En­ter the dragons

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden - Mark Grif­fiths is edi­tor of the mul­ti­vol­ume New Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety Dic­tio­nary of Gar­den­ing

ARICH-RED resin used in medicine, mum­mi­fi­ca­tion, paint­ing and var­nish, dragon’s blood was one of the an­cient world’s most pre­cious plant sub­stances. The best prod­uct was sap har­vested from trees whose branches were scaly, snaking, crested with dag­ger-like leaves and sprang, like writhing necks, from mas­sive trunks. They were thought to re­sem­ble multi-headed dragons; per­haps even to be some mon­ster such as Hy­dra or Ladon, which, upon be­ing hero­ically slain, had meta­mor­phosed into vegetable form but re­mained ca­pa­ble, if wounded, of shed­ding magic blood. We now know that they were

Dra­caena, chiefly D. cinnabari from So­co­tra and pos­si­bly also

D. ser­ru­lata and D. om­bet, from Ara­bia, Egypt and the Su­dan, but there was no such clar­ity in An­tiq­uity. So re­mote were these trees’ habi­tats, and so pro­tec­tive were the traders in their blood, that in­for­ma­tion was scant and fa­bles pro­lif­er­ated. That was still the case as late as the 15th cen­tury, when the Span­ish colonised the Ca­naries and the Por­tuguese the Cape Verde Is­lands.

There, they found a species that ac­corded with the seem­ingly fan­tas­tic tales of Ara­bian dragon trees told by trav­ellers of the In­cense Road. They saw that the Guanches, the Ca­naries’ abo­rig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants, used its red resin in medicine, em­balm­ing and decoration and that they revered spec­i­mens of vast size and age as liv­ing gods. The colonists called this tree ‘drago’. Botanists styled it Draco ar­bor un­til 1767, when Lin­naeus re­named it Dra­caena draco.

At last, Europe had a re­li­able source of dragon’s blood, a prod­uct that would re­main medic­i­nally im­por­tant into the 18th cen­tury and find other ap­pli­ca­tions—among them, help­ing to give Stradi­vari’s in­stru­ments their colour. How­ever, a dif­fer­ent art bears wit­ness to this tree’s ini­tial cul­tural im­pact. To­wards the end of the 15th cen­tury, North­ern Euro­pean painters and

print­mak­ers be­gan plant­ing D. draco in re­li­gious pictures. My favourite is the im­pres­sively life-like fruit­ing ex­am­ple in Martin Schon­gauer’s The Flight into Egypt, en­graved be­tween 1470 and 1490. Bet­ter-known and painted slightly later is the flow­er­ing spec­i­men that Bosch placed promi­nently be­side Adam in Eden, in the left panel of The Gar­den of Earthly De­lights.

Prob­a­bly, the dragon tree was in­cluded in these pictures due to its an­cient as­so­ci­a­tion with the Mid­dle East. A date palm was usu­ally il­lus­trated near it, so sus­te­nance was paired with heal­ing, both God-given, par­a­disi­a­cal. How­ever, all such in­stances are iden­ti­fi­ably D. draco and they were cre­ated soon af­ter Europe made that species’ ac­quain­tance.

By the 1500s, D. draco was be­com­ing the show­piece of princely gar­dens in Spain and Portugal. A cen­tury later, it was a prized rar­ity in North­ern Europe, where gar­den­ers learnt to bring it in­doors for the win­ter.

In Britain, it even­tu­ally proved a glasshouse stal­wart. The Victorians were fond of stand­ing pot­ted spec­i­mens out­side on ter­races in sum­mer or of plung­ing them in tem­po­rary sub­trop­i­cal bed­ding schemes. Then, it fell from pop­u­lar­ity, sup­planted by far hardier and faster-grow­ing Cordy­line aus­tralis.

But D. draco isn’t re­ally re­place­able in ap­pear­ance or his­tory, which is why this leg­endary plant de­serves to make a re­turn. Ex­otic and clas­si­cal, it’s a noble ad­di­tion to bright frost-free conservatories and sun-filled in­te­ri­ors, flour­ish­ing in beds and tubs of gritty, acid to neu­tral loam, lov­ing ne­glect and loathing fuss, over-wa­ter­ing and -feed­ing.

Even as a ju­ve­nile, it has dra­matic and statue-like pres­ence, a swirl of sea-green swords around a stout colum­nar stem. As it can be hard to find in Britain, I’d look to two over­seas nurseries that are good at ship­ping: À l’om­bre des Figu­iers in Brittany (www.achat-vente-palmiers. com) and Ca­narius Plants in Tener­ife (www.ca­narius.com).

Both firms also of­fer young­sters, grown from legally col­lected seed, of a dragon tree that’s found cling­ing to the sides of ravines deep in Morocco’s An­ti­at­las Moun­tains. Its leaves are shorter and more up­right than those of its cousin from the Ca­naries and it’s thought to be hardier, al­though I wouldn’t risk mine in a freeze.

The Ber­bers who live near this spec­tac­u­lar cliff-dweller have long called it aj­gal, ‘the un­reach­able’, and so it was named D.

draco subsp aj­gal when it came to sci­ence’s at­ten­tion. As­ton­ish­ingly, that only hap­pened as re­cently as 1996. Where plants are con­cerned, ours is still an age of dis­cov­ery.

Here be dragons: D. draco trees were revered as liv­ing gods

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