Kingdom – Plantae
Phylum – Tracheophyta
Class – Liliopsida
Order – Liliales
Family – Dracaenaceae
Genus – Dracaena
Dragon’s Blood trees have long held a fascination over those who have lived and worked among them, due to their alien-like appearance and unusual shape, it comes as no surprise that this species has ties with ancient magic, legend and folklore.
It takes 5 months to form the ripened fruit; a small, fleshy berry which changes in colour from green through black to orange-red when ripe.
They grow slowly up to 10 metres tall, specimens have been found as old as 650 years. D. cinnabari is an indicator species; it indicates changes in biotic and abiotic factors. It is also an umbrella species; A species which, if protected, will bring other species under its protection.
They have a widespread but fragmented distribution in the eastern and central limestone plateaus and Haggeher mountains of the island, growing in evergreen or semi-deciduous woodland.
D. cinnabari grow most effectively in areas frequently covered by mists, low cloud and with an almost constant drizzle (such as during a monsoon), and can be found at an altitude of 300-1550 metres above sea level.
D. cinnabari is adapted to survive in tough conditions of aridity and thin soil layers. Morning mists condense on the waxy, spikey, vertical leaves causing the water to be channelled down the branches and trunk of the tree to the roots below.
The dense, leafy crown of the tree provides considerable shade beneath it, reducing the evaporation of water that has fallen to the ground around the trunk and providing shade for the trees roots. This also enables a suitable habitat for other species to thrive directly below it, as well as other D. cinnabari seedlings to take root here and stay protected from constant full sunlight.
One legend states that Dracaena cinnabari grew from blood on the ground after a great battle between an elephant and a dragon (I assume the dragon won). Another legend states that D. cinnabari is related to the ancient dragon Ladon, who had one hundred heads and spoke in many different voices. When Juno (Queen of the Gods and mother of Mars) married, her mother Gaia gave her three golden apples and ordered Ladon to guard them in the Garden of the Hesperides. Hercules was ordered to steal the golden apples and so killed Ladon, and from Ladon’s blood sprang the Dracaena tree.
There is currently a market for Dragon’s Blood resin (the resin obtained from D. cinnabari bark) in traditional medicine as an antidiarrhetic, antiviral, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant to name just a few qualities. However, little research has been done to assess these alleged medicinal qualities of the dragon’s blood resin. It is also used as a dye, a varnish and in folk magic, ritual magic and alchemy. It is reported that Dragon’s blood can increase the effectiveness of neopagan witchcraft spells for sexuality, love, protection and banishment. The resin is also smoked as a narcotic, but the effects are very mild. In the past, the leaflets were used to form cordage, but in recent years these have been replaced with nylon rope. Leaflets can be cracked for goat fodder and fruit and the trunks can be used to make traditional beehives.
Dracaena cinnabari is classed as vulnerable. There has been a decline in the extent and quality of D. cinnabari due to the gradual drying of Socotra. Claims state that there has been a decrease in mist coverage, as well as it’s duration and continuity, going from a previously steady 4-5 month patch to a fragmented, shorter time frame. It is predicted that the potential habitat for D. cinnabari will be reduced by 45% by 2080 due to this increased aridity caused by climate change.
Although the market for Dragon’s blood resin has declined recently, it’s over-exploitation is still posing a threat to the species. The cells that produce the resin are non-regenerating, therefore rather than making multiple cuts on many different trees, leaving the tree susceptible to fungal infection, the entire tree is often harvested, thus an increase in demand for the resin would be disastrous to the species continuity.
The creation of traditional beehives from the trunks has also been viewed as a threat, as the trees have been felled in large numbers for export to the mainland. The majority of D. cinnabari trees on the island are very mature, there are very few seedlings and young trees due to the constant grazing of goats. Recent developments in infrastructure due to tourism and industrialisation of the island are posing a threat on the trees’ survival.
The Socotra Archipelago has many protections, among them are World Heritage Site status a well as being a Centre of Plant Diversity. As D. cinnabari is endemic to Socotra, this affords the tree considerable protection. Many initiatives are currently underway to enable sustainable development and biodiversity protection on the island. D. cinnabari has protection from international commercial trade as listed on Appendix II of CITES. In order to preserve D. cinnabari populations effectively, it’s natural regeneration needs to be urgently monitored and encouraged (for example through the tending and watering of seedlings by local communities), and the expansion of the Skund Nature Sancturary to cover important D. cinnabari habitats. Road construction and grazing needs to be limited in areas where D. cinnabari resides, and more D. cinnabari seedlings need to be planted.