One day while wandering around the remote valley of El Tablado with Agnès, we met an old goatherd who had lived there all his life. Although neither of us had met him before, he insisted that we come inside his house for a glass of wine.
He told us that when he was a young man, over 400 people lived in the valley, now he said that there were only about 17 people left. Going into his home was like stepping back in time: if it was not for the presence of a fridge and television, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a hundred years ago.
As a naturopath and herbalist, one way of enjoying the varied landscape, is by walking with the aim of finding medicinal plants, growing unmolested in their natural habitat. When roaming about this enchanting Island, meditating on all the beautiful wild scenery, it is easy to be transfixed and intoxicated. The words of Caliban in Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' immediately spring to mind:
"Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again".
The dragon tree, Dracaena draco, a native species found in The Canary Islands, has a long and fascinating history. This distinctive plant has been revered by the local Guanches, for hundreds of years. They made warrior shields from the bark, beehives from the trunk and as we will see below, they used the blood red sap for medicine. It has also been used as a dye for colouring and a varnish for wood. The Tribal Leaders are said to have held important meetings underneath this tree, as it was seen to have distinction due to its mythological symbolism.
The dragon tree has the appearance of a tree, but is actually not a real tree at all, it is in fact a Mararonesian lily that can grow in height to 40 foot and can live to 400 years. Dracaena is a Greek word that means female dragon and there are different varieties of Dracaena found in various parts of the world. For instance, Dracaena cinnabari, found on the island of Socorata (Yemen), is the species mentioned by Pliny The Elder in his ‘Natralis Historica’. He claimed that the tree came into being due to a fight to the death between a dragon and an elephant. After their mutual demises, the tree arose from their spilt blood that became mixed together. All the different varieties of this plant found growing in different countries around the world, reveal features that can be envisaged to have more than a passing resemblance to both dragon and elephant, so it is perfectly understandable that Pliny The Elder propagated such a legend. Dracaena cinnabari was the variety that was used by the Romans for creating a medicine. Dracaena draco is the species that is indigenous in the Canary Islands. In the south of Gran Canaria, there are also examples of the extremely endangered local endemic species, Dracaena tamaranae (David Bramwell: Medicinal Plants Of The Canary Islands pub. Editorial Rueda 2004). According to the historian Juan José Santos, the best specimens of Draceaena draco are currently growing wild on the most westerly island of La Palma and I have been lucky enough to see many of them.
The Guanches (which is a general term for the indigenous population found in the Canary Islands) are specifically known as Benahoaritas on La Palma. They originally came from North Africa thousands of years ago and had a totally symbiotic relationship with both land and sea, living a natural and virtually stone-age existence for hundreds of years. Benahoarita culture differed noticeably from that on the neighboring Canary Islands. The abundant ancient rock engravings on La Palma are much more extensive than the scant archaeological remains on the other islands. Also the decoration found on the Benahoarita clay pottery vessels, show profuse ornamentation that is finely detailed the like of which has not been discovered on any of the other Islands. All this has led historians to postulate that the tribes that originally populated La Palma had cultural differences from the Guanches of the other islands. Some historians have concluded that the Benahoaritas came from tribes such as the Baniurae, Baniouri or Baniouras whose origins have been traced to north-western Morocco. It is most likely that they travelled by sea from there and it has been estimated that they may have arrived in La Palma around 500 BC. Certainly both the tribal names and also their art and pottery have a lot in common with each other (Juan José Santos: La Palma History Landscapes and Customs pub. Romero 2006). When the Spanish conquered La Palma in 1492, the island was already divided by the Benahoaritas into 12 fiefs or cantons, with most running from the coast to the summit. This division of territory was the most complex of any found in the Canary Islands and has continued with little change, until the present day. Dracaena draco was first mentioned in writing in 1402 (Boutier and Le Verrier 1872). It is a slow growing plant and every 10-15 years, it produces panicles of greenish-white flowers that then turn into roundish reddish-orange fruits. The resin used as a traditional medicine is extracted by lancing the bark.
Medicinally, Dracaena draco has been used as a 'cure all'. The effectiveness of its action is broad spectrum. It can be used both internally and topically. The dried and ground powder is used to strengthen gums and keep the mouth healthy. Current commercial usage includes it being incorporated in anti-aging cream. It can be applied as a haemostatic and vulnerary to stop bleeding and to heal wounds such as skin ulcers. Due to its antimicrobial properties it can be effectively applied on other skin conditions such as eczema and dermatitis. It is astringent with drying properties and is intrinsically anti-inflammatory, leading to its use in diarrhoea and stomach pain. Also it is an antioxidant and an analgesic. In 2004-2005 Liv et al. demonstrated in trials that ‘dragon's blood’ could suppress voltage-gate sodium channels, thus reducing the pain stimulus. It is of little wonder why the indigenous population of the Canary Islands held it in such high regard. Some recent research has concentrated an interest in the potential anti cancer properties of the resin (Rossi et al 2003, Lopes et al 2004, Gonzalez and Valerio 2006). Recent in vitro laboratory spectrometry experiments on extracts taken from the leaf and fruit showed that the leaf may have an important role to play in cancer treatment. The leaf was found to have greater antiproliferative and cytotoxic effects on human cancer cells than that of the fruit (Valente et al University of Porto 2012). The plant also displays a capacity to act as its own physician using its own resin to self heal after damage by pathogenic diseases, insect infestation and mechanical trauma. The resin dries quickly after such assaults and makes a good protective scab.
Dracaena draco, has been reported as a vulnerable species, especially in the wild. This is probably due to overexploitation in the middle ages. Even so, it is possible to easily locate specimens in the countryside. The young wild 'trees' are found in inhospitable nooks and crannies and on the hot, humid, steep sided slopes of the 'Barrancos'. More mature, cultivated specimens can be seen in parks and gardens and less stark surroundings, all around the Canary Islands. One fine example is to be found in the gardens of a traditionally built house, just outside the town of Los Sauces in the north east of the island of La Palma. The owner remembers her grandmother telling her that it was already a large ‘tree’ when she herself was still a little girl many years ago. In those days, it was being used as a traditional medicine by her family up until circa 1910. After which its usage began to decline, due to the increased marketing of 'modern' pharmaceutical products.