Gardening Articles by Russell Fransham

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Dracaena draco - Dragon Tree

This article was published in Scene Magazine September 2004.

Dracaena draco is the fabled 'Dragon Tree' from the Canary Islands.

To coin a topically Olympic metaphor, it resembles a cabbage tree on steroids... chunky and over-muscled, but always the centre of attention wherever it grows.

The Dracaena (pronounced dra-seena) family are the closest relatives of the Cordylines which include our cabbage trees, and their similarities cause some name confusion. Most of the Dracaenas are tropical and are at best temperamental outdoors here, but the dragon tree, coming from a rocky, desert island home in the Atlantic, is much tougher. It grows slowly to enormous size and age in the Canary islands and was a source of great wealth in the 15th and 16th Centuries because its resinous red sap, known as 'Dragon's Blood', could be tapped and dried to make the basis of the finest varnish and is still used to make French polish. It was also highly valued in many Mediterranean cultures at that time for its medicinal and magical properties and its use in mummification processes.

Dragon's blood was more valuable than gold and the Spanish who controlled this industry promoted the belief that this amazing red stuff was dragon's blood to disguise the fact and location of these extraordinary trees.

Ancient Greek mythology in fact refers to the killing of 'Landon', the hundred-headed dragon, by Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides, on an island beyond the Atlas Mountains (Morocco) which clearly refers to the Canarys. The blood of the slain dragon is said to have flowed out onto the land, spawning these extraordinary trees which still bleed when injured.

The celebrated pirates of the Spanish Main in the 15th to the 17th centuries fought battles and sank ships to capture their cargo of dragon's blood. The huge ancient dragon trees were so badly damaged by centuries of abuse for their sap that they gradually declined and finally died. Paintings of them reveal that the biggest were vast, gnarled, weird looking trees whose trunks were over five metres through.

When the Spanish colonised the Canary Islands, a turkey-sized, flightless pigeon whose food was dragon tree fruit became extinct, and since then dragon trees have become very rare in the wild. Almost all existing dragon trees in their native habitat are now planted by people.

A 650 yr old dragon tree in the Canary islands. Each of the foliage heads is nearly a metre across.
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Here in NZ, dragon trees are easy to grow as long as the soil is loose and well-drained. They only branch when they flower, just like the common cabbage tree. If they never flower they never branch unless the top is cut off. And flowering only occurs every few years.

In a garden the dragon tree's dramatic shape makes it important that it is planted away from other trees so it stands out.

It always looks good among big rocks or in a beach-front location to be seen with the sea and sky beyond it. It thrives in sand and its leathery greyish sword-leaves are totally salt-resistant.

With its cultural history over the past centuries and its striking form, the dragon tree brings an aura of mystery and drama to the landscape... a tree that seems to imply dinosaurs, pirates and scary monsters just by being there.

(Text and photography copyright Russell Fransham 2004)