Dragon’s Blood Tree

An island off the Horn of Africa holds root to a tree with an ominous crown and vein-like branches that trickle a dark-red resin. The Dracaena cinnabari had bled a name for itself in history with legends of dragons and magic.

Dracaena cinnabari, or Dragon's Blood, in Socotra, Yemen.Photo by Getty/javarman3

Endemic to the Yemeni island of Socotra, off the Horn of Africa, dragon’s blood trees have an eerie, prehistoric aspect. Their bizarre shape, like umbrellas blown inside-out, helps them to survive on the arid, thin soil that covers the island’s granite mountains and limestone plateaus. Rainfall is rare there, but occasional mist condenses, drop by drop, on the tree’s slender, waxy, skyward-pointing leaves and runs down to its branches. They too slope downwards, directing tiny trickles of water towards the trunk and, eventually, the roots.

Dracaena’s otherworldliness is heightened by the teardrops of translucent blood-red resin that ooze from its wounded limbs. Local residents encourage the flow by carefully incising the bark or prising apart existing fissures and returning a year later to collect droplets and small chunks of resin. As much as 0.5 kilogram (just over 1 lb) can be harvested from a single tree. Heated, dried and formed into small slabs, it has the creepy, powdery quality of dried blood. In seventeenth-century Europe, this strange ‘dragon’s blood’ was tinged with magic and prized as a cure-all. It was prescribed for serious conditions and was also a reassuringly expensive ingredient in love potions and breath-fresheners. Now we know that the resin contains antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory compounds, and it is still used locally as a mouthwash and to treat rashes and sores.

Illustrated by Lucille Clerc

Why dragon’s blood, though? Socotra was an important stop on trading routes between India, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and the origin probably lies with Indian merchants who brought the resin to market along with their Hindu myths. One of these involved a legendary fight, on Socotran soil, between an elephant and a dragon, in which the dragon gulped the elephant’s blood before being squashed in the mêlée, spilling the blood of both animals. In the first century AD the story reached a wide audience when it was retold in a Greek shipping manual and repeated by Pliny the Elder. Some 2,000 years later the scientific name Dracaena derives from the Greek for female dragon, and the resin is called ‘dragon’s blood’ in many languages. In Socotra today, it is known in Arabic as ‘the blood of two brothers’, a reminder of previous Indian cultural influence.

Varnish containing dragon’s blood resin was used by Stradivari to stain violins. The wood he used to make them was Norway spruce. Learn the answer in Around the World In 80 Trees by Jonathan Drori.
(Cover Illustration by Lucille Clerc. Cover Courtesy of Laurence King Publishing).

More from Around the World in 80 Trees:

Excerpted from Around the World In 80 Trees by Jonathan Drori Copyright © 2018 by Jonathan Drori. Excerpted by permission of Laurence King Publishing Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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