Dracaena cinnabari: The Socotra Dragon Tree

Source: Boris Khvostichenko, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/83/Socotra_dragon_tree.JPG. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic licence.

Of all the species of trees in the world, perhaps the most visually jarring is Dracaena cinnabari, the dragon tree of Socotra. Isolated from the rest of world (Socotra and its surrounding islands lie east of the Horn of Africa in the Indian Ocean and are part of Yemen to the north), the dragon tree is a remnant of sub-tropical forests that died out millions of years ago in the Pliocene epoch. Looking like an odd combination of mushroom, umbrella, and cranial tissue, the tree has long been valued for thousands of years for the bright red resin it produces when punctured, called, appropriately enough, dragon’s blood. Over the millennia, dragon’s blood has been used as a folk medicine, an ingredient in alchemy and witchcraft rituals, and red dye. It has been used to varnish violins, as toothpaste, as glue, as a diarrhoea cure, in photoengraving, as incense, to treat post-partum bleeding, and as body oil (not to mention being sold as knock-off red rock opium to unsuspecting dupes who have no idea what actual drugs look like; evidently dragon’s blood is to opium what oregano is to marijuana).

The dragon tree is a monocot: it doesn’t have xylem and phloem like most trees or branches extending from the trunk; everything grows from the very top much like a palm tree. The long, thin, stiff leaves it produces only grow from the tips of the youngest branches and are shed every three-to-four years. The trunk and branches are thick; when the bud at the end of branch stops growing, the branch splits into two, creating a dense, surreal branching patterns almost fractal in its appearance:

Dragon's Blood tree

Source: S. Geens, http://www.flickr.com/photos/stefangeens/3662436279/. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence.

It’s a very functional appearance, for the dense branching creates shade in the arid Socotra heat, sheltering the ground around the tree to reducing evaporation from the soil and provide optimal survival conditions for any seedlings beneath it. The small fruits it produces are generally eaten by birds that then disperse the seeds inside elsewhere.

The dragon tree is just one of the many amazing things one can find on Socotra. Over one-third of the 800 plant species on the island are only found on Socotra. Just take, for example, the desert rose. Or Dorstenia gigas, which sinks its roots directly into rock. You can thank plate tectonics for that; Socotra drifted away from the Africa-Arabia supercontinent about 20 million years or so ago, isolating its plant and animal life. Combine that with the arid conditions, and life here evolved in a completely different manner than anywhere else on earth (to say nothing of its human history, which is also quite interesting). The entire Socotra Archipelago was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, and the Republic of Yemen has been supported by various UN agencies and European countries in its efforts to protect Socotra and neighbouring islands. This protection is of great importance for the future of flora such as Dracaena cinnabari, as its habitat is expected to be reduced by 45% in the coming 70 years due to the effects of climate change.

Further Reading

Abrams, R. and A. Abrams (2008) .The Most Alien-Looking Place on Earth. Dark Roasted Blend, 4 September 2008. Available at http://www.darkroastedblend.com/2008/09/most-alien-looking-place-on-earth.html. Accessed 5 September 2010.

Adolt, R. and J. Pavlis (2003). Age structure and growth of Dracaena cinnabari populations on Socotra. Trees – Structure and Function 18(1): 45-53.

Gupta, D. et al (2007). Dragon’s blood: Botany, chemistry and therapeutic uses. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 115(3): 361-380.

Socotra Conservation and Development Programme Coordination Unit (2010). Socotra Conservation and Development Programme, Republic of Yemen. Available at http://socotraisland.org/. Accessed 5 September 2010.

UNESCO (2010). Socotra Archipelago. World Heritage. Available at http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1263/. Accessed 5 September 2010.

2 thoughts on “Dracaena cinnabari: The Socotra Dragon Tree

  • Oh man, I am in the middle of writing a post on Socotra for my image of the week and come across your great post. This works though, it'll force me to put a slightly different slant on it.

    Great minds, great minds 🙂

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