Dracaena (Dragon’s Blood Trees) are distributed through the Canary Islands, Madeira, Cape Verde Islands and Morocco, tropical Africa, a few in Asia and one species in South America. There are probably around 60 species including trees with stiff leaves from arid areas and smaller shrubby plants with flexible broad leaves growing on the floor of rain-forests. However, numerous synonyms and cultivars are known, confusing the real number of species. Flowers carried on racemes or pannicles are followed by red or orange berries. Dracaena is closely related to Sansevieria.

The stems of Dracaena trees, especially Dracaena cinnabari from Socotra and Dracaena draco from the Canary Islands, exude a reddish sap (Dragon’s Blood) containing spirit-soluble resins, from cracks in the bark of the trunk. Resin collectors assist the process by enlarging the cracks.

Pliny the Elder believed that the Dragon Tree sprang up after a fight and mingling of blood between an elephant and a basilisk (dragon). Dragon’s Blood was used in the classical to medieval period in magic, alchemy and in medicine as an astringent. Unfortunately, there was some confusion with the bright red poisonous pigment cinnabar (mercuric sulphide). Dragon’s Blood is used in coloured varnishes and other products and was an essential ingredient for varnishing 18th century Italian (Stradivarius) violins. Dragon’s Blood from Dracaena cochinchinensis is a remedy in traditional Chinese medicine for stomach ulcers, blood clots and for closing wounds.

Resins from several other plants, especially the bark or fruit of the Rattan Palm Daemonorops draco syn. Calamus draco, and from South American Crotons, are also marketed as Dragon’s Blood, but with different chemical and other properties from the “original”. Caveat emptor !

These tough plants are frequently seen decorating shopping malls and offices and are popular as tough house-plants. However, they are not frost hardy. A dark-leaved species Dracaena marginata (Red Edged Dracaena) seems to be particularly popular with interior designers at present and is replacing the once-ubiquitous Yucca elephantipes.    Some Dracaenas are sensitive to fluoride, which causes leaf chlorosis. Watering with fluoridated water should be avoided.

Photographs courtesy of Katrina Lithgow