Friday, 25 May 2018

Here Be Dragons

The Mysterious Dragon Tree Produces Dragon's Blood

Dragon Tree (Photo: Pixabay)

The dragon tree (Dracaena draco) is a very weird-looking plant that grows to the size of a tree and can live a very long time. One known as the “Drago Milenario,”  that grows in Icod de los Vinos in Tenerife, is said to be 1000-years-old or more, though other estimates put it at more like 650 years.

Drago Milenario (Photo: Pixabay)

Dragon's Blood

The dragon’s tree is the source of a resinous substance known as dragon’s blood, which is formed when the tree is cut. The sap that oozes out dries a dark red colour. Dragon’s blood is said to have magical and medicinal properties. It has been used in varnish and also as an ingredient in incense.

Dragon trees are native to the Canary Islands, Cape Verde and Madeira but are very rare in the wild, though extensively planted in parks, gardens, and public squares. Having lived in Tenerife for many years, I was used to seeing them around the island, so was very pleasantly surprised to find specimens of the dragon tree growing well here in Iberia too. I have seen them in Gibraltar and there are some rather splendid examples in the botanical gardens of the University of Lisbon. The dragon tree has also been introduced to the Azores.

The dragon tree grows very slowly and can take around 10 years just to reach 1 metre in height. It can flower for the first time then but will not branch until it has flowered. Each branch then takes a long time before it flowers and branches again. As this process continues the dragon tree produces a characteristic umbrella or mushroom-shaped crown of branches. Dragon trees produce spikes of perfumed whitish flowers which develop into orange-red berries, each one containing one or two very hard and almost globular seeds.

Dragon Tree Berries (Photo: Steve Andrews)

The dragon tree seed takes a month or even longer to germinate from seed and first of all produces a rosette of spiky and leathery evergreen leaves. The silvery and scarred trunk gets formed as the plant grows bigger and the lower leaves die and get removed.
The lower branches produce aerial roots which hang down and have been likened to a dragon’s beard. These roots can fuse with the trunk as they descend and reach the soil and in this way very broad and curious-looking trunks get formed in very old specimens.
Dragon trees are monocotyledons in the Asparagaceae or asparagus family, and do not produce annual rings inside their trunks. Because counting these rings is the usual way of discovering the age of a tree, it is very hard to work out how old a dragon tree actually is. It is done by counting the branching points and estimating how long it has taken to form these.
La Orotava Dragon Tree (Photo: Public Domain)

There was once an enormous dragon tree in La Orotava in Tenerife that was even bigger and older than the Drago Milenario, mentioned earlier. The naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt was amazed when he saw its height and girth. This dragon tree was 70 feet (21 m) tall and 45 feet (14 m) in circumference, and was believed to be 6000 years old. It was destroyed by gales in a terrible storm in 1868.
Heads of a Dragon Tree (Photo: Pixabay)

In Greek Mythology

Not surprisingly there is much folklore and myth built up about this strange tree, and the story goes that the first dragon trees grew when the legendary hero Hercules of Greek mythology killed the hundred-headed dragon Ladon, who was guarding the Garden of the Hesperides. Where the blood of the monster fell little dragon trees sprouted.
Dragon trees are easy enough to grow from seed but you need a lot of patience to wait for them to germinate and to produce much growth, although this plant will make a very interesting houseplant when young and a wonderful addition to the subtropical garden when bigger. They are drought resistant, and in the wild they often grow on rocky hillsides and cliffs.
Ready-grown dragon trees are sometimes available from gardening centres and ornamental plant suppliers and buying one this way could be the easier option for getting hold of one. However you get your own dragon tree, it will certainly make a great talking point, and the plant could still be alive hundreds, and maybe thousands of years, from now!
NB: Originally published in Mediterranean Gardening & Outdoor Living, July 2015.

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