A small rock in the Atlantic

All about the island of La Palma, in the Canaries.

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Friday, 30 October 2009

Dragon trees

Dragon tree at sunset

One of the most exotic looking plants on La Palma are the dragon trees.

The latin name is Dracaena draco Although they grow anything up to 12 metres tall, botanically, dragon trees aren't trees. They don't have annual rings, for one thing. Actually, they're classified in the same order (Asparagales) as garlic and asparagus, although they look nothing like each other. In fact, dragon trees look mostly like broccoli on steroids.

They grow throughout the Canary Islands, and also in Cape Verde, the Azores, Maderia, and western Morocco.

Because they don't have annual rings, it's hard to tell their age. The trunk branches every time they flower, which isn't every year. So you can tell how often a trees has flowered, and make an educated guess at its age that way. The tree in the photo has flowered just twice. The oldest ones seem to be about 650 years old.

The resin is reddish. In ancient Roman times, people used to dry it and sell it to alchemists as dragon blood. It must have fetched a packet.

The Canary Islands used to have a large, flightless bird, something like a Dodo. This bird ate dragon tree fruits, so the seeds evolved to have a hard protective covering to survive the bird's digestive tract. Now that the bird is extinct, this covering makes it had for the seed to germinate. The north of La Palma is one of the few places where the trees are reproducing naturally. In other places they put the seeds in an acid bath for a few hours (much like the inside of a bird) to remove the hard coating before planting the seed.

One of the best places to see them is at Buracas, below the village of Las Tricias in Garafía. That's where I took this photo. There's another lovely group at La Tosca, in Barlovento, which you can see from a viewpoint on the main road from Barlovento village to Gallegos. And there's the famous twin dragon trees in Breña Alta.

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Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Twin Dragon Trees

Twin dragon trees, Breña Alta, La Palma
Twin dragon trees (Dracaena draco), Breña Alta

These trees stand in Breña Alta, just off the minor road which winds over the central ridge to El Paso. They grow so close together that it's hard to tell where on trunk ends and the other begins.

Trunks of twin dragon trees, Breña Alta, La Palma

Of course there's a legend associated with the trees. Two brothers lived nearby, and were very close, but they fell in love with the same gorgeous girl.

Oh dear. You can already tell that this doesn't have a happy ending, can't you?

The girl was fond of them both, but she had the sense not to keep them dangling. She chose one, and they were married, but as they walked to their new home in the dark, the spurned brother attacked. He killed the new bridegroom, and tried to rape his sister-in-law. She got to the kitchen knife first, so that was the end of him.

The new widow honoured them both by planting these two dragon trees. As the cuttings grew, she watered them and they grew tall from the fertile soil and her warm memories. They say that the brothers' blood still flows within their trunks and gives them life.

Twin dragon trees, Breña Alta, La Palma
Dragon trees are odd plants (see Dragon trees). Like most mature dragon trees, these are so full of nooks and crannies that they're more a micro-climate than a plant.

To see the trees, take the LP 123 between San Pedro and Monte de la Breña, and then the LP 301 up the hill. The trees are on the left, about 400 m from the junction. There's a tiny car park.
Twin dragon trees, Breña Alta, La Palma

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Monday, 4 August 2008

The Dragon Tree Viewpoint

dragon tree, Dracaena draco, in Puntagorda
The leaning dragon tree (Dracaena draco).

There's a rather nice viewpoint in Puntagorda, on the main road at km 78. Its most obvious attraction is the dragon tree, leaning much further over than the tower at Pisa.

Red-billed chough, Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax barbarus in Puntagorda
Red-billed chough, Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax barbarus.

But when I was last there, I was charmed by a tame red-billed chough, Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax barbarus. They're relatives of rooks and crows, but this particular sub-species only lives on La Palma where they're called grajas. They're something of an icon here, because they're so distinctive. They're also pretty intelligent for birds, and rather curious. My husband once had one pecking away at the windscreen wipers of his car.

The graja at the viewpoint came right up to me and begged for food. He even lay down and pretended to be injured, until he realised that the other family there had food, and I didn't.

Red-billedchough, Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax barbarus in Puntagorda
Red-billed chough, Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax barbarus, pretending to be injured.

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