The surprising truth about counterfeit Dragon’s blood

The truth is you haven’t been buying Dracaena draco, and the surprise is; that’s a good thing.
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Dracaena cinnabari in it’s native habitat on the Socotra archipelago. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons.

Part one in a series on Dragon’s blood resin.

The other Dragon’s blood; latex, dye and poison

In a modern magical context, Dragon’s blood is often erroneously assumed to simply be the resin sap produced by the Dragon tree, but as with most things in this world, the truth is more nuanced.

The Calamus, Pterocarpus and Croton genera contain plants which produce gums, latexes and resins which have been labelled as Dragon’s blood; these have been used medicinally and as dyes. One example, the latex of the Sangre de drago , Croton lechleri, native to South America, can be used as a natural adhesive bandage.
As for their use as pigments, due to the nature of vegetable dyes, kino gums may resemble blood when oozing from wounds on a tree but often do not produce a red colour pigment.

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The familiar kino of the Eucalyptus, Corymbis calophylla. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Outside of ethnomedical studies and natural remedies, these forms of Dragon’s blood are of less prevalent concern to modern paganism.

Next up we have the brilliant but deadly vermilion, also known as Dragon’s blood, or China red. This was traditionally produced from powdered mineral cinnabar. Cinnabar is a highly toxic form of mercury sulphide which was used in antiquity as a dye, cosmetic and in jewelry. Unsurprisingly you’re not likely to encounter this stuff on the market in its natural form, although vintage Chinese cinnabar lacquered artifacts are attractive to collectors. While cinnabar is very dangerous, with careful handling the lacquer renders it relatively inert.

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A wooden plate lacquered with cinnabar. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

Finally, the form that most of us are more familiar with; Dragon’s blood incense. This is usually derived from either the Daemonorops or Dracaena genera; only the latter of which is also used as a dye.

The true Dragon’s blood tree

The Dragon’s blood resin you see for sale is very unlikely to be from the true dragon’s blood tree. It’s also worth noting that any form of genuine Dragon’s blood essential oil does not exist.

The popular houseplant known as Lucky bamboo, or Chinese water bamboo, Dracaena braunii, is actually a much closer relative to the genuine Dragon’s blood trees. Continuing the theme of misattribution, it is not Chinese nor a bamboo; it’s native to Cameroon in West Africa.

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Some lucky bamboo growing on my altar.

The family it belongs to, Asparagaceae, gives us the Agave used in the production of tequila and, as one could guess from the name, the vegetable asparagus.

When people talk about the Dragon’s blood tree, they are usually referring to Dracaena draco or Dracaena cinnabari. Although there are other Dracaena species harvested for their resin, I’ll be focusing on these two as they’re the most widely known and referred to. Due to its distinctive long trunk with leafy branches extending from the crown, these trees are sometimes called a Dragon’s blood palm. This is unfortunate because it is not a palm, while its impostor is.

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Not a palm. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

Dracaena draco is a popular ornamental garden tree in Australia, whereas D. cinnabari is much less sought after due to its extremely slow growth rate and similar appearance. Given favorable conditions, the average Dragon’s blood tree takes 10 years to reach a height of just over one meter.

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My child. I picked up this D. Draco at Bunnings when it was only 20cm tall. It’s now 3 years of age.

Unfortunately both D. Draco and D. Cinnabari are threatened species; vulnerable to extinction in their native habitats. Both trees have an incredibly slow growth cycle, taking over a decade to reach their first state of reproductive maturity. Habitat loss, over harvesting, desertification, climate change and modern agriculture techniques all present hazards to their survival.

The common Dragon’s blood cane palm

Daemonorops draco, sometimes referred to as Demon cane due to its thorns, is cultivated in Southeast Asia, with much of the resin on the market coming from Indonesia and Thailand. Endemic to the tropics close to the equator, the Arecaceae family of plants also gives us raffia and coconuts.

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Not to be confused with the Araceae family like this Dieffenbachia dumb cane. Because whoever named them hated dyslexic people.

Daemonorops draco is the stuff you’ll commonly see for sale. I often see Dragon’s blood in stores labelled as Dracaena draco, but it’s increasingly rare and difficult to find genuine Dracaena resin.

Although it’s unfortunate that so many otherwise reputable outlets are mislabeling their product, the reasons I posited this as a good thing are threefold.
Firstly, Dracaena draco resin, due to its rarity is prohibitively expensive.

