Here Be Dragons ~ Blood

Dragons or Dinosaurs. The notion of large dangerous scaly creatures that will either crush or burn and eat us, or confer strength and immortality, seems a fairly common element of the human psyche.

Though even when people sailed or wandered off the edge of the world, real dragons have unfortunately been seemingly hard to come across.

Which of course didn’t stop people identifying the dark red resin that exudes from the trunk of some ancient looking trees, as Dragon’s Blood. Nor did it stop them calling the red resin exuded by other trees the same thing too.

The Socotran Dragon’s Blood specimens in the garden alongside the Aloes I’ve been watching flower, piqued my interest in these plants again. Despite a range of blogs and commentary (pdf) already out there, I’ll attempt to string together a few noteworthy points and links to sites of interest.

The oldest known from classical times was the Dragon’s Blood tree of Socotra (or Zocotra) in the Arabian sea. Obtained from the Socotran endemic species Dracaena cinnabari. Also known as Indian Cinnibar in classical times it rates a mention in the 1st century tour and trade guide to the Red and Arabian Sea coast with the wonderful title of The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea. Along with Frankincense as an article of trade on the island they called Dioscorida and we now call Socotra. Some articles cite the mythology of these trees arising from the blood of Ladon the Dragon (Draco Hesepros) who was slayed, or perhaps not. While trying to protect the Golden Apple tree in the Garden of the Hesperides from Herakles (Hercules) who was undertaking his 11th task, to steal some golden apples.

It is a striking tree in what is the globally unique flora and landscape of Socotra. A remnant of the flora that apparently occured across northern Africa before the drier current times.

Dracaena cinnabari forest Socotra – via Postimage

The deep red resin that exudes from wounds on the trunk had been utilised locally and across the ancient world for medicine, dyeing and as a varnish ingredient. It is rarely used for medicine now, aside perhaps from the local folk traditions.

Though there are bigger problems for the trees these days. Whilst it seems historical demands and over harvesting contributed to a decline in production and increase in adulteration or substitution with other resins. Now broader human driven change in land use, grazing and climate change threaten a range of Socotra’s unique plants.

Dracaena cochinchinensis – via eFlora of China

In the early 15th century a related species was found on the Canary islands, Dracaena draco, much later found also in Morocco. This was utilised as a primary source of resin too. In China, Dragon’s Blood (Sanguis Draconis) was also being used in medicine since at least the 7th century, where it was also once called Unicorn Blood apparently. The local species from southern China, Vietnam and Cambodia, D. cochinchinensis, being tapped for the resin to the point it is also now vulnerable.

Overall it seems that all three of the tree type species are now vulnerable in their natural habitats. D. draco of the Canary Islands reduced to hundreds of individuals and the Socotran D. cinnibari populations diminishing in size and vigour over the centuries. D. cochincochinensis is listed as vulnerable in the Chinese flora as well.

In a world of seven billion plus people it is perhaps thankful that demand for this particular Dragon’s Blood seems at a historical low. It is perhaps also thankful that such unique and hardy trees have at least found themselves cultivated and appreciated all over the world, notwithstanding the pressing need to protect their natural habitats. D. cinnibari is a fairly common ornamental tree in Australia. D. draco is also in cultivation but I don’t know the status of the Asian species.

Dracaena cinnabari in the garden. They tend to grow tall and straight for a bit here and flower sometimes within 10 years. This one has regular inrease/decrease in stem girth, apparently due to periods of different rainfall. Nearly 5 m tall.

Wound in trunk of D. cinnabari showing some red resin

It seems one of the most common other Dragon’s Blood was the red resin obtained from the fruit of the Asian rattan palm Daemonorops draco. This one seems to be the most commonly traded resin these days around the world.

Daemonorops draco – via Wikipedia

Although this resin might look similar to Dracaena resins, they seems to have some different constituents and pharmacology. The Dracaena resins contain tannins, flavonoids and other constituents that have an overall astringent effect. Stopping bleeding and drying wounds and ulcers, with anti-microbial effects it was also traditionally used for treatment of diarrhoea and gastrointestinal illness. The Daemonorops resin contains some similar constituents such as flavonoids with sesquiterpenes that have anti-microbial effects, but limited previous research (pdf) suggests that it also might have an anticoagulant effect.

As is the case for many natural products there is actually quite little recent detailed research on these resins despite the advent of modern analytical methods. This one also appears to have enjoyed widespread use locally for centuries, then been traded globally. This seems the most likely source of hard red resins being marketed as Dragon’s Blood these days, including for use in Chinese medicines due to the vulnerable status of D. cochinchinensis.

Anyone who arrives here looking for Dragon’s Blood might also have been looking for another one, Sangre de Drago. This time it’s South American and generally comes as a liquid rather than tears or lumps of resin. From an altogether unrelated tree of the diverse genus Croton, in particular Croton lechleri. This one has only recently been widely known and available outside Amazonia. Despite generally being a liquid, more a latex really, the high levels of tannins make it a strong astringent which was widely used like the Dracaena resin to stop bleeding and dry ulcers or wounds, treat diarrhoea and gastrointestinal illness. The real stuff in my experience turns to a pale lather when rubbed on the skin or gums. Forming what some describe as a skin over wounds once it stops bleeding. There a bit more recent research on this one and some of the unique anti-microbial and wound healing constituents in it.

There are a few other plants producing red latex or resin that have variously been called or used as substitute for Dragon’s Blood, including apparently the kino from some Eucalyptus. Which was used for similar purposes in the local area for stopping bleeding, treating wounds, ulcers, diarrhoea and gastrointestinal diseases as well. The Leguminous tree Pterocarpus officinalis has also been the source of a resin and is also called Dragon’s Blood tree.

Like so many things botanical and human, it’s never quite as straightforward as you’d think.

No doubt there’s many other plants that produce blood-red resins as well. Resins seem to have been something that humans have had an interest in all over the world, for medicine, dyes and binding, though they are rarely more than a curiosity or incense in the modern world. They are a unique natural product that were formerly vital elements of human cultures.

D. cinnabari, Socotra – via Wikicommons

Further reading

Dragon’s blood: Botany, chemistry and therapeutic uses, Journal of Ethnopharmacology 115 (2008) 361–380  (pdf)

Dragons Blood, The Horticulturalist (2002)  (pdf)

This entry was posted in Botany, Ethnopharmacology, Nature and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Here Be Dragons ~ Blood

  1. Pingback: La naturaleza de Etiopía contada para europeos (4/5). Macizo Etíope | Diario de un copépodo

  2. dianabuja says:

    Most interesting – There is a very popular story in ancient Egypt, in Middle Egyptian (dialect) called “The Shipwrecked Sailor”. The sailor ends up on an island in the Red Sea on which lives a kindly dragon. Sokotra has been suggested as that island. Think I’ll blog about this tale, and refer to your blog on dragon’s blood.

  3. Pingback: It’s carnival time | Ian Lunt's Ecological Research Site

  4. Ian Lunt says:

    Great blog, thanks. I followed some of your links and Socotra seems like an amazing place. Cheers Ian

    • Nature and Science says:

      Thanks Ian
      Yes Socotra looks amazing
      A bit of a mission to visit there currently it seems, maybe always. Unique spot for birders, botanists and naturalists though.

  5. Anthropogen says:

    As always, another interesting post. Thanks for the consistently relevant and thought provoking content.

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