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Dye Plants III: The Mythical Dragon’s Blood

Updated on July 20, 2012
The oldest known dragon tree, in Tenerife,  Canary Islands.
The oldest known dragon tree, in Tenerife, Canary Islands.
Detail on the Canary Islands dragon tree fruits.
Detail on the Canary Islands dragon tree fruits.
A big and old dragon tree, Darcaena drago, in Graciosa Island, Azores.
A big and old dragon tree, Darcaena drago, in Graciosa Island, Azores.
Dragon tree leaf and the red resin.
Dragon tree leaf and the red resin.

Red as Blood

The term dragon’s blood has been applied since ancient times to the red coloured dye extracted from the resin of various plant species of distinct genera: Calamus rotang, Dracaena sp, Daemonorops sp, and Pterocarpusofficinalis. It has also been applied to the dye extracted from the latex of species of genus Croton. These species are native of various geographical origins from South America, Middle East to Southeast Asia. However, of all these species the Canary Islands dragon tree or drago, Dracaenadraco L., and the Socotra dragon tree or dragon blood tree, Dracaena cinnabariBalf., were the most important economically that contributed to human settlement in their remote origins. They were exploited and their resin became for many decades the main export products of their native origin. Thus, these two species will be the main focus of this hub.

The Real Origin

The expression dragon’s blood has often been used in ancient times to name red dyes of very different origin and in fact it seems that it was used to name everything that resembled red blood. In ancient Rome, the term was often used indistinctively whether referring to the very poisonous mineral cinnabar (mercury sulfide) or to the resin from Socotra dragon tree, Dracaena cinnabari. At that time and for many years the origin of such resin was a very well kept secret with many myths and obscure ideas associated. As the names implies, the tree is endemic to the island of Socotra, south of the Arabian Peninsula, in the Indian Ocean. This resin was traded to ancient Europe via the Incense Road and was the main source of dragon’s blood in ancient Rome. Apart from its use in dyeing it was also used in medicine to treat respiratory and gastrointestinal problems mostly. Hence, in the Mediterranean basin, it was held by early Greeks, Romans, and Arabs to have medicinal properties. Dioscorides and other early Greek writers described its medicinal uses and it was sold under the name sanguis draconis, Latin for dragon’s blood.

Socotra dragon tree.
Socotra dragon tree.

Due to its secrete and remote origin, the main source of dragon’s blood until the fifteen century, Dracaena cinnabari was only formally described by the Scottish botanist Isaac Bayley Balfour, in 1880, who named it due to its resemblance of its resin to mineral cinnabar. Socotra dragon tree, Dracaena cinnabari, like all species of its genus is well adapted to very harsh and arid conditions. Like its related Atlantic species, Dracaena draco,it grows very slowly reaching the dimensions of a small to medium tree up to 15 m high with dark green leaves at the end of its youngest branches., giving the tree a strange umbrella shape.

Socotra Island, east of Somalia

When the Portuguese first arrived at the North Atlantic islands they found a strange looking tree whose resin was also red as blood, the Canary Islands dragon tree or drago, Dracaena draco L. Due to its resemblance and properties similar to the resin extracted from Dracaena cinnabari, it soon became one of the main products of export from those islands to Europe. Hence, it competed to the very old dragon’s blood once used by Greeks and Romans. The dragon’s blood from the Atlantic islands reached high prices during European renaissance and was thus one of the factors that contributed for the early days of European settlement of the Azores, Cape Verde, Madeira, and Canary Islands. Today, wild Canary Islands dragon tree, Dracaena draco L., is almost extinct in Madeira archipelago, with some isolated populations in Azores and Cape Verde and in much less extent in southern Moroccan coast. However, is threatened by habitat loss although it is also cultivated as a popular ornamental plant mostly. Dracaena draco does not differ much from its East African cousin Dracaena cinnabari, as monocotyledons species like plams, and from the dame family as asparagus Asparagaceae, they both present an unusual secondary growth that resembles the tree ring formation in trees. However, it does not serve well on determining the age of very old specimens of Dracaena sp.

Canary Islands

Dragon's blood from Daemonorops draco.
Dragon's blood from Daemonorops draco.
Rattan palms, Daemonorops draco.
Rattan palms, Daemonorops draco.

With the arrival of Spaniards and Portuguese to Central and South America, the resin of Pterocarpus officinalis and the latex of several species of genus Croton that were already used by native population were also used as alternative sources of dragon’s blood, due to their vivid red colour and medicinal use.

Extraction and Dyeing Processes

The resin of the dragon trees, containing 90% of phenolic compounds, is obtained collecting it from incisions in the stem of the plant. In contact with air, namely with oxygen, it is oxidized and forms a bright red gum that gave origin to one of the very first enduring and very successful marketing brands – dragon’s blood. It was mostly sold as odorless, tasteless, hard, brittle and flammable powder which could then be dissolved in water, alcohol, ether and oils. It was also used in the preparation of alcoholic varnishes of ruby red colour used to stain wood, such as of the famous Stradivarius violins. Today dragon’s blood resin is still used as in the past, but for making varnishes mostly. It most common source is the rattan palms of genus Daemonorops from Southeast Asia.

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    • Taxusbaccata profile imageAUTHOR

      Paulo Cabrita 

      5 years ago from Germany

      Thank you Marsei. I am glad you liked it and found it useful. Thanks for your vote.

    • Marsei profile image

      Sue Pratt 

      5 years ago from New Orleans

      Now I know where the reddish tint in some wood stains comes from. I found this very interesting and voted it up (and interesting)! Lots of good information.

      marsei

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