Dragon Blood Trees

Significance of Indigenous Socotra Dragon Blood Trees in Modern Medicine

The Dragon Blood Tree of Socotra looks like something straight out of a children’s storybook. This is because of its strange umbrella shape. Once the branch of the tree is cut, something even stranger happens. It “bleeds” blood-red resin. If you do an online search for “Dragon Blood” you will most likely find a lot of skincare products. The key item in these products is the blood-red resin from the Dragon Blood Tree. However, this strange tree has been around for much longer than modern cosmetics.

Different kinds of plants produce this red resin across the world.  They have all become known as the Dragon (Dracaena) Tree. Socotra’s Dragon Tree is known by a few common names, including the Dragon Blood, Dragon’s Blood, and Dragon tree. Resin from the Socotra Dragon Tree was a product known as Dragon’s Blood in the ancient world. Dragon Blood was used in everything from dyeing wood and breath freshener to rituals and magic. In1880, Scottish botanist Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour described and renamed the species Dracaena cinnabari.

A face serum made from dragon blood that is found online in a brown bottle with a pink and white label
Dragon Blood face serum

Exploring the historical value and the myths surrounding this exotic tree reminds us why it needs to be conserved. Currently, medical anthropology gives us the idea that traditional medicine is symbolic. It does not take into account the practical means by which most of the world heals itself, namely plants. However, modern medicine cannot be so easily be separated from the ethnobotanical past. This can be seen in the use of the resin in medicine and in top-end skincare.

an 1819 drawing of the dragon blood tree in black and white with a gash in its stem with two botanists at its base, it towers over the landscape
An old Dragon Tree (Dracaena draco) with a gash in its stem releasing its “Dragon Blood” resin and a door in its trunk. Aquatint with etching (Reeve & Williams, c.1819 / JSTOR)

Dragon Blood Tree Myths

The history of the Dragon Blood Tree is veiled in myth and magic. The ancient people believed that the red resin it gives is the blood of the dragon. Therefore, in old Europe, it was sought after for alchemy and magical potions. Wiccans and witches used it for a variety of spells. Furthermore, it is also added to red ink to make “Dragon Blood Ink”, which is used to make seals and talismans.

Socotran Myth

According to Socotran myth, the first Dragon Blood tree was created from the blood of a dragon that was wounded when it fought an elephant. This story is derived from an ancient Indian myth. The dragon and the elephant represented the gods Brahma and Siva. The dragon bit the elephant, drinking all its blood until it fell to the ground. When it fell, it crushed the dragon. Dragon Blood is seen as the resulting mix of the two animals’ blood. As a result, the product was very popular among Hindus.

A dragon blood protection spell written on a sheet of paper with a brown black ground and an image of dragon blood crystals
A Dragon Blood protection spell (White Witch Parlour / Pinterest)

Greek Myth

Greek legend has it that Ladon was a serpent-like dragon. He had a hundred heads and lived twisted around a tree in the Garden of the Hesperides guarding the golden apples. The dragon was sent by Hera, Queen of Heaven, to protect the sacred fruit that she had offered as a gift to Zeus.

Hercules was sent to complete dangerous and difficult tasks called the 12 Labours of Hercules. The 11th task called upon him to steal the apples of the Hesperides from the fierce dragon guarding them. Subsequently, Hercules slew the ferocious Ladon and the Dragon Blood flowed out over the land sprouting “Dragon” Trees. Afterwards, Ladon was placed among the stars by the gods as the Constellation Draco. As a result, the Dragon Trees continue to bleed the death of Ladon with a reddish oozing sap whenever they get cut.

Dragon Slayers

In the Mediterranean, it was believed to be made from the blood of dragon slayers such as St. George. Others believed Dragon Blood to be the congealed tears of living dragons. Therefore, chunks of the resin were sold at a very high price.

An artist's representation of Ladon, a purple coloured deman with two heads, a serpent tale and 100 heads. He is standing in front of an opening that looks like the portal to hell
Ladon, the 100 headed dragon (Saputras / Deviantart)

Dragon Blood Tree Facts

Unique Features

All Dragon Trees possess unique features. For a start, they have an extremely striking appearance. The crown of the tree often looks like an umbrella that has been turned inside out. Additionally, the fact that the branches are bare but for their tips adds to this illusion. In Socotra, the tree is surrounded by what remains of the prehistoric Dragon Blood forest on granite mountains and limestone hills.

