Long ago, on islands on the edge of the known world, there lived a dragon. These islands lacked for nothing. The ocean bore them moisture on its winds, so that when water didn’t fall from the sky directly, the trees and plants of the islands reached up and gathered that moisture to nurture life. The sun gently warmed its earth, so that plants and trees and flowers flourished and grew strong. It was said to be the most beautiful place on earth. The dragon‘s work was to guard this paradise from the dangers of the outside world, and so they rested peacefully in the waters of the Atlantic, blessed in every way.
Tending the garden which was these islands were a group of nymphs, sisters, called the Hesperides, daughters of the Titan, Atlas, who poured all their love into their work, so that the garden thrived and its beauty was, indeed the stuff of legends. For its further protection its location was known only to that wily sea god known as the Old Man of the Sea, who, once he had you in his grip, wouldn’t let go until you died from the exhaustion of attempting to escape.
The dragon, whose name was Ladon, had an easy life, for most lacked the intelligence or the courage to even try to reach the islands, but, of course, there were those who couldn’t resist. None had succeeded, until the invincible Heracles was ordered, as one of the tasks assigned to him as punishment for killing his own children in a moment of madness, to steal apples which grew on a certain tree on one of the islands. These apples were made of gold, and much coveted by Eurysthesus under whose orders Heracles was bound until his penance was served out.
By trickery, Heracles discovered the location of the Garden of the Hesperides from the Old Man of the Sea, but he knew that even he was no match in strength for the dragon/serpent Ladon. There was, however, one who would be, and that was the mighty Atlas, who had been condemned by Zeus to shoulder the skies in an attempt to prevent them from rejoining earth. Heracles struck a deal with Atlas; in exchange for Atlas seizing the golden apples, Heracles would relieve him of his burden for a spell. Atlas, weary of his task, agreed.
In stealing the apples he first had to slay Ladon, which he did, and it is said that as the dragon’s life blood drained away into the earth trees sprang up in the places it had touched, and these are the trees known as dragon trees, when cut they ooze not sap but blood. Atlas was reluctant to return to his task of shouldering the world, but was tricked by Heracles into returning to his position, and year by year the dragon trees grew and multiplied.
That is just one version of the legend, in others it’s Heracles who slays the dragon, before Atlas, who is father to the Hesperides, steals the golden apples, and then there is the version where the body of Ladon is carried to the skies to become the constellation Draco in the northern night sky; and yet another tells of a shipwrecked sailor pursuing a beautiful maiden, who rejected his advances. The sailor, not knowing that this maiden was a magician, continued his pursuit, but found a strange tree in his path, whose many branches and twisted trunk blocked his way. In anger he struck out at the tree, severing its branches, only to find that blood spilled from every cut. The tree, of course, was the sorceress, and as her blood seeped over the earth more trees grew, just as in the Greek legend. Yet another myth says that every tree is a slain dragon – which would explain why, when Pilar & I were hiking the valley close to San Miguel de Abona the other week, in the Barranco named Barranco del Drago, we saw scarcely one……..there just ain’t that many dragons living, let alone dying these days!
Legends, are, naturally, much more fun than the truth, but for sure dragon trees are weird, and there is one which might well be crucial these days to the economy of a small town in the north of Tenerife, Icod de los Vinos. This tree has the distinction of being probably the only tree in the world which had the power to move a road. When I first immigrated to Tenerife it was one of those sights one has to see, and to be honest, we drove past it a couple of times without realizing that we had found it. It stood by the roadside with some sort of undistinguished plaque proclaiming its vast age, but as the good folk of the town realized it was attracting visitors to an area which was earning less than of yore from agriculture they decided to protect it, and re-routed the entire road system to bypass it. Dragon trees are very, very slowing growing but have an amazing ability to survive. Some are said to have lived for thousands of years, and so to further protect this one, they also placed a fan inside to prevent the accumulation of fungus which might damage it, and created a small park around it, making it more worthy of the attention it was attracting.
Their efforts were rewarded this year, as last, with a splendid flowering – a proof of the ancient tree’s good health, and not bad for a living thing which may be anywhere between 3,000 and 300 years old! It’s been christened the “thousand year tree,” but it’s doubtful that it is even that old, although the best guesses are somewhere between 500 and 300 years old. It may well have borne witness to the invasion of the Spanish Conquistadores. Unlike other trees, Dracoena Draco, to give it its proper, Latin name, doesn’t have rings, so it’s impossible to tell its specific age. History, rather than legend, tells that no lesser personage than Alexander von Humboldt (whose visit to the island is much vaunted) saw a splendid specimen in Orotava, which easily rivalled the one in Icod de los Vinos, but perhaps happily for the economy of Icod, it was destroyed in high winds mid 19th century, and I hear tell that the search is on for a successor now, should the same fate befall the current icon. A little way up the road, there grows a contender in fact, secured by steel wire, since it looks in imminent danger of falling onto nearby buildings. The danger being to the tree as well as to the buildings, since those branches can’t support themselves in the way a normal tree’s branches do, they simply break.
And icon it is. Its image adorns postcards, plaques, mugs, fridge magnets and all the other trivia of modern life, which might be sold as souvenirs. There is no doubt that it’s existence is important to the economy of the town, but I doubt it’s crucial. Icod is a lovely, meandering place, with lots of history and tradition other than those which appertain to just one tree, but more of that another time.
In the times between the Greek myth and current, economic-icon status the sap of the dragon tree has had different uses. Its sap does resemble blood, and was said to have healing properties. Aboriginal Guanches used it as part of the embalming process when they mummified their dead, but it is probably best know as a stain or lacquer. It is even said that Stradivarius used the resin in the making of his violins, although his methods are also the stuff of legends, so I am not clear as to whether that can be verified or not.
I’ve been a sucker for myths and legends, ever since my first high school English Literature teacher told us that we must have a “willing suspension of disbelief” in order to appreciate fiction. I was ready, willing and able to suspend mine at the drop of a hat, so seeing this dragon tree in full flower was a must this year. I loved standing and imagining all the things this tree has witnessed over the years, let alone the mystical overtones to its being. There weren’t so many tourists that the atmosphere was totally lost, and mists crept along the horizon and up the mountain roads as we descended into the municipality….. and what’s a good legend without a foggy backdrop? Icod is one of my favorite island towns, but the dragon tree really deserves this post to itself.
Two things for sure: one is that the absence of trees in Barranco del Drago was almost certainly due to their having been cut down for use in as lacquers or varnishes, and not because of the dying out of dragons; two is that these fascinating trees really are the stuff of legend from early history to present day. It was nice to see Icod’s superb specimen in full flower, and looking as if it might live another 500 years……..or 1,000 who knows?