Professor and Student Help Grow a Better House Plant

Mar 25, 2014

by Cary McMullen | Publications editor

Anyone who is fond of house plants is familiar with dracaenas, the lush and sometimes delicate plants native mostly to the tropical forests of Africa. In America, the two most popular kinds are the cornstalk dracaena (Dracaena fragrans), whose broad green leaves resemble those of the corn plant, and the Dracaena marginata, with its narrow, red-bordered leaves and stem that resembles a small palm tree.

Now thanks to Prof. Malcolm Manners and FSC senior Adam Caple, a previously unknown variety of dracaena may be gracing people’s homes before long.

Manners, the John and Ruth Tyndall Professor of Citrus Science, and Caple, a landscape horticulture major, are conducting research in the FSC greenhouse on hundreds of the newly discovered dracaena plants, trying to determine the ideal soil and fertilizer combinations that would permit the dracaena to be grown commercially. They will present their findings in a paper written jointly with Dr. John Griffis, the principal investigator of the project, at the Florida State Horticulture Society conference in June.

Manners says that six new varieties of dracaena were discovered by Griffis, an expert on tropical plants, several years ago while on a Fulbright fellowship on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Griffis is a former FSC faculty member who now is Sidney and Berne Davis Associate Professor of Landscape Design and Horticulture at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers and a specialist in the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaiiʽi at Mānoa.

Under a USDA plant importation permit, Griffis took cuttings back to the University of Hawaiiʽi and began growing them. He asked Manners if he would conduct research on optimal growing conditions on three of the varieties. Manners agreed, and Griffis shipped plant samples to him from Hawaiiʽi.

“The first goal is to learn whether we can produce a plant that would allow it to compete in the foliage industry and how we can grow it to that quality level,” Manners said.

In August, Manners enlisted Caple in the project, and assigned him research on the ‘Waikiki’ variety. Caple set up six groups of plants with three soil combinations and two fertilizer rates. Once a month he takes measurements on pH and salt levels in the soil and measures the plants’ growth. With about 400 plants to care for, it amounts to a lot of work, but Caple says he has determined a particular combination of soil and fertilizer that works best.

“The lower fertilizer rate actually works best, which also makes it more eco-friendly,” he said.

The new varieties are dark green with characteristic red borders on the leaves. Manners says the next step in the research will be to cut back the stems to see if the plants will produce clumps of leaves, which would make it more attractive and marketable.

“In the foliage industry, the desire is always for something new and different. There’s no way of knowing if this will sell. It’s certainly different from any dracaena on the market. I think it has potential,” he said.

For Caple, it has been an opportunity to participate in primary research on a new species and be credited as co-author of a scholarly paper, something not many undergraduates would be able to do.

“I just got accepted into graduate school at the University of Hawaiiʽi, so this was a real resume builder and a great experience,” he said.