Dragon's blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari)

Also known as: Socotra dragon tree
GenusDracaena (1)
SizeHeight: up to 10 m (2)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

Arguably the most famous and distinctive plant of the island of Socotra, the evocatively named dragon’s blood tree has a unique and bizarre appearance, its upturned, densely-packed crown having the shape of an upside-down umbrella (1) (4) (5) (6). This evergreen species is named for its dark red resin, known as “dragon’s blood”, a substance which has been highly prized since ancient times. The dragon’s blood tree has been the major commercial source of this resin, and many myths surround the unusual trees (1) (2) (4) (5) (7) (8).

Like other monocotyledons, such as palms, the dragon’s blood tree grows from the tip of the stem, with the long, stiff leaves borne in dense rosettes at the end (4) (7). However, unlike many palms, the dragon’s blood tree branches at maturity to produce the characteristic umbrella-shaped crown (4) (5), with the leaves, which measure up to 60 centimetres long and 3 centimetres wide, remaining crowded at the branch tips (2). The trunk and branches are thick and stout, and show ‘dichotomous’ branching, in which each branch repeatedly divides into two (2).

The dragon’s blood tree is endemic to the island of Socotra, in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Yemen (1) (2). It has a fairly widespread but fragmented distribution, being most commonly found in the Haggeher mountains and adjacent limestone plateaux in the centre and east of the island (1) (6) (9).

This species is usually found at elevations of between 300 and 1,500 metres, preferring limestone-based soil and typically growing in evergreen or semi­-deciduous woodland (1) (6) (10). It is the only tree-forming Dracaena species to form dense woodland (5), and often appears to grow well in areas of solid rock pavement with extensive cracks, down which water and soil can flow after rains, so providing moisture and nourishment for the roots. The dragon’s blood tree’s pattern of distribution closely matches the areas of the island that experience frequent low cloud, rain and drizzle during the monsoon (1).

The dragon’s blood tree usually flowers in February (1), although the exact flowering period may vary with location (10). The flowers, which grow at the ends of the branches, consist of branched inflorescences bearing clusters of small, fragrant, white or greenish flowers (2) (4). The fruit, which takes five months to fully develop (1), is a small, fleshy berry that changes from green to black as it ripens, finally becoming orange-red, and containing between one and three seeds (2) (4) (7) (10). The berries may be eaten by birds or other animals, including domestic livestock, which then act as seed dispersers (1) (10).

The bizarre shape of the dragon’s blood tree helps it to survive in often arid conditions and on mountaintops with little soil. Morning mists condense on the waxy, skyward-pointing leaves, the water then channelling down the trunk to the roots. The huge, densely packed crown also provides highly effective shade, so reducing the evaporation of any water drops that fall to the ground, and giving shade to the tree’s roots. In addition, this shading allows seedlings to survive better beneath the adult tree than in full sun, which could be why many dragon’s blood trees grow close together (10) (11). Dragon’s blood trees are reported to be slow-growing and potentially long-lived (4) (5).

The “dragon’s blood” resin of this tree exudes naturally from fissures and wounds in the bark, and is commonly harvested by widening these fissures with a knife (4). The resin has had many different uses since ancient times, including to colour wool, varnishes and plaster, to decorate houses and pottery, and in ritual magic. It is also used for many medicinal purposes, including as an antiseptic, antiviral, antidiarrhetic, and for treating tumours, and in addition contains compounds with beneficial antioxidant properties (4) (8) (12).

Socotra remains on of the best preserved semi-tropical islands in the world, with most of its habitats still relatively intact (9) (13). However, a growing population and industrial and tourism development are putting increasing pressure on the vegetation through woodcutting, overgrazing and infrastructure development (9) (13) (14). The dragon’s blood tree is still relatively widespread, but its range has become reduced and fragmented, and many populations are suffering from poor regeneration (1) (4) (9) (10). Although human activities may have contributed to this decline, such as through overgrazing and the feeding of the flowers and fruit to livestock, the main threat to the species is thought to come from the gradual drying out of the Socotra Archipelago, a process that has been ongoing for the last few hundred years, but which may be exacerbated by global climate change (1) (6). In many cases, the trees are failing to flourish, and the extent and duration of the mist and cloud brought by the monsoon appears to be decreasing (1). Increasing aridity is predicted to cause a 45 percent reduction in available habitat for this species by the year 2080 (6).

