Dragon tree (Dracaena draco)

Spanish: Drago De Canarias, Sangre De Drago
KingdomPlantae
PhylumTracheophyta
ClassLiliopsida
OrderLiliales
FamilyDracaenaceae
GenusDracaena (1)
SizeLength: 6 – 9 m (2)
Leaf length: 50 – 60 cm (6)

The dragon tree is classified as Vulnerable (VU A1abcde) on the IUCN Red List 2003 (1). It is listed as Endangered in the Red Data Book of Cape Verde (2).

The name of this beautiful tree has mythical origins: for his 11th labour, Hercules had to bring back three golden apples from the garden of the Hespérides, which is guarded by Landon, the hundred-headed dragon. Hercules killed Landon and his blood flowed out over the land, which began to sprout ‘dragon’ trees (2). The tree exudes ‘dragon’s blood’ – a red sap – when cut (3).

The trunks are long and slender and the leaves are prickly (4). The flowers are greenish-white and have a sweet smell (6). The orange-brown berries are a little smaller than a cherry, pointed and covered in a red, resinous substance, and taste sweet (4) (6).

Populations totalling a few hundred trees are found on five of the seven Canary Islands, in addition to two individuals on Madeira Island, Portugal and populations in Cape Verde, Morocco and about 50 – 80 trees on the Azorean Islands, particularly on Ilha das Flores (1) (6).

The dragon tree is found in dry forests (1). On Madeira and in the Azores, the plant grows in steep coastal cliffs usually below 200 m altitude. In the Canaries, it can be found in inaccessible cliffs from 100 - 600 m altitude, and in Morocco and Cabo Verde it grows high in the mountains (6).

The dragon tree is extremely slow-growing, taking 8 - 11 years to reach just 2 – 3 feet, when it begins to flower. Flowering occurs almost simultaneously on the Canary Islands, taking place only every 15 years (6). The flowering causes the stem to branch, resulting in a highly branched tree which can be aged according to the number of branches. The oldest individual is thought to be more than 650 years old (5).

The sap of this species is used as colouring matter for varnishes, tooth-pastes, tinctures and plasters (4).

This species has undergone an extreme decline because of complex problems. It is said that its seeds used to germinate as a result of being eaten by a flightless bird and passing through the bird’s gut, but following the extinction of this bird, the seeds can nolonger germinate without human manipulation. However, this is a hypothesis only, and cannot be proved. There are even a few young trees in the Azores and in Morocco, despite the absence human seed preparation (6). Serious threats include the introduced rats that feed on the seeds and the goats and rabbits that graze on seedlings and young plants, preventing growth (6). Habitat loss for agriculture and because of fires has also contributed to declines (1).

This species is widespread in cultivation around the world, as well as being listed in regional, governmental and international legislation (1), but if it is to survive in the wild, conservation plans to educate and to create a network of protected areas must be put into practice (2).

For further information on this species see:

Authenticated (07/02/2005) by Dr Hanno Schaefer, University of Munich.

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2004)
    http://www.redlist.org
  2. Global Trees Campaign (June 2010)
    http://www.globaltrees.org/tp_dracaena.htm
  3. Schaefer, H. (2005) Pers. comm.
  4. Barrera, J.B., Sánchez-Pinto, L., Padrón, J.I., Hernández, J.C., León, F. and Gonzalez, A.G. (2004) Flavans of dragon’s blood from Dracaena draco and Dracaena tamaranae. Biological Systematics and Ecology, 32: 179 - 184.
  5. Botanical (November, 2004)
    http://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/d/dragon20.html
  6. The Mediterranean Garden Society (November, 2004)
    http://www.mediterraneangardensociety.org/plants/Dracaena.draco.cfm