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Monday, September 2, 2013

Large-leaved Dragon Tree (Dracaena aletriformis)

Family Dracaenaceae
The large-leaved dragon tree is a wonderful, showy foliage plant with large strap-shaped leaves in rosettes at the tips of the branches, ideal for shady areas.

Description
It is an evergreen, usually single-stemmed small tree that grows between 2-5 m tall. The bark is tan-coloured and patterned with leaf scars. The leaves are crowded towards the top of the stems and are glossy-green, leathery, strap-shaped and half drooping. They can grow up to 1 m long. Tall spikes of sweetly scented, tiny, yellow-green flowers occur on the plant during summer (from November to February). Beautiful orange berries follow these.
Distribution

Dracaena aletriformis occurs from Port Elizabeth eastwards to KwaZulu-Natal, Swaziland and into eastern and northern Gauteng. It has been found in a variety of habitats, most commonly in the shade of coastal dune forest and densely wooded ravines near the coast. Inland, it occurs mostly in deep shade along streams in evergreen montane forests but also in shady places in the dry bushveld, always in humus-rich soil. Most of the populations recorded so far grow in areas with either sandstone or quartzite. It is frequently found in dense stands.
Ecology

The berries of the large-leaved dragon tree are very popular with many of the fruit-eating birds.
The flowers draw insects such as butterflies and bees with their complementary following of insectivorous birds, so this is an excellent plant for the bird garden. The strongly scented flowers open in the late afternoon, lasting till the next morning to attract their night-active pollinator moths that enjoy the nectar of the flowers. Larvae of the bush night fighter butterfly, Artitropa erinnys, feed on the leaves.

Derivation of the name

The name Dracaena is derived from the Greek word drakaina = a female dragon, perhaps because the milky juice of Dracaena draco dries to a resinous powder used as a colorant, 'dragon's blood'. There is also a mythical explanation: Ladon, the hundred-headed dragon and guardian of the Garden of the Hesperides, was killed by Hercules (or Atlas depending on the version told) whilst collecting three golden apples to complete the eleventh of his twelve labours. Dragon trees sprung from where Ladon's red blood flowed out on the land. The alleged location of this fabled Garden is an island beyond the Atlas Mountains, which seems to point to the Canary Islands and D. draco as being the basis for this legend. The species name aletriformis means resembling the genus Aletris.

The genus Dracaena was described by Linnaeus (1767). It was originally placed in the family Liliaceae (lily family) but was later transferred to the Agavaceae (sisal family). Recently it has been placed in the Dracaenaceae (dragon tree family). There are some 120 species described in the genus, most of which are mainly distributed in Central Africa and Southeast Asia. South Africa has three recognized species, D. aletriformis, discussed here, D. mannii and D. transvaalensis, each of which occurs in totally different habitat types. Like aloes and palms, dracaenas are monocotyledons.
Uses

In Eastern Cape, the root of Dracaena aletriformis is crushed and used as a wash to drive away evil spirits.

In the Canary Islands, the red, resinous, blood-like sap of D. draco has long been used magically, medicinally as well as practically, e.g. it is used as a wash to promote healing and stop bleeding, internally to treat chest pains, internal traumas, post-partum bleeding and menstrual irregularities; it is regarded as a herb of protection, purification and energy; and is also used in mummification, and as a colouring agent in furniture polish, varnish, paint and plaster. It was well known as the source for the varnish used by 18th century Italian violin makers.