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Storied history of ‘dragon tree’ rooted in mythology

I don’t know what it is, but almost every time I get excited about a certain tree, palm or plant, I usually find out that it comes from the Canary Islands, Madeira, the Azores or South Africa.The Dracaena draco, or dragon tree, is one of these amazing plants and it has an incredible history stemming from ancient times. Found in the Canary Islands, this tree is the natural symbol of the island of Tenerife.

Tenerife is the largest of the volcanic islands in the Canary Island chain and is under Spanish rule located just off the coast of North Africa, where the majority of similar species can be found. A few other similar Dracaenas can be found in southern Asia and one in tropical Central America.

I love this tree for many reasons. It is amazing to look at. With its beautiful silver trunk and statuesque green foliage, this Dracaena is full of many secrets and the subject of myth and folklore going back centuries to before the Romans.

According to legend, the dragon tree is related to Ladon, an ancient dragon that had 100 heads and spoke in as many different voices.

When Juno — the queen of the gods and mother of Mars — was married, her mother Gaia gave her three golden apples as a gift and set the dragon Ladon to guard them in the Garden of the Hesperides.

Herakles, also known as Hercules, intending to steal the golden fruit in the garden, killed the dragon Ladon and from this creature’s blood sprang forth the Dracaena or dragon tree. As a reward for giving his life in protection of the golden apples, Juno then placed Ladon amongst the stars in the constellation Draco that even now wraps itself around the north star magically boosting the power of defense, war and new works.

Dramatizing this legend, the sap from this tree is an incredible blood red color, full of red pigments and resins very nearly resembling the blood of a dragon. The Guanches, who worshiped this tree, revered a specimen in Tenerife in the 1400s said to be thousands of years old, which was finally destroyed by a storm in 1868.

The resins in this “dragons blood” have been coveted for centuries. It was used by Stradivarius to color, enrich and create the resonance so well known in his famous violins. The natives also used it in the process of mummification. They made shields from its bark, colored their hair red with the fragrant resinous sap and hollowed out dead trees for beehives.

During their conquests, the Spanish finally over-harvested this tree for its valuable assets until it became a protected species, as it is known today.

Today, the largest specimen in the world known as El Drago Milenario, or the 1,000-year-old dragon, exists in northwest Tenerife at Icod de los Vinos. Its age was estimated in 1975 to be between 250 and 365 years old with a 45-foot-wide canopy and a huge ornate trunk base.

Recently I was involved with moving a fairly large specimen from Santee to Carmel Valley. The branches of these trees are very thick and heavy with water. Unlike most palms that can be laid down, this tree will not support its own weight when positioned horizontally and will crush its own branches as a result.

In this case, we wrapped the entire trunk in carpet and shrink wrap to protect it before loading the tree onto a low boy flatbed trailer. Because the bark of this tree is so thin, it is very fragile to the touch; readily showing the strap or chain marks left on the trunk from the forces applied during harvesting and transport.

It is a very slow-growing tree, difficult to move and thusly very expensive when looking for a large specimen. Dracos take 10 to 20 years to first blossom and reach three to four feet in height of trunk.

Here in town we have some very beautiful specimens in Swami’s gardens. Other huge specimens can be seen in the La Jolla Seaside Park and on Coronado Island in the Baby Del’s Gardens.