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The dragon's blood tree

Dragon's blood trees on the island of Socotra, Yemen.
Andrey Kotov200514
WikiMedia Commons
Dragon's blood trees on the island of Socotra, Yemen.

Most of us have a bucket list of things we want to do before we die.

As a tree-lover, the top of my bucket list is to sit in the shade of a Socotra dragon’s blood tree. 

For one thing, it grows in a remarkably remote part of the world, on Socotra, one of four tiny islands that belong to Yemen,150 miles off the coast of the Arabian Peninsula.

Additionally, it’s growth form looks like something Dr. Seuss would create. It mimics a gigantic mushroom, with a densely packed crown and a completely branchless lower trunk. But that weird shape helps it survive the hot desert climate it lives in.

Most of Socotra gets less than five inches of rain each year. Thanks to the tree’s strange shape, any precious water droplets that collect on its long, waxy leaves drip down the branches and trunk to the roots, minimizing loss to evaporation.

And finally, I love its dramatic name — a dragon’s blood tree! The tree’s bright red sap crystallizes into hard resin-y bulbs on the trunk surface, making it look like has a wound that needs cleaning.

For 2,000 years, local people harvested that resin, ground it into a fine powder and used it as a remedy for many ailments, from skin burns to loose teeth. They also used it in artwork and cosmetics.

Today, conservationists consider this tree an “umbrella species,” not because of its shape, but because it’s critical for the survival of many other species. It provides shelter and shade for wildlife, including the pygmy white-tailed shrew, the smallest mammal on our planet, which weighs less a slice of white bread.

In recent decades, over-grazing, war and a changing climate are endangering this special tree. Locals have started nurseries for it, and in 2008, UNESCO designated it as a World Heritage site.

Thanks to those efforts, I think I’ll live long enough sit it is shade — and hopefully, see that littlest of shrews scurrying beneath it.

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is an emeritus professor of both The Evergreen State College and the University of Utah, one of the world’s leading ecologists and a popular science communicator. Dr. Nadkarni’s research and public engagement work is supported by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. @nalininadkarni
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