Secondly is the issue of the commercial exploitation of an endangered species, making the use of a plentiful alternative attractive. Harvesting Dracaena resin leaves the tree vulnerable to fungal infection which may kill it. Due to this vulnerability and their low numbers, it is favorable that the commonly available Dragon’s blood incense is derived from the plentiful and fast growing Daemonorops draco, as demand for the resin could not be satisfied otherwise.

Thirdly is a matter of personal opinion in regards to their aromatic properties. The rare D. cinnabari and D. draco are almost entirely scentless unless actively being burnt. As Dragon’s blood resin is used in all sorts of aromatic products beyond incense, such as soaps and papers, these would lose their appeal if Dracaena was used in things that aren’t intended to be set on fire.
Conversely the subtle but commanding, warm, masculine scent of Daemonorops draco is quite pleasant and apparent even when not lit.

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This red sigil chalk I made using palm Dragon’s blood should definitely not be set on fire.

Now that we’ve established the difference between these three types of Dragon’s blood resin, what about their aromas, magical uses and the mysterious Dragon’s blood ink?

In my next posts I will demonstrate the recipe for Dragon’s blood ink and explore the properties of Daemonorops draco, Dracaena draco and Dracaena cinnabari in greater detail.

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Blood Magic

This article has a frank discussion of the uses of blood and photographs of dried blood on paper-all pictures of fresh blood/more graphic images are posted as links. I also refrained from making any ‘blood for the blood god’ jokes even though I really wanted to.

All experiments are valuable; here’s one that didn’t go so well-using fresh human blood as ink.

It’s a pity I didn’t have this project in mind when I was trailing surgical drains [GRAPHIC IMAGE] everywhere I went while recovering from top surgery (a double mastectomy) which would have provided a more than ample supply of human juice.

All the information I could find relating to blood painting generally assumes the blood compounds have been processed and rendered into a pigment-any cursory internet search for blood ink will only net you results about printer ink being more expensive by volume.

Once outside the body, pure blood clots very fast; rapidly turning into a goopy mess. While still in liquid form it displays good brush adhesion and is easy to use as a caligraphy medium, but the working time is a matter of mere seconds.
I experimented with diluting blood with alchohol, water and liquid gum arabic; none of these had any effect on stopping or slowing coagulation.
I wanted to find if there were any other easily available household items that could be used in such a manner.
Somewhere in the dusty attic of my memory, I had filed away a bit of heresay that food grade Tartaric and Citrid acid could be used as anti-coagulants.
At this point the supply I was willing and able to extract from myself was dwindling severly, so more conclusive results could probably be gained with samples larger than a few drops.
Between the citric acid, the tartaric acid and a combination of the two, I couldn’t discern any difference between them.
When a substantial amount of acid was added to blood, it immediately turned a rather unappealing shade of dark brown and became very sticky-remaining so without drying. Pure blood, although also sticky at first, usually dries extremely rapidly.

When the tiniest amount of acid was added the blood only darkened a shade; this also reduced the stickiness-on such a small scale it was difficult to say if it was wholly eliminated.

bloodImage description: marks painted in dried blood on two squares of brown paper.

On the left is a series of marks testing the consistency of blood/acid blends, and on the right is a sigil drawn in undiluted blood.
Although the difference is subtle, the card on the right, pure blood, is a richer red colour than the browned acid/blood mix.

I could have expanded my experiments to using frozen coagulated animal blood, and I may one day revisit this topic, but beyond occasionnaly using my own blood extracted using diabetes lancets as an ad-hoc offering, blood magic is not high on my list of interests. I’ve invested a lot in making sure as much of my insides remain inside as I can, and I’m too germaphobic to want much contact with anyone else’s.

Could either of these acids, used in very tiny amounts, be effectively used to give fresh human blood a uniform texture? I don’t know; I’m no phlebotomist and my knowledge of chemistry is weak at best.
My recommendation to anyone wanting to try painting a sigil or ritual message in blood, is to simply work very fast.

The Animist Apocalypse-Mad Max and the importance of environmentalism

“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves.”

-The First History of Man,  Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015

In post-apocalyptic fiction, signs of an animistic culture are often plentiful in the set dressing; from skull motifs to more subtle expressions of sympathetic magic, to taboos which define when it is safe to travel through an area due to unseen natural forces that demand respect-lest one perish. In these worlds people live in a reality strangled of meaning; stripped of all but the most basic diversions and amusements, choice, and even hope.

