Dragon Blood Trees bleed a red sap, despite their centuries-old age

Dragon Blood Trees bleed a red sap, despite their centuries-old age

The Dragon's Blood tree, a symbol of the island of Socotra in Yemen, recounts the ancient tale of Cain and Abel, where the first drop of blood between the brothers is said to have spawned this remarkable species. Believed to grow at altitudes ranging from 2000 to 5000 feet above sea level, these trees thrive in the rocky terrain of Hajhar, Ayhavt, and the island's mountainous regions. Legends claim that these trees possess the power to ward off jinn and expel ghosts and evil spirits from both humans and animals.

The unique appearance of the Dragon's Blood tree includes an upturned, densely packed crown resembling an upright umbrella. Unlike typical monocots, Dracaena exhibits secondary growth, with growth zones akin to tree rings seen in dicots. The leaves are situated solely at the tips of the youngest branches, shedding every 3 to 4 years before new leaves emerge simultaneously. Branching occurs when growth of the terminal bud halts, often due to flowering or external stressors like herbivory.

Its small fleshy berries, containing between 1 to 4 seeds, transform from green to black, then orange when ripe, attracting birds like Onychognatus species for dispersal. The seeds, around 4–5 mm in diameter and weighing roughly 68 mg on average, produce a deep red resin known as "dragon's blood."

Similar to palms, the Dragon's Blood tree grows from the stem's tip, with long, stiff leaves forming dense rosettes at the end. As the tree matures, it branches out to create an umbrella-shaped crown, showcasing thick, stout trunks and dichotomous branching where each branch repeatedly divides into two sections.

The dragon's blood tree typically blooms around March, although flowering timing can vary by location. Flowers emerge at the ends of branches, forming inflorescences with small clusters of fragrant, white, or green blossoms. The fruit takes five months to ripen fully, starting as a green fleshy berry that turns black and ultimately matures to an orange-red hue, containing one to three seeds. Birds and other animals eat these berries, aiding in their dispersal.

The unique shape of the dragon's blood tree is an adaptation to survive in arid conditions with minimal soil, such as mountaintops. Its large, densely packed crown provides shade, reducing evaporation and supporting the growth of seedlings beneath adult trees, which is why these trees often grow closely together.

The first documented description of Dracaena cinnabari was by Lieutenant Wellsted of the East India Company during a survey of Socotra in 1835. Initially named Pterocarpus draco, it was formally described and renamed Dracaena cinnabari by Scottish botanist Isaac Bayley Balfour in 1880. Of the 60 to 100 Dracaena species, D. cinnabari is one of only six that grow as trees.

Despite the intact ecological habitats, the dragon's blood tree faces increasing threats due to industrial and tourism development, including logging, overgrazing, and woodcutting. Human activities such as feeding flowers and fruits to livestock have further reduced populations. Additionally, the Socotra Archipelago's gradual drying out over centuries has impacted tree health, with mist and cloud duration decreasing. Predictions suggest a 45% reduction in suitable habitat for D. cinnabari by 2080 due to increasing aridity.

Other threats include resin harvesting and leaf use for rope-making, with some trees even being used for beehives despite regulations prohibiting this practice. The largest and best-preserved stand of D. cinnabari, covering around 540 hectares on the limestone plateau named Rokeb di Firmihin, is expected to decrease in tree numbers due to insufficient natural regeneration in the coming decades.

The crimson red resin of the dragon's blood tree, highly valued historically and still used today, finds application as a dye, medicine, ornamental item, adhesive, breath freshener, and in cosmetics like lipstick. Its association with dragon's blood in ritual magic and alchemy adds to its cultural significance. Scottish botanist Isaac Bayley Balfour categorized three resin grades based on appearance and value, with D. cinnabari once believed to be the primary source of dragon's blood until other plants replaced it during medieval and renaissance periods.

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