Dragon blood island

Socotra, the alien island wedged between the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden, is home to the dragon blood tree: a source of dye, paint, medicine, varnish, and magic.

Dragon blood tree, Socotra
Rod Waddington, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Unique ecosystems flourish on islands. Free from continental interference, peculiar species emerge and evolve. In some of the larger and more remote island chains, biology can branch off into interesting directions. In New Zealand / Aotearoa before humans arrived, birds reigned supreme. The Galápagos is the home of giant tortoises and marine iguanas. But the islands of the Socotra Archipelago have been called some of the most alien in the planet.

Socotra used to be part of the Arabian Peninsula, but split off about sixty million years ago and has been charting its own evolutionary path since then. As a result, it has around seven hundred species of plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. A 1st century CE text for sailors and explorers describes the island this way:

It is called Dioscorida, and is very large but desert and marshy, having rivers in it and crocodiles and many snakes and great lizards, of which the flesh is eaten and the fat melted and used instead of olive oil. The island yields no fruit, neither vine nor grain.

Periplus of the Erythraean Sea

The most striking species in Socotra is the dragon’s blood tree. Its branches grow up and out and form a mushroom-like crown; its leaves only grow on the farthest extremes of the branches. Cut the tree and it exudes a dark red sap with some unusual and valuable properties. This is the famed dragon’s blood.

The ancient Romans and Greeks loved dragon’s blood for its medicinal properties and also used it as a dye and paint. Dragon’s blood was supposedly one of the ingredients for the varnish on Stradivarius instruments. Dragon’s blood today can come from many different trees, from South America, India, and elsewhere. It is still used in Chinese folk medicine and for various neopagan and New Age spells.

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