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Mailbag: Dracaena marginata leaf drop

Hi Jessica,

I came across your contact on Newsday.com while attempting to find information on the care and maintenance of household plants. I'm currently running into a few difficulties with one particular species, the Madagascar dragon tree (Dracaena marginata), which I was hoping you might be able to offer some advice on.

I've had the plant for little more than 12 months and during such time its has grown quite happily alongside my Avado and Parlour Palms however recently there has been a slow but noticeable decline. At first I assumed it was merely the natural order of growth that contributed to the shedding of leaves but now I'm not so sure? The plant itself was repotted about two months ago (garden centre compost, soil and sand to facilitate drainage) and thats when it really began to fall into decline. From the main stem there were five shut/branches with moderate foliage, one of which died off quite quickly. However three of the remaining four have over a two week period begun to die off rapidly, leaving one large stem which shows no signs of deterioration. I've tried placing the plant in various positions in the room, I water every 1 1/2 weeks. All my other house plants are thriving so what am I doing wrong?

I live in south east Ireland and while we never have to fear serious heat waves, we had a particularly bad winter. Even now, as the summer months draw closer, sunlight and temperature are still relatively low, could this be a factor?

I would appreciate any suggestions you might have regarding this matter and helping me to revive my poor plant. -- Mark Fagan, Teacher of Art & English, Dublin, Republic of Ireland.

Hi, Mark.

Your Dracaena marginata is a tropical plant that requires bright sunlight and warm temperatures in order to thrive as it would in its native home. Neither New York nor Ireland can provide optimum conditions for it to perform as it would in the tropics, but still it can get by, as yours has for 12 months. Leaf drop usually is associated with a change in temperature. Has it been near a drafty window over the winter? You say you've moved it around, but even one chill can cause leaves to turn yellow and drop. Another culprit could be excess water. Instead of watering on a schedule, check the soil and water only when the surface has dried. Too much water could lead to root rot, which causes stress, leaf drop and eventually death. Another possibility is the soil you used when repotting. You don't say where the soil component of the mix you used came from, but if you dug it up from the garden, there's a chance it contained a fungus that has affected the plant. If that is the case, there really isn't anything to do at this point.

My advice is to trim away any brown or yellow plant parts and slip the plant out of its pot to ensure the roots aren't rotted. They should be white. If they look healthy, repot the plant using a purchased sterile potting mix, not soil or compost (wash and disinfect the pot with a 90/10 water/bleach solution, rinse and dry). Place the plant in the sunniest window available, water only when indicated, and hope for the best.

Good luck!

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