There are over 120 species under the genus Dracaena. The most common species referred to as Dragon Trees are Dracaena cinnabari and Dracaena draco and grow in semi-desert areas. When planted outdoors, they can grow to about 25 feet tall and almost as wide. The tallest ever recorded was over 70 feet tall.

A dragon blood sapling a nursery that looks a small bush with spiky leaves
A Dragon Blood sapling resembles a bush with spiky leaves (Shutterstock)

The Socotra Dragon Blood tree flowers in February. The flowers grow at the end of the branches. The famous red resin that gives it its name is found in the bark. The ancients used to call it cinnabar. It was widely abundant in trade before 60AD.

Slow Growing

The tree matures between 10-15 years of age when a white lily-like perfumed flower spike emerges. This is followed by coral berries. A crown of terminal buds shows up and this is when the plant starts branching. Each one grows for another 10-15 years.  After that, it re-branches to resemble an umbrella. The tree grows at quite a slow rate, about one meter every ten years. As a result, it could take 10 years to reach about 4 feet in height.

A Dragon Tree makes a stunning and quite dramatic garden specimen. It grows well in full sun or part shade and requires well-drained soil. Furthermore, it adapts well to extreme outdoor weather such as heat, wind and salty marine weather. Care is simple – water infrequently and deeply.

Stumps of dragon blood trees on top of each other, that have been cut. They are "bleeding"
The Dragon Blood Tree literally Bleeds ( K. Kloosterman / Green Prophet)

Dragon Blood Trees Across the World

Dracaena draco is native to the Canary Islands, Madeira, Cape Verde and western Morocco. However, Dracaena cinnabari is only native to Socotra, located in the Arabian Sea. The wild Dragon Blood Trees can be seen hanging off cliffs or high in the mountains.

The famous El Drago Milenario (Thousand Year Old Dragon) is located in Parque del Drago in Tenerife. Many claim that the tree is over a thousand years old but is estimated to be between 250 – 365 years old. It is one of the most important natural, cultural and historical symbols of the islands. Similarly, the Socotra Dragon Blood tree is an evergreen tree that can live for hundreds of years, reaching heights of 10 to 12 meters. Its leaves measure up to 60 cm long and 3 cm wide. These leaves appear on the ends of the youngest branches and last for three to four years. After that, they fall off and are replaced by new leaves.

Identity of the Resin

When the literature refers to “Dragon Blood”, it may not be referring to the resin produced by the Socotra Dragon Blood Tree. However, in the past it often did. Today, the term may refer to the resin from the Socotra Island, Canary Island, Indonesian or South American trees. It may even refer to the red mineral cinnabar.

A leaf of the dragon blood tree lying on rock, bleeding
Dracaena draco leaves showing Dragon Blood pigment at the base (Skarktopus / Wikipedia)                                                           

Healing Properties

The tree is well-known for its red sap, which is highly valued for its many properties. Modern naturalists and herbalists were interested in the medicinal properties of the Dragon Blood Tree. Therefore, they exchanged and collected samples of the tree and its sap. Today, as different Dragon Trees are threatened with extinction, their historical significance to researchers is even more important.

Ancient Uses of Dragon Blood Trees

Beyond their unusual appearance and longevity, Dracaena cinnabari has always held a medical allure. Seventeenth-century herbalists wrote texts about the medicinal uses of the Dragon Tree. The Dragon Blood known to the ancient Romans was mostly collected from Dracaena cinnabari. It is mentioned in the first century by Periplus as one of the products of Socotra.  Additionally, Dragon Blood was used as a dye and paint pigment in the Mediterranean basin. Italian violin-makers used it to varnish violins in the 18th-century.

Dragon Blood was held by early Greeks, Romans, and Arabs to have medicinal properties. They used it in wound healing, as a cure for diarrhoea, as a coagulant, for respiratory problems and for treating ulcers and fevers. The red resin was found in the ingredients list of an 18th-century toothpaste too.

