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the web of life in southern Africa

Dracaena mannii (Small-leaved dragon-tree)

[= Dracaena reflexa var. nitens, Dracaena usambarensis]

Asparagus bush, Asparagus tree, Soap tree [other English names]; Kleinblaardrakeboom [Afrikaans]

Life > eukaryotes > Archaeoplastida > Chloroplastida > Charophyta > Streptophytina > Plantae (land plants) > Tracheophyta (vascular plants) > Euphyllophyta > Lignophyta (woody plants) > Spermatophyta (seed plants) > Angiospermae (flowering plants) > Monocotyledons > Order: Asparagales > Family: Asparagaceae > Genus: Dracaena

Dracaena mannii (Small-leaved dragon-tree) Dracaena mannii (Small-leaved dragon-tree)

Dracaena mannii, National Botanic Garden, Harare, Zimbabwe. [photo Rob Burrett , Flora of Zimbabwe]

Dracaena mannii, Nyabamba Bridge on the road to Rusitu Forest, Zimbabwe. [photo Rob Burrett , Flora of Zimbabwe]

Dracaena mannii (Small-leaved dragon-tree) Dracaena mannii (Small-leaved dragon-tree)

Dracaena mannii, National Botanic Garden, Harare Zimbabwe. [photos Bart Wursten , Flora of Zimbabwe]

A many-branch tree with branches terminating in rosettes of relatively short (up to 40 cm) and narrow (up to 2 cm) leaves. Distribution in southern Africa is limited to Kosi Bay area in South Africa, Mozambique and eastern Zimbabwe. It is widely distributed in tropical Africa and in these regions is used extensively for various medicines and has other uses such as for dyes, soaps, and is planted as a hedge.


  • A many-branched small tree, usually growing from 3-5 m high, but reaching 12 m in some plants (in West Africa recorded up to 30 m high).
  • Has white, papery, smooth bark, marked with leaf scars.
  • Leaves grow from 16-40 cm long by 1-2 cm wide and are relatively small and thin for the genus, thus helping to distinguish this Dracaena species from others in the region. Dracaena transvaalensis overlaps in terms of leaf length (30-50 cm long) but has broader leaves (3-5 cm). The other three species in the region have leaves generally longer than 60 cm.
  • The cream-coloured flowers are in sprays up to 50 cm long. They are closed during the day and at night emit a sweet smell.
  • The fruit are 2-2.5 cm in diameter and are bright red when mature.

Distribution and habitat

Widely distributed in Africa from Senegal to Kenya, southwards to Angola, Mozambique, eastern Zimbabwe, and just touching into South Africa at Kosi Bay in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

Ecological interactions

  • As the flowers emit a sweet smell at night, it is likely that they are pollinated by moths but there is no evidence of this at my disposal.
  • Fruit are eaten by:


Uses within southern Africa appear to be fairly limited, but in tropical Africa, uses are varied and include the following (information from Burkill 1985):

  • Grown as hedges and markers
  • Eaten as food (which parts?).
  • From a phytochemical perspective the plant evidently has substances that inhibit the growth of bacterial and fungi. It yields medicines to:
    • stop nausea and vomiting (i.e. antemetics)
    • treat cutaneous and subcutaneous parasitic infections
    • reduce swelling, oedema and gout
    • treat oral complaints
    • expel worms (vermifuges)
    • treat lung problems, using an extract of the leaf
    • reduce pain, using an extract from the bark
  • Used as an arrow-poison
  • The sap yields red dyes, stains, inks, tattoos and mordants (i.e. helps fix a dye to fabric or tissue)
  • The leaf-ash is used for making soap.


  • Burkill, H.M. 1985. The useful plants of west tropical Africa, Vol 3, as accessed from JStor (http://plants.jstor.org/upwta/3_858)
  • Palgrave, K.C. and Palgrave, M.C. 2002. Trees of Southern Africa. 3rd Edition. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.

Text by Hamish Robertson