Monday, June 1, 2009

The Corn Plant (Dragon's Blood)

The corn plant (Dracaena fragrans) in our side yard is in bloom just outside my office balcony--this one is nearly 20 feet tall. Most people buy this plant to grow indoors after being assured by the Home Depot lady that it cannot be killed, only to discover, several weeks later, that the plant is suicidal and singing songs from that Momma Mia movie over and over (only slowly and with a blank stare).

In the nursery (like the picture to the right) the corn plant looks more dead than alive, like some reject from an artificial plant assembly line, little more than a stick chopped off at the top with a flurry of big leaves. Move it to the outside, though, and plant it in partial shade (then leave it alone), and it transforms into a thing of beauty

The genus name Dracaena is the key--these are an exotic group of plants that includes the dragon's blood tree (or Dracula's blood tree, according to the original accounts) discovered on the Canary islands in the 15th century by horrified explorers who described a tree dripping with blood, which is actually a red resin that drips from the tree and that later served as the magical ingredient for varnish used by the early Italian violin makers. Dragon's blood made its way into the Americas as an ink used in voodoo rituals for writing portents, seals and curses onto paper that is then folded away in a dark place.

The Latin Dracaena literally means "she-dragon" and references to dragon's blood can be found in popular literature, including this exchange in a Harry Potter novel, propping up the fabricated rumor that Dracaena resin might be a sort of cure-all (though the blood below is oddly described as greenish):

“You’re not going to eat that, are you, Hagrid?” said Ron, leaning in for a closer look. “It looks poisonous.”
“It’s s’posed ter look like that, it’s dragon meat,” Hagrid said, “An’ I didn’ get it ter eat.”
He picked up the steak and slapped it over the left side of his face. Greenish blood trickled down into his beard as he gave a soft moan of satisfaction.
“Tha’s better. It helps with the stingin’, yeh know.”

But don't be fooled. These blood references all trace back to the vampires and their big-fanged dogs that were once feared and known by the name dragon before they were, as the result of an ancient curse, transformed into trees on the island of Socotra.


  1. Just a note to the vast nationwide readership:

    The United States National Arboretum reccommends zones 10 and 11 for the Corn Plant. This translates to roughly southern Florida, southern Texas and parts of California.

    Look at the charts and don't have your hopes needlessly dashed. I would ask that you sub-tropical folks not flaunt your twenty foot corn plants at the rest of us. Sniff.

  2. Well said, anonymous. We don't do well with the blue spruce down here but keep our chins up anyway.

  3. Ooooooh Fred! You have a vast nationwide readership now. I'm so proud!