f.25v – Dracaena (a retrospective)

As promised, here is a reprint of the first paper I wrote about the manuscript’s imagery. Dated to December 2009, it was originally posted through ciphermysteries. At that stage, I was writing up each as a formal paper but had consulted no secondary sources save academic ones. I did not realise others had seen a Dracaena here (though not that which I identified), but on being told so added a note (included here). For technical and other reasons, the original illustrations are omitted. (At that stage, I still used the scholarly ‘we’ which I do not now when writing blogposts).

Since 2008, I have come to place less emphasis on Soqotra, don’t think the colour values are altered as a result of colour-blindness but for some cultural reason (or, less likely, technical reason). I’ve cut the paper where Nick originally cut that first posting of it, too.

Otherwise, the following years’ work found much to settle and confirm this initial indication of the botanical section’s focus on the eastern world, and especially on the Great Sea. [As a rule, of the three forms pharmacopoeia, pharmacopeia, or pharmacopoea I prefer the first – the typist didn’t 🙂 ]


Notes on the ‘Voynich’ manuscript: # 1: some Botanical items

  • Diane O’Donovan –


Carbon dating places the parchment of Bienecke ms408 to the first half of the fifteenth century. Its inscriptions are agreed to have used a quill pen – use of which is known to the Mediterranean by the 7th century ce.


The present author believes it is a fifteenth-century reproduction of an older work, internal evidence suggesting an anthology, using sources composed before the rise of Islam.  The manuscript, we suggest, is presented in a language and for a purpose related to the trade and culture of the east sea.


This is not to say it might not have also have had religious, or quasi-religious status. Our conclusions derive from the consideration of plants,  artefacts, astronomical matter and incidental devices in the manuscript’s figures, but the present note is limited to asome of the botanical and zoological items. Notes on individual motifs, artefacts, epigraphy are in progress.


f25v: Dracaena. The ms (f 25v) shows a plant whose form, habit, and implied habitat are indicated, and confirmed by the additional device of the supping ‘dragon’ (Lat: draco).  Fig 1a


The genus Dracaena is depicted. Dracaena species have been known as ‘dragon trees’ since pre-classical times, the trees’ chief virtue being a naturally extruded, or artificially harvested resin known as ‘dragonsblood’.[1]


Greek and Roman literature recognised the types that occur in Morocco (Dracaena draco) and Socotra (Dracaena cinnabari) Figs 1b & 1c; Fig. 2b[2]


Modern opinion calculates the number of species in the genus Dracaena as about 50, most found in tropical Africa and Asia, with six in China.[3]


The illustrator drew the roots of the plant in f25v forming a mound, apparently within a steep or rocky habitat. Fig. 1a As our illustrations show, D. draco and D. cinnabaris do occur in just such environments. The plant’s propensity for lifting the surrounding ground, and for showing bare roots, can be seen in Fig. 2b.


And while f25v might seem to depict a shrub and not a tree, it includes the one specific detail needed to make clear that this is an adult specimen, whose resin is already being harvested.  A pale trunk is natural to D. draco, but is only seen in D. cinnabari after the red bark is removed to extract resin. Our Fig. 2b. shows the kind of scars that form in the trunk when the oozing resin (Fig 2c) has been removed by hand.


Removal of its bark brings the appearance of D. cinnabaris closer to that of D. Draco, and we believe the form given this wound in f25v intentionally evokes the appearance of a vulva.


Resin from the Socotran D. Cinnabaris remains a commercial product today, and appears always to have been the type preferred for pharmacy and art.  An English phamacoepia of 1932 notes that it is being imported via India and Zanzibar:

The resin extracted from the bark of D. cinnabaris] is called Socotrine Dragon’s Blood (imported from Bombay) and ‘Zanzibar drop’ (imported through Zanzibar.[4]


The Dracaena is widely associated with preservation and longevity in Socotra and in the Canaries[5] as, pehaps, it once was in Morocco.  Socotra’s many Dracaena trees are credited with being thousands  of years[6] old; The Guanches of the Canary islands were said still to reverence the Dracaena in 1932, and to use “its product  for embalming in the fashion of the Egyptians.”[7] The compiler of a European Herbal of 1663, containing what appears to be our earliest printed picture of the Dracaena, may have wished to convey the same idea when he set an embryonic ‘dragon’ in one of its ‘dragon-fruits’ Draconis fructus.