Isaac Marion’s post-zombie apocalypse novel Warm Bodies illustrates an America in which people survive by sheltering in huge sports stadiums. Supplementing their diets with vitamin pills and barricaded against outside forces; scouting parties must invade dangerous territory-the former cradle of suburbia, in order to extract supplies.

A sharp cultural contrast to this is the nuclear wasteland of Dimitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033 series, in which the last vestiges of humanity eke out an existence in Moscow’s vast and sprawling underground rail network. The people of the tunnels farm pigs and mushrooms and must forever remain vigilant against the mutant creatures that constantly test their defenses; an outwards force pushing inwards. Meanwhile political conflicts tear apart the communities within.

Apocalyptic fiction presents fears for the future unique to the inhabitants of the culture it was born from, but it also has a unifying philosophical theme; what does it mean to be human, and what is the point of being alive? People do not simply fight to live another day; they struggle to nourish their souls with scraps of beauty, love and meaning.

In these inhospitable worlds, the rules for survival have changed; nature is no longer abstracted and the ability for people to adapt the environment has become limited-a dire predicament for anyone from a wealthy post-industrialized culture.

One of the things that makes this genre so appealing to me is that this lifestyle shift usually brings with it a return to an animistic worldview of unity with the natural world.

The recent Mad Max: Fury Road has some beautiful examples of a fictional post-apocalyptic animist culture.
It’s a film in which a band of eco-feminists fight the forces of war, patriarchy and greed  against a post nuclear-exchange desert landscape. Also car chases. And explosions.

Between explosions, we get a glimpse of the social order of the War Boys. They ritually scar their bodies with engine schematics, and their medical professionals are referred to as ‘organic mechanics’, displaying an inextricable unity with their vehicles. They have an oral tradition of storytelling in which dying a good death is of utmost importance, combined with a belief in reincarnation and the need to be deemed worthy-a worth  which is determined by their usefulness to their master. A film lush with symbolism, this blending of human and machine is of vital importance-the tyranny of Immortan Joe positions this as a method of control and objectification-as a means to strip away autonomy. People are things, and things are disposable.

The skull motif is ever-present; the skeletal form of Furiosa’s missing arm is painted on the side of the war rig, the sickly war boys are hairless and white, and the very symbol of Immortan Joe’s rule is a blending of the steering wheel and the skull. Skeletons are things, and things do not deserve respect.

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When Furiosa learns of the destruction of her childhood haven, she rips off her prosthetic arm and howls in despair. This completes her symbolic rejection of her service to Immortan Joe, which had stripped her of agency and personhood. But just as we are now unable to colonize other planets, there is nowhere left to go; the salt flats extend eternally like the inhospitable emptiness of space.

So our heroes turn back to the Citadel to take back the world. The symbolic relationship between Furiosa and her arm has changed; when she straps it back on, she is reclaiming a right to live in the world cooperatively, interfacing with it with respect, and as a part of her. She is no longer a resource to be exploited.
As Nux’s war paint wears off, we see him as an enslaved child, made terminally ill by the folly of dictators. Finally, he is able to find his better self in service of a great and sincere sacrifice.
It’s no coincidence the Keeper of the Seeds, member of the resilient and free Vulvalini, tried to save as many plant species as she could-not just crop varieties directly useful to humans.
‘Who killed the world?’ asks Angharad, and the answer is damning.

In these fictional scenarios animism flourishes because there can be no disconnection from the land; it is an actor itself and not merely acted upon. The stakes are always high; the natural world must be respected. So fraught with danger, the apocalyptic landscape represents a world that humans have made almost uninhabitable for themselves as they stare down extinction. Be it over wealth inequality, war, climate change or resource scarcity, fictional apocalypses are almost singularly the result of human hubris.

For me, a core part of my modern pagan animist beliefs is respect, cooperation and balance. The importance of respecting the natural world, as a part of us and not an outside resource should be self evident-if we muddy up our biosphere, everyone suffers. My animism is inherently environmentalistic, but everyone should be concerned with the plight of the natural world, regardless of their spiritual alignment. 

Mass-scale, global environmental exploitation needs to be curbed. Let’s hope we can make it happen before the advent of a nuclear wasteland.