The Dracena tree (Dracaena cinnabari), otherwise known as the Dragon of Socotra is a truly magnificent specimen. The national symbol of Yemen (you can find it on the 20 Rial coins), it is one of the strangest trees on this planet. The Socotra region is a small archipelago of four islands, one larger than the other three, and it is here that most of the world’s population of the Dracena tree can be found. Socotra is situated about 350 kilometers south of Yemen, and since 2008 it is recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage centre.
It is a mysterious land with a rich history. Already known to the Greeks in the age of Hellenism, over the centuries this territory has been exposed to, and influenced by, many different cultures, coming not only from the Arabian Peninsula, but also from more distant worlds, such as India, Europe and Africa.
Its inhabitants are ethnic Yemeni, but also Arabic, Somali and Indian. They speak a language that is a mixture of Yemeni, Greek and Portuguese. A language that whispers stories of a world shaped by the comings and goings of civilization, just like the comings and goings of the tide.
Socotra is best known for the Dracaena Cinnabari or dragon blood tree. This is just one example, however, of the incredible variety of flora and fauna and the delicate balance of nature that can be found in this region.
The Dracena is also called the dragon blood tree, or tree of dragon’s blood. This nickname comes from the tree’s red coloured resin, which has been used in medicine since ancient times as well as a dye or incense. The Dracena is a succulent plant shaped like a “mushroom” or “umbrella”. This shape allows the Dracena to survive the arid climate that is to be found in the Socotra region for most of the year. The umbrella shaped leaves in the upper part of the plant provide shelter to the roots and shade from the mid-day sun, preventing them from drying out. This shape also makes it possible to catch the little moisture that rises at night and that, once condensed, is returned to the roots. This moisture constitutes the main “food” for the plant, allowing the Dracena to survive on an island where rainfall is very scarce.
The Dracaena grows very slowly in the forest and the youngest specimens we can find are at least 100 years old. Plants younger than these are only found at nurseries and botanical gardens.
Due to the phenomenon of global warming, the climate in Socotra is changing in such a way that Dracena trees are unable to access the vital condensation, which is their main food source. Climatical conditions better suited to the growth and survival of Dracena trees still exist, but at a higher altitude than where the last forests of Dracena are found. Unfortunately trees cannot walk and move higher and so the Dracena are slowly becoming one of the latest victims of global warming.
Attempts are underway to plant Dracena trees at and latitudes, but as mentioned above, it is a delicate plant with an extremely slow growth rate. As a consequence this project will take more than 10 years to complete.
When talking about the biodiversity of Socotra it is worth mentioning that that there are 825 species of plants, of which 37% exist only in Socotra. These plants, together with a number of species of snails, reptiles and birds are increasingly at risk as a result of global warming. The delicate ecological balance of this land is in deep trouble.
Here are some pictures of Dracena, a wonder that deserves to be admired.