Likewise, the red resin it gives has many traditional uses in medicine in Socotra. The local people use the Dragon Blood resin as a cure for almost everything. Furthermore, the ancient tree has always been of great economic significance. Local people depend on it as a source of food for livestock. Small quantities of berries can improve the health of cows and goats. It is known in Socotra as emzoloh.

red dragon blood powder and brownish crystals next to each other on a white background
Dragon Blood, powdered pigment or apothecary’s grade and roughly crushed incense (Andy Dingley)

Modern Uses of Dragon Blood Trees

Dragon Blood sap is a rich, complex source of phytochemicals. Internally, it is a known remedy for gastrointestinal issues. The traditional use of Dragon Blood led to the development and subsequent FDA approval of an anti-secretory, anti-diarrheal drug. This is the first botanical drug approved by FDA for oral use. Externally, Dragon Blood is known for its use on the skin.  It is commonly referred to as a liquid bandage. Drops are applied as needed to cover the affected area and allowed to dry. Furthermore, Dragon Blood is also popularly applied to insect bites and stings.

A sachet filled with red dragon blood for polishing violins with a white label
A packet of Dragon Blood varnish for violins (Beare and Son)

The Future of Dragon Blood Trees

Unfortunately, Dragon Trees face a high risk of extinction in the wild. The Socotran Tree is now on the “vulnerable to extinction list” of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). Unfortunately, this status is based on a 2004 population assessment. Since then, a limited number of populations have regenerated naturally.

Although there may be several factors putting the population at risk, one of the major problems is climate change. Because of climate change, Socotra is drying out. The monsoon weather used to be in favour of the species, but it is getting patchy and irregular. As a result, the tree is expected to lose around 45% of its potential habitat by 2080. Despite ongoing conservation efforts that could protect two potential refuge areas, it is not enough to save the species. Additional problems include grazing by domestic goats, extraction of the resin, and using the tree for firewood. However, these play a smaller role in the tree’s problems. Another problem may be the increasing amount of development on the island.  This includes the creation of roads, as well as the increasing number of tourists.

International funding is currently supporting a community-run Dragon Blood nursery based in Hadiboh, the capital of Socotra. However, the civil war raging in Yemen has disrupted the work of many civil societies.  Therefore, this could also dry out.

umbrella shaped dragon blood tress and bottle shaped desert roses growing side by side on a hill in Socotra
Dragon Blood Trees and Desert Roses grow side by side, creating the alien landscape of Socotra (Lefutur.al)

Significance of the Dragon Blood Tree

New pharmaceutical medicines or precursors to medicine are often found in plants. However, there are not enough studies on the interface of ethnobotany and medical anthropology. This is surprising considering that plants are frequently used in “traditional” medicines and ritual treatments.

Even though most modern remedies come in the form of prescriptions and pill bottles, the majority are plant-based drugs. Therefore, ancient and modern medicinal systems are more similar than most people think. There are many incredible healing properties of the various plant species that were known to ancient people, waiting to be rediscovered. Consequently, we should be looking to nature for important drugs.

When these medicinal properties are harnessed effectively, they can have a profound impact on modern medicine. Recently, the world has taken notice of the cannabis plants’ multitude of uses. Therefore, serious steps have to be taken to mitigate the effects of climate change to save the Dragon Blood Tree population. Hopefully, the efforts to preserve these trees on Socotra Island will be successful. The Dragon Blood Tree represents an enormous opportunity for future medical research.

References

Dragon University. 2019. Dragon’s Blood Tree.

Sinchi Foundation. 2018. The Extraordinary Properties Of Dragon’s Blood Trees.

Pickering, V. 2020. Plant of the Month: The Dragon Tree.

Crampton, L. 2021. The Strange Dragon Blood Tree of Socotra.

Smolke, C. 2020. Modern Medicine’s Ancient Roots.

Waldstein, Anna & Adams, Cameron. 2006. The Interface Between Medical Anthropology and Medical Ethnobiology. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Special issue No 1, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.

Featured Image Credit: Mark W. Moffett/National Geographic

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