soil is moist, fertile and well-mulched, and it does not experience extremes in temperature or soil moisture, it will look after itself. It is happy in partial shade, filtered light, or full sun. To my mind, it always looks its best if grown in clusters.
Happy plants are considered good luck plants, and given as presents at the Chinese New Year. They are sometimes known as the Chinese Money Tree.
Photographs © Donald Simpson, taken in Picnic Bay 2008, 2009