The charismatic dragon tree earned its name from Greek mythology. In Hercules’ 11th labour, he was to bring back three golden apples from the garden of the Hespérides, which was guarded by the hundred-headed dragon, Landon. Slaying the dragon caused red blood to flow out over the land, from which ‘dragon’ trees began to sprout.
Young trees grow a single, slender stem, topped with a crown of prickly, sword-shaped leaves. The dragon tree grows extremely slowly, reaching around 1.2 metres after a decade. At this time, the first greenish-white perfumed flowers appear. Sweet-tasting orange berries – slightly smaller than a cherry, and covered in a red, resinous substance – follow soon after. A crown of buds then sprouts and forms new branches. This adaptive growth pattern repeats every 10-15 years or so, resulting in the tree’s densely-branched, umbrella-like appearance.
Cutting the bark or leaves of the dragon tree exposes a red sap, known as dragon’s blood. This substance is used in traditional medicines against aches and pains.
Est. in the wild:
The Cape Verdean dragon tree is naturally found in dry forests on steep cliffs and in high mountain habitats.
The number of islands on which the Cape Verdean dragon tree naturally grows.
The size of Brava, where FFI is working to conserve the dragon tree.
Of Cape Verde’s endemic plants, 78% are threatened with extinction and a complex web of factors contribute to the decline of the dragon tree. Free-roaming domestic animals, with unrestricted access to palatable young plants, seriously affect the species’ natural regeneration. Non-native invasive plants bring additional threats by outcompeting the dragon tree, and intentional gathering of tree material, for firewood and other uses, adds to the species’ struggle to establish healthy populations. In the future, increasing aridity due to global climate change may limit the area available for dragon trees to thrive, driving the species ever-further towards the tops of mountains.
Sign up to stay up to date with all the latest conservation news and updates, including our work to protect the Cape Verdean dragon tree.
Over the past year, FFI, supported by the Global Trees Campaign, has been working with Biflores, Cape Verde’s first and only flora-focused conservation NGO, to conserve Cape Verdean dragon trees on the isolated island of Brava, where currently the species is found across just 16km2. Through conducting surveys and pinpointing threats, the team has developed a series of conservation approaches.
Planting new trees and introducing management plans to limit grazing of young trees will help to address low natural regeneration. Removal of invasive species and the upcoming creation of new protected areas will help secure mature populations. Raising the profile of plant conservation on Brava by highlighting the key role of trees in securing ecosystem services forms part of the team’s work with the island’s communities to help the species’ long-term conservation.
This combined effort will not only bring conservation benefits for the endemic dragon tree, but for Brava’s flora in general, ensuring it will continue to be known as “the island of flowers”.
Cape Verde is recognised as a global hotspot for marine biodiversity, including over 20 species of whale, dolphin and porpoise, more than 60 shark and ray species, and five sea turtle species.
Humans are inextricably linked to the environmental landscape within which our daily lives unfold. We depend completely on nature for a stable climate, clean air and water, and food.