D. cinnabaris is unique in having no known fruit nor flowers. Nor does it have the variegated leaves of other species.[8] For that reason, and for its fame, Socotra’s D. cinnabari seems the most obvious choice for the illustration in the Voynich ms f25v. D. draco bears both fruit and flowers. (Fig 1c and Fig 4a) (Because D. cinnabari produces neither, its means of reproduction is still unknown).


One would normally settle, at this stage, for saying that the species shown in f25v is indeterminate, but once more the inclusion of the ‘dragon’ may be designed to clarify the matter.


That dragon has its tail ending in a terminal drawn in the same way that its feet are; all five extremities ending in a leaf-shape. The “leaf-foot” lizard is a recognized genus, found in many regions and called Hemidactylus.  Six species of Hemidactylus are known in Socotra:

Socotra [has 22 endemic species out of the 25 known]. Geckos are the most represented reptiles in the island: 6 species belong to the Semaphore geckos (genus Pristurus), 6 to the genus Hemidactylus and 2 to the endemic [9] genus Haemodracon; and there are also other lizards, snakes and a chameleon. They are everywhere, from the high mountains of Haggeher to the desert lowland of the south coast, basking on tree branches as on nearly every rock around – and Socotra is a rocky place indeed! -. And even underground: there are, in fact, five worm-like reptiles, suited to a completely ctonian life. Although the herpetofauna of the island is considered to be relatively well known by scientists, new species have been described up to a few years ago and still most aspects of their life-history remain unknown.[10]

Shown in Figs 4b and 4c are specimens of Pristurnus and Hemidactylus respectively. Note the raised eye-ridges of the latter, which might suggest incipient horns.


Socotra’s Haemodracon is so named because of its extraordinary devotion to the island’s dragonsblood trees. And as our figure shows, this haemodracon might appear (to the casual observer) to be using its tail as an extra foot: Fig.5a  The genus haemodracon [giant Socotran gecko] exists nowhere else in the world but Socotra, the two species being H. riebeckii and H. trachyrhinus[11]


Haemodracon riebeckii:


“Endemic genus and species. Largest nocturnal gecko on the island, frequently found associated with Dracaena trees or found in rock holes.”


The individual shown in our Fig.5a  is – somewhat inconveniently – out and about in daylight and has chosen this day to climb another of the island’s endemic species, Adenium obsesum socotranum.[12] A.obsesum socotranum is affected  by giantism, leading to its popular description of ‘bottle tree’ – for it stores water, like the baobab. Seen from a distance, especially in silhouette after sunset, the hundreds of bottle trees on Socotra’s hills certainly do resemble horned, pot-bellied dragons watching over the people below. Fig. 5b


Before moving on to identify other plants in the Voynich ms, we should summarise the Dracaena’s uses.


Within Socotra it is used to treat dysentery and burns, and in fastening loose teeth. We are told the Romans used it as an antiseptic, and that it was specially valued by gladiators. Such was the fame of ‘dragonsblood’ that it[13] is said to be mentioned in the German saga of Siegfried.[14]


Cooked over an open fire and made into balls, the sap-resin seems always to have been traded through middlemen into Europe, where it was also used to stain glass and marble, to give the reddish lustre to gold, and as an external medicine. In the east it was, and is, further used as a cosmetic, and as a pigment in paint for pottery-decoration.


Minim came to be the red ink used in manuscripts, indicating the beginning and end, or the holy word, but was still sometimes termed ‘dragonsblood’from an older tradition in which dragonsblood was the colour and material used to represent immortal figures.


This was particularly true in astronomical works, where the colour (often as vermillion) marked the stars composing a figure.


