Ask a Question forum: Very Old Corn Plant Needs a bit of Love

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Dallas TX
Jan 7, 2017 9:25 AM CST

I am hoping that this community can help with with issues relating to my corn plant.

My dad's company closed in 1987 and he took home (with permission) some of the corn plants from the office. After he died in 2012, I inherited one of his corn plants and I'm pretty sure this plant is from the office. It has been in the dining room of his/my house since he moved it there in 2001.

Once each month he would give the plant 2 quarts of water, remove dead leaves, trim if it was getting too tall, and wipe down the leaves with a wet paper towel. So this is exactly what I have been doing.

This month I was getting ready to go through my routine, and some things have been nagging me enough to join this forum and ask your experts.

1. Age: Could this plant really be 30+ years old?
2. Soil: The water in our city is not great. It ruins faucets and other plumbing parts and so I'm always repairing something ruined by this water. I have noticed that a white crust is forming on the soil, most likely the result of our water and also there is a dip in the soil where I have been pouring water. Should I add some fresh soil from a reputable potting soil company, and turn the plant after each watering? Should I add any fertilizer and if so what kind?
3. Water: I have a 2 quart pitcher that I have used for years. I give the plant one quart on the 1st and a second quart on the 2nd and that way the water never runs out. Monthly watering seems to work, but I have read of others watering weekly. What do you recommend for time and quantity? And should I switch to bottled or distilled water?
4. Trimming and Broken branch: One of the branches recently just bent over. I don't think the kids or anyone would have done that. So what would have caused that? It seems to be a pretty hearty plant. Can I just clip that off? Also, it is touching the ceiling. Do I just trim a few inches below?

My years of minimal treatment have worked for quite a while, but I am concerned that the plant now needs a bit of expert help to thrive.

Thank you very much,

Dallas TX

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Name: Daisy I
Reno, Nv (Zone 6b)
Not all who wander are lost
Garden Sages Plant Identifier
Jan 7, 2017 11:46 AM CST
Hi Mike Welcome! to NGA

Your plant is Dracaena fragrans - Corn Plant for short. How long has it been since it was repotted? If more than a couple years, or never, don't just fill in that divot, re-pot it with fresh soil. If that is too much of a challenge, just digging out as much dirt as you can and replacing that soil will also work. I suspect that all the roots are at the very bottom of the pot and there is nothing in most of the pot. Once in awhile, take it outside and just run water through the soil. That will help rinse out any salts that are building up.

You can prune your Corn Plant to any height you want. The cuttings, if replanted in the pot, will also grow. You could just cut that one stem down enough so it wasn't hitting the ceiling or cut any amount off. The plant will resprout just below your cut.

It looks like your care has been good (you even have a new shoot coming up) but with new soil, you will have to figure out what the water needs are all over again. Water enough so water comes out the bottom of the pot but don't let it sit in water (because the roots will be sitting in water). Oops! Hopefully that pot has drainage. If not, and you don't want to repot, your style of watering will have to do. Its worked all this time. Just remember, most Dracaena die from too much care, not too little.

Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and proclaiming...."WOW What a Ride!!" -Mark Frost

Dallas TX
Jan 7, 2017 12:24 PM CST
Thank you very much! Ok I'm up for the challenge!
Name: Will Creed
Professional indoor plant consultan
Jan 7, 2017 4:25 PM CST
Your plant is vert likely 30+ years old. It is also badly overgrown and in need of a major pruning. The two tallest stems should be cut down to a height of about 2 feet. New growth will then emerge just below the pruning cuts and grow upward from there. The pruning will eliminate much of the bare, leggy stems and produce a shorter more compact plant. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how much better it looks after this pruning.

It does not need repotting or fresh soil, but you should start using filtered or distilled water because apparently your tap water is very hard or loaded with mineral salts.

Don't water by a predetermined formula. A plants water needs can change over time. Allow the top 2-3 inches of soil to dry before adding just enough water so that it reaches that same level of dryness again within 2 weeks. You will have to experiment a bit to determine the right volume.
Will Creed
Horticultural Help, NYC
Contact me directly at [email protected]
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Name: Tiffany purpleinopp
Opp, AL 🌵🌷⚘🌹🌻 (Zone 8b)
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Jan 8, 2017 6:53 AM CST
Hi & welcome! When practical and during warm weather, I would absolutely repot it. Root congestion can't be alleviated by watering practices. The limitation of the ceiling necessitates pruning. Otherwise, there would be no reason to prune anything unless desired. There are some pics of some very old, very tall trees I saw in a hotel atrium in this entry: Corn Plant (Dracaena fragrans)

What is necessary for plants to stay alive is for their roots to not rot, which can happen so easily in a pot with dense soils, like ground dirt, or bagged mixes of predominantly tiny particles of peat, (or to simply shrivel from simply never getting any water.) Having very little soil around the roots would make the soil dry more quickly, and for even the most dedicated plant-overwaterers to not rot the roots of their plants. This is not ideal, since most non-cactus plants are stressed by dry conditions, it's just a way of coping with soil that has little air in it when moist.

Negative experiences in regard to potting-up, where an undisturbed root ball is placed into a bigger pot with more soil around it, vs. doing a repotting, as described below, can give rise to old wives' tales about plants not liking to be repotted/disturbed. Potting-up a root-bound plant that has roots surrounding the outside root ball often lead to this negative experience because those roots had adapted to accessing oxygen around the outside of the root ball and surrounding them with more dense, soggy-but-airless potting soil will likely lead to suffocation.

The reason bonsai masters are able to keep potted entities alive for hundreds of years is because they care for the roots by trimming them and changing the soil. A plant grows from the roots-up, so if the roots are not healthy, gorgeous foliage will decline &/or no flowers can form. When you unpot a plant and find a pancake of roots at the bottom, chopping that off will give roots a chance to grow normally again for a while and will make removing the old soil easier.

Roots need oxygen & moisture at the same time to function. Just air = shriveling. Just moisture = suffocation & rotting. Either will cause root death and dessicated foliage because the roots have been unable to deliver moisture. Having to let soil dry, as if ones' tropical jungle plant was a cactus, is an unnecessarily stressful coping mechanism for non-desert dwelling plants in soil without enough oxygen for the roots to stay healthy when it is moist and can lead to premature loss of older leaves and in extreme cases, dry shriveled roots/dead plant.

The ability of roots to be able to function properly depends greatly on the soil structure/texture, which can change over time. Potting soil tends to be very dense, mostly peat, with very little air in it. Any kind of organic ingredients decompose into smaller bits over time, and roots fill air spaces over time as they grow through soil. Replacing soil periodically is usually necessary to keep plants healthy because of these reasons. A more porous, chunky, airy soil (like cactus/palm, if one is buying bagged,) can have more air in it even when it is moist because there is space between the particles. When there are tiny particles of any kind in a pot, such as peat, sand, silt, clay, they filter into all of the tiny spaces in a pot, eliminating the air. "Overwatering" is the label and manifestation when roots have suffocated and/or rotted, combo of both. Over time, organic bits decompose into smaller bits, so even the "best" soil, if it has organic components, will need to be replaced when this happens. The speed at which this happens depends on many variables, but on average, about 1-3 years.

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