Found in medicine cabinets and herb markets throughout much of South America, Dragon’s Blood is as important as it is common in South American folk medicine. The name of this popular remedy is, of course, somewhat of a misnomer. While Dragon’s Blood is viscous and blood-red, it is the pure exuded sap of a tropical tree rather than the blood of an exsanguinated mythical creature. Of course, seeing a tree “bleed” red sap is mythic in its own right.
Known in Spanish as “Sangre de Drago,” the name may be literally translated as “blood of the dragon tree” as well as the more familiar “dragon’s blood.” Medicinal red sap is derived from a number of new world trees in the genus Croton, widely distributed in South America and reported as far north as Mexico. The most well known source of Dragon’s Blood and the species we use is Croton lechleri, ranging primarily from the rainforests and low mountains of Colombia and Bolivia. Our Dragon’s Blood is sustainably harvested along the Ucayali River in Amazonian Peru.
When the trunk of the Dragon’s Blood tree is cut or injured, a thick, blood-red sap oozes from the wound. This pure sap, without any alcohol, additives or processing, constitutes the medicine known as Dragon’s Blood. The cells that produce the sap are not regenerating, so Dragon’s Blood trees cannot be tapped in the manner of rubber harvest. For continued harvest, the trees would instead require repeated cutting. The multiple cut method not only gives relatively low yields, but also can leave the trees susceptible to fungal diseases. This has led to the practice of harvesting the entire tree, which yields much higher levels of sap while impacting the least number of trees.
The wildcrafters of Herb Pharm’s Dragon’s Blood promote the conservation of the Croton trees from which the red sap is harvested. To ensure both environmental health and continued harvests into the future, the indigenous people are planting Dragon’s Blood saplings back into the wild. Fortunately, the tree is also extremely fast growing. They can achieve phenomenal growth rates of up to 12 feet per year (yes, one foot per month!) during their first three years, when they reach their adult height. This is about the same time period that many temperate perennial herbs are grown before harvesting. The trees are allowed to grow for at least two and up to as many as seven years before they are harvested. Sustainable collection of Dragon’s Blood sap, supported by extensive wild planting efforts, has provided indigenous communities with much needed income while supporting conservation.
Dragon’s Blood sap is a rich, complex source of phytochemicals including alkaloids and procyanidins (condensed tannins). Internally, it is an important remedy for gastro-intestinal issues. Traditional use of Dragon’s Blood led to the development and subsequent FDA approval of an anti-secretory, anti-diarrheal drug based on an isolate from Dragon’s Blood sap. This is the first botanical drug approved by FDA for oral use under its new rules. Despite recent articles to the contrary, the approval of botanically derived drugs does not interfere with the availability of old dietary ingredients used as dietary supplements.
Externally, Dragon’s Blood is renowned for its use on skin and is commonly referred to as a liquid bandage. Drops are applied as needed to cover the affected area and allowed to dry with or without a physical bandage. Dragon’s Blood is also popularly applied to insect bites and stings, including those of fire ants.
Today, modern scientific testing is confirming many of the ethnobotanical uses of Dragon’s Blood. It is important to emphasize, however, that this testing is only a confirmation of accumulated traditional knowledge. The true development of Dragon’s Blood is credited to the indigenous healers of Amazonia who have generously shared their knowledge with the rest of the world. Herb Pharm is very proud to participate in bringing this product to the medicine cabinets of North America.
Originally Published in Fall 2010