A shielded spot next to the Dragon Tree

It’s mid April and still, after this harsh winter, only few plants are out. Even more of a surprise then to see the Dragon Tree Dracaena draco whose natural habitat is Macaronesia with a rather unusual and spiky head cover.

Dracaena Draco
Dracaena Draco

Look at those berries!
According to Wikipedia, Dragon Trees generally flower at night. However, in many pictures taken during the day, the flowers appear open… D. draco’s flowering season is in July and August. So I suppose the remaining berries are leftovers from last year. Or even the year before last year – Dean points out in this excellent post (have a read through the comments!) on how to grow D. draco that it takes a good year for the berries to ripen!

On Tenerife the fruits are made into wine, as is pointed out in this blog post. What does it taste like?
Apart from that I couldn’t find anything describing the berries as either a food or medicine source. Are they edible off the tree?

Dracaena Draco - fruits
Dracaena Draco - fruits

I stumbled upon an interesting fact about the berries when reading through the information provided by The Pacific Island Ecosystems at Risk (PIER) on D. draco: “…Dragon Tree fruits were the main food of an endemic, Dodo-like, flightless bird which is now extinct. Related to the pigeon, it was about the size of a turkey. Because of the extinction of the species, naturally occurring Dragon Trees are becoming very rare. The processing of Dragon Tree seeds through the digestive tract of this bird helped stimulate germination – without this aid, seed must be manually processed in order to sprout.”

Dragon’s blood
Dragon’s blood is harvested by cutting the bark or the leaves of D. draco. The at first colourless sap turns into a red resin when exposed to air and sunlight. The Dragon Tree is not the only natural source of dragon’s blood. No less than 17 different species are known to yield the red resin, including

  • D. cinnabari, a tree of up to 10m height native to Socotra;
  • several Croton species belonging to the Euphorbiaceae family;
  • some Daemonorops species who are part of a genus of rattan palms from Southeast Asia;
  • Pterocarpus officinalis from the Fabaceae family and the rattan palm Calamus rotang.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that a substance of that colour resulted in it being used to treat a big variety of diseases and illnesses: From treating scurvy and wounds externally to using it internally for diarrhea, mouth and stomach ulcers as well as respiratory diseases. Dragon’s blood looks back on a long history with first records dating from the 1st century BC.

Today, compounds in dragon’s blood from different natural sources are analyzed for their biological functions. González et al. (J Nat Prod. 2003) report on 20 isolated compounds, some of them with potent cytotoxic activities. Among them is dracorhodin, a major constituent of Daemonorops draco resin. Dracorhodin an analogues have been researched for their pharmaceutical potential, as they exhibit antimicrobial, antiviral, antitumor and cytotoxic activities (Shi et al., J Sep Sci. 2009 and citations therein).

A very recent study by Heo et al. (Food Chem Toxicol. 2010) indicates that a specific fraction of Daemonorops draco resin may have the potential for use as an anti-atherosclerosis agent.

Obviously, at this stage, further research is needed to fully evaluate the potential effects of dragon’s blood. As always with plants used in traditional medicine it will be interesting to see which effects can actually be scientifically proven and which additional uses may emerge!

The Dracaena draco tree at the Chelsea Physic Garden
The Dracaena draco tree at the Chelsea Physic Garden
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