By ROBIN ROBINSON Special to The Citizen
Song of India bursts from the landscape like a fierce, bristling warrior, leaves tightly coiled, ready to take off in a ninja swirl. Up north it is better known as Dracaena reflexa, var. marginata. It is commonly used as an indoor houseplant because of its richly colored leaves, slow growth and indestructible nature.
Thick, evergreen leaves are lanceolate and 4 to 9 inches long. Its sword-shaped leaves have parallel veins and yellow edges with a grey-green interior. Flamboyant coloration enhances its appeal to the gardener. Here in Key West, it grows outdoors and reaches heights of 8 feet. Potting produces a more shrubby growth pattern. However in its native Madagascar it reaches 18 feet in height. Trunks can be three feet around. If conditions are not correct it gets mad and sheds leaves. This fierce fighter is in the Agavaceae Family like the century plant and other desert bloomers.
Song of India needs well-drained soil. The results of over-watering are leaf drop and root rot, easily preventable by blithely forgetting about watering. It survives like a trooper in the desert but wilts and dies if it gets cold. Good drainage is important. Sunny days with bright light, keep the plant variegated, but it does well in shade, too. This is an excellent xeriscaping plant, but don't plant it near the ocean, as it is not salt tolerant.
Its grey branches grow thicker with age and are covered with scars where leaves have dropped off, creating interesting stems. These snake like branches look like Medusa's head sinuously swaying in the wind and results in a messy, unpredictable crown. Tommy Dorsey, a volatile sinuously, swinging bandleader in the 40s, blows a soulful rendition of the "Song of India" found on the CD, Tommy Dorsey's Orchestra. Sy Oliver arranged the melody, originally written by Rimsky-Korsakov.
The rare flowers are bent down, or reflexed, and occur on bracts of tiny tubular blossoms in white and pale maroon masses. It seldom blooms indoors. Dracaena translates as a female dragon. Small orange seeds form on branched clusters and turn red then brown. Most propagation is done by cutting a woody branch and jamming it into the earth. Or more politely, dip it in root tone and plant it in a well-drained pot. It also roots in a glass of water. Cutting the plant back creates a thicker shrub.
This plant is good for tropical flower arrangements. As long as the arranger keeps water on the stem it glows and grows for months.
Traditional medicine practitioners believe that Draceana will battle malaria, dysentery, diarrhea, and dysmenorrhea. They use it to reduce fever and stop blood flow. None of these cures have been studied.
In Madagascar, it is food for the black and white ruffled lemur and a giant, flightless Fregate beetle. The beetle is herbaceous and nocturnal, hiding in crevices and under branches during the day. It is under study as critically endangered.
Plants exhale oxygen and inhale carbon dioxide, however Song of India also has some tougher recycling characteristics. NASA has studied the plant and discovered that inhales formaldehyde from the air and destroys it. Xylene, found in gasoline and airplane fuels, and the volatile liquid trichloroethylene are also purged.
Plant the Dragon of India and let it go into battle against poor air quality for you.
Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books "Plants of Paradise" and Award-Winning "Roots Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys," can be found at the Garden Club and on Amazon.com. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit www.keywestgardenclub.com.
The Key West Garden Club welcomes volunteers to work on the historical fort, pull weeds, propagate plants and play in the sandy soil from 9 a.m. to noon Mondays at the West Martello Tower.