Sixty-two miles west of Morocco, Africa in the Atlantic Ocean are the nearest of the Canary Islands, where in 1402 the fantastical Dragon Tree (Dracaena draco) was first identified. Dragon trees are native to the Canary Islands, Cape Verde Islands, Madeira and, in a recent discovery, limited stands in western Morocco. Blood-red sap, often called ‘dragon’s blood’ oozes from the tree when bark is cut or bruised. This unusual plant in the asparagus family (Asparagaceae) has a distinctive growth pattern: Dragon Trees typically grow for ten to fifteen years before flowering and then develop two or more branches where flowering has occurred. Before you enter the Dragon Tree Forest, take time to appreciate from a distance how this pattern-a decade of growth, followed by flowering and then branching- creates the unusual mushroom shape of D. draco. Dragon Trees can make fun houseplants, though they only become large, branched specimens when grown in the ground.
The fleshy orange fruits of Dragon Trees are about the size of a small marble. You may see some of these seeds in the motor court, where the crows eat the flesh and then spit them out. This relatively large size limits the pool of species that might germinate and disperse them. It is believed that large extinct birds related to the dodo may have once eaten the seeds, though it has yet to be proven. Passage through the birds’ digestive tract facilitated germination of the seeds. Given the difficulty of seed dispersal after the extinction of these avian helpers, along with habitat loss in its native environment, the trees are considered vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.
As you venture into the Dragon Tree Forest, look for evidence of the tree’s ‘dragon blood’ resin on fallen leaf scatter. Blood-red sap colors the once-attached side of its fallen, lance-shaped leaves. Used by the original Guanche people of the Canary Islands in a mummification process, dragon’s blood used to be a key ingredient for the varnish in Stradivari violins, and currently has a much more mundane use as an ingredient in a furniture polish. The ‘dragon blood’ also figures in Greek mythology. To bring three golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, Hercules had to slay a hundred-headed dragon whose blood sprang up as the Dragon Tree.
This outstanding tree dates to Kinton Stevens’ nursery in the 1890s. Its thick trunk and crown of spreading, multiple-branched limbs are found only in very old plants of this extremely slow-growing species. Similar to palm trees, Dragon Trees do not have the structures which allow for outward growth of its trunk as it ages, effectively meaning that there are no rings to calculate a tree’s age. The age of a Dragon Tree can best be estimated by the number of times it has branched, calculating ten years for every two branches.
If you allow your eyes to follow the branch of a larger tree, you are likely to spot downward reaching growth. These unusual features are aerial roots. A unique process to the modern-day plant kingdom, these aerial roots can allow a Dragon Tree branch to eventually break off from the tree and grow into its own specimen.
Notable species: Chilean wine palms and other large palms that date to the time when this was Stevens’ trial garden.