Fig. 6a The habit derives from an older belief that the stars are blood of an immortal kind, oozing from heaven’s tree to form and preserve that celestial creature for all eternity. An allusion to this idea of stars as blood occurs in Heliodorus’ Ethiopian Tale. Homer’s Iliad – as Florence Woods rightly recognised – is a star-saga, whose heroes’ astronomical form is indicated by a meticulous description and placement of each wound received.


Legend has it that the world’s first people lived on an island in the east sea, sometimes identified with Ceylon, or with Socotra, which was called Diosorides by the Greeks, and was still known as the island of Bliss in the fifteenth century.  Bosch dresses Christ in red, has him as priest-physician and places Adam and Eve before a Dracaena in his picture of the Paradise.Fig.6b



Thus, the plant depictions seen in the Voynich [- copy, as we assume it is] are not a product of imagination, nor of ignorance. Our own difficulty in identifying them from the drawings is no grounds for criticism of the painter, whose purposes were not ours. The plants are also shown, consistently, at that stage in their development when their value could be ascertained.


That is to say: not every flower necessarily produces fruit, nor will every plant survive the year’s natural perils. Any person contracting for a crop in advance delays making a deal until he is sure the year’s fruit is forming, that the plants are not diseased, nor  at risk from weather. An added constraint on trade through the east sea is its seasonal winds and tides, which limited to specific weeks of the year the period when agent or trader could valuate and choose their cargoes. The plants, we think, are all shown as they would appear at the exact time(s) of year when such middlemen, and later purchasers, were active.

The original illustrator’s botanical knowledge was intimate, but absolutely pragmatic, and while he was careful about depicting the useful parts of the plant such as root-systems, leaves, and sometimes fruit, his indifference is clear towards parts irrelevant for commercial or fiscal interest. In short: this part of the manuscript is not a western Christian’s book of mysteries, nor yet a botanist’s careful presentation of new species, but the field-guide of a busy man of the east, intent on procuring goods of known value.

That non-academic quality is naturally frustrating for the modern botanist. Even if the region where the plant grows is known, the image lacks details essential to our own systems of recognition and classification. Some of them may never be certainly identified, for all that we can decide the genus.

But flowers apparently to have held little interest for the original user, and thus may be represented by a perfunctory and generic ‘cornflower’ pattern, (another indication of practical and not scholarly purpose). All we can say in this instance is that f54r depicts some hairy-leaved plant in an area along the usual routes taken by spice traders. [Map of routes in 15thC p.12]




The task of recording Socotra’s genus and species is still in progress. More than 900 species have been documented so far, of which some 305 are endemic. The island is popularly called today  “the Galapagos of the east”. At the time of writing, a most valuable record on the subject is a set of documentary photographs  – some provided with polyglot labels – created by a Japanese scholar in her personal blog online. Sadly, that blog is now archived among ‘uncatalogued photos’ on a Yemeni website.[20]

© Diane O’Donovan, December 2009


[1] I am grateful to Adam Morris for pointing out to me, after reading the present article,  that in an online forum in 2002, Dana Scott had said that f25v represented a species within the genus Dracaenae. The link to which he refers is: [Thu, 28 Feb 2002 00:53:48 -0800] http://www.voynich.net/Arch/2002/02/msg00069.html.

“pre-classical times” – as we infer from the existence in pre-classical times of the scenario where the tree, the dragon, its blood and the aboriginal garden are thematically linked to ideas about immortality and the stars. On which see Graves, R., The Greek Myths (the eleventh labour of Hercules).

