If you wander into the forest of dragon trees (Dracaena draco) across the motor court from the front of Lotusland’s Main House, you will find one outstanding specimen that dates to the 1890s and the Stevens’ nursery. This venerable tree has the thick trunk and crown of spreading, multiple-branched limbs that are found only in very old plants of this extremely slow-growing species. Dragon trees are native to the Canary Islands, Cape Verde Islands, Madeira and, in a recent discovery, limited stands in western Morocco.
The dragon tree figures in Greek myth: one of the labors of Hercules was to bring back three golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides. To do this he had to slay the dragon Landon, the Garden’s hundred-headed guardian. From Landon’s blood sprang the plants called dragon trees, whose thick, red resinous sap is known as “dragon’s blood.” Used by the original Guanche people of the Canary Islands in a mummification process, dragon’s blood currently has a much more prosaic use as an ingredient in a hard, shiny furniture polish.
The pea-sized, fleshy orange fruits of the dragon tree were the favored food of a turkey-sized, flightless bird related to the dodo. Passage through the bird’s digestive tract facilitated germination of the seeds and effected their dispersal. With the bird’s extinction following European colonization, very little natural reproduction takes place and dragon trees are now an endangered species.
Dragon trees are frost-sensitive and require very well-drained soil. Although they can be grown as container plants indoors, they only become large, branched specimens when grown for many years in the ground. Branching occurs following flowering and it can take up to 10 to 15 years before the trees flower for the first time.