Other potential threats to the dragon’s blood tree, such as harvesting of its resin and the use of its leaves to make rope, have decreased in recent years and are currently small-scale, but any future increase in demand could potentially lead to over-collection (1). More recently, some dragon’s blood trees have been felled to make beehives. Although this was generally condemned, it illustrates how the species may be threatened by a breakdown in traditional practices on the island (1).

As a result of its unique flora and fauna, the Socotra Archipelago is designated as a World Heritage Site, a WWF Global 200 Ecoregion, a Centre of Plant Diversity and an Endemic Bird Area, and it also lies within the Horn of Africa biodiversity ‘hotspot’ (5) (9) (13) (14). A range of initiatives are underway to support sustainable development and biodiversity management on Socotra (5) (14), and the dragon’s blood tree is considered both an important flagship species for conservation on the island, and an ‘umbrella species’, whose protection would also benefit many other plants and animals (1).

The dragon’s blood tree is given some protection from international commercial trade under the listing of all Dracaena species on Appendix II of CITES (3), but if its populations are to be effectively preserved, a variety of measures will be needed, including urgent monitoring of its natural regeneration (10) and the expansion of Skund Nature Sanctuary to cover important areas of habitat. Efforts should also be made to avoid new road construction in these areas, and to limit grazing pressure (6). Other recommended conservation measures include fencing against livestock, watering of seedlings in open areas, involving local communities in planting out seedlings, and establishing tree nurseries (15). The resin of this iconic tree offers huge potential for a range of medical and other uses (8), but appropriate management of the species and its habitat will be vital if it is to survive in the long-term.

To find out more about the dragon’s blood tree and about conservation on Socotra, see:

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  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2010)
  2. Eggli, U. (2001) Illustrated Handbook of Succulent Plants: Monocotyledons. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.
  3. CITES (March, 2010)
  4. Pearson, J. (2002) Dragons blood. The Horticulturalist, 11(2): 10-12.
  5. Socotra Governance and Biodiversity Project (March, 2010)
  6. Attorre, F., Francesconi, F., Taleb, N., Scholte, P., Saed, A., Alfo, M. and Bruno, F. (2007) Will dragonblood survive the next period of climate change? Current and future potential distribution of Dracaena cinnabari (Socotra, Yemen). Biological Conservation, 138: 430-439.
  7. Heywood, V.H. (1978) Flowering Plants of the World. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  8. Gupta, D., Bleakley, B. and Gupta, R.K. (2008) Dragon’s blood: botany, chemistry and therapeutic uses. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 115: 361-380.
  9. UNEP-WCMC: Socotra Archipelago, Yemen (March, 2010)
  10. Adolt, R. and Pavlis, J. (2004) Age structure and growth of Dracaena cinnabari populations on Socotra. Trees, 18: 43-53.
  11. PLANTS (Life) (BBC tx. 7 December 2009).
  12. Masaoud, M., Ripperger, H., Porzel, A. and Adam, G. (1995) Flavonoids of dragon’s blood from Dracaena cinnabari. Phytochemistry, 38(3): 745-749.
  13. WWF: Socotra Island xeric shrublands (March, 2010)
  14. Conservation International: Biodiversity Hotspots - Horn of Africa (March, 2010)
  15. Habrova, H., Cermak, Z. and Pavlis, J. (2009) Dragon’s blood tree - threatened by overmaturity, not by extinction: dynamics of a Dracaena cinnabari woodland in the mountains of Soqotra. Biological Conservation, 142: 772-778.