Botanic Notables: The Dragon's Blood Tree

Botanic Notables: The Dragon's Blood Tree

August 26, 2011
Photo by: Harf Zimmermann

As the summer wanes, and we think of exotic coasts not yet visited, consider Socotra, a remote island in the Indian Ocean. Considered a second Galapagos, the island is a landscape of prehistoric endemics—one third of the 800 local plants are found nowhere else. Separated from Africa's coast for 200 million years, the plants that have evolved on Socotra make the island a botanic wonderland. 

The climate is harsh, hot, and dry, and the plants that grow amid the formidable boulders and sharp limestone have given the island an appearance that has been called the most alien-looking location on the planet. Navigating your way towards the island's highland plateau, at an altitude of 2,000 feet, you'll see a forest. Like everything else on Socorta, it's a surreal variation of anything you've seen before—neither dense nor lush, it's a forest of upturned umbrellas and veined branches. They are dragon's blood trees (Dracaena cinnabaribe), one of Socotra's most famous plants. 

 Stefan Geens on Flickr

Photo credit: Stefan Geens, Flickr

Not quite the breezy palm that is a natural umbrella for beach-time reading, the dragon's blood tree does provide a bit of shade. The large crown, which provides the shade, helps the seedlings that grow next to the tree, nurturing the new seedlings in the harsh climate by reducing water evaporation. The trees also often grow close together, which extend the amount of shade available to new seedlings.

The tree's name derives from a dark red resin that exudes from wounded branches and trunks. Early traders regarded the crimson sap to be actual dragon's blood—a belief that has made the tree a valuable commodity. The tree's "dragon's blood" was extolled by ancient Romans for medicinal purposes, has been used to inscribe magical talismans, and is still harvested for a variety of economic uses, including as a varnish for violins and as a dye. 

Today, the dragon's blood tree is endangered. The forest is largely populated with older trees, which can grow to 300 years—there are few young saplings, and conservationists aren't sure why, though possible causes are over grazing, or climate change. While conservationists don't discourage your visit (the Socotra Archipelago Conservation and Development Programme can offer information about the island's twice weekly flights from Yemen), they would hope that you tread lightly under the canopy of dragon's blood.  

Anna Laurent is a writer and producer of educational botanical media. Photographs from her forthcoming field guide to Los Angeles are available for exhibition and purchase at the author's shop.