[2] Classifications for the Dracaena are those current at the time of writing. For the Dracaena see:  Marrero, A., Alemeida, R.,et.al., (1998) ‘New species of the Wild dragon tree, Dracaena  (Dracenaceae) from Gran Canaria and its taxonomic and biogeographic implications’.   Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, Volume 128 Issue 3, Pages 291 – 314.  The abstract includes:   “The arborescent taxa of Dracaena which form the dragon tree group comprise five species found in Macronesia, Morocco (D. draco), East Africa (D. ombet, D. schizantha), Arabia (D. serrulata) and the island of Socotra (D. cinnabari). A new species of dragon tree, Dracaena tamaranae A. Marrero, R. S. Almeida & M. Gonzalez-Martin, is described from Gran Canaria, Canary Islands. This new species differs from D. draco, the only other Dracaena species currently known in Macaronesia, in having a growth form and inflorescence type and leaves more similar to the East African and Arabian species of Dracaena. In contrast, D. draco appears to be related to D. cinnabari. In this paper, we also present a study of the taxonomy, habitat and ecology of all the species of the dragon tree group. These are found in thermo-sclerophyllous plant communities of tropical-subtropical regions which are rather xerophilous and have a rainfall range of 200–500 mm. Our study indicates two independent colonization events for Dracaena in Macaronesia. Published Online: 28 Jun 2008      © 2009 The Linnean Society of London

[4] The same text mentions other species including “ Dracaena terminalis, or Chinese Colli, yields ‘Chinese Dragon’s Blood’, used in China for its famous red varnish. In some countries a syrup, yielding sugar, is made from the roots (called Tii roots). An intoxicating drink can be made from it, and it has also been used in dysentery and diarrhoea, and as a diaphoretic”.

Socotra’s dragonsblood is prepared simply by heating the resin over an open fire, but the methods used to create it from other species are explained by an author writing in the early nineteenth century. See, William Marsden, The History of Sumatra: Containing An Account Of  The Government, Laws, Customs And Manners Of The Native Inhabitants. (1811) Available online at gutenberg.org/files/16768/16768-h/16768-h.htm#ch-07.

[5] Populations totalling a few hundred D. draco trees are found on five of the seven Canary Islands, in addition to two individuals on Madeira Island, Portugal and populations in Cape Verde, Morocco and about 50 – 80 trees on the Azorean Islands, particularly on Ilha das Flores … The dragon tree is found in dry forests. On Madeira and in the Azores, the plant grows in steep coastal cliffs usually below 200 m altitude. In the Canaries, it can be found in inaccessible cliffs from 100 – 600 m altitude, and in Morocco and Cabo Verde it grows high in the mountains.

[6] A claim which cannot be tested by dendochronology since the spongy bark of the Dracaena does not form rings, nor does it form scales like most other Dracaena.

[7] The Egyptian verb ‘to embalm’ meant literally ‘to redden’.

[8] In passing we note that the Javanese species of Dracaena, with its brilliant, alternate, variegation may be the subject of Voynich f3r.

[9] An endemism is a species found no where else in the world.

[11] See biodiversitylibrary.org/page/15777242#478  and others listed at eol.org/pages/83792

[12] Adenium obsesum socotranum (Vierh.) Lavranos). The Adenium comes into leaf in winter, drops its leaves in summer and then comes into flower. It is one of the shrubs that does not need rain to flower.

[13] Although the ref may be to the mineral Cinnabar. Wikipedia contains an article surveying the history and uses for dragonsblood. The Dragon tree in the Bosch painting has been noted by numerous other authors.

[14] http://www.rtvslo.si/socotra/eng.htm. I cannot vouch for this source.



  1. A point which is of some importance, but which I neglected to include in the body of this paper is that the Soqotran species – whose “dragonsblood” was known to the medieval Mediterranean and considered the only true source of ‘dragonsblood’ as minim, only gained its present taxononomic description in 1880, before which it had been described for half a century (1835-1880) as Pterocarpus draco. Both these terms derive from the same passage in Pliny who specifies the ‘Indian’ substance as superior. (Pliny Ch.XXXIII.38 etc.) I will quote the passage below. However, Pliny is not the reason for my opinion about the chief subject of folio 25v’s being the young plant of D.cinnabari, but rather the form of the plant, the form given the leaf, and a complete absence of any fruit or flower. D.cinnabari has long been noted for seemingly having neither fruit nor flower, of which both are obvious in the Mediterranean species. Other details such as the style of the trunk added to my decision.

    I add this comment because so very many Voynicheros, neglecting to research the history of the present descriptions, assumed it as a matter of their ‘common sense’ that the little dragon must mean D.draco! 🙂

    from Pliny the Elder, Natural History Bk.XXXIII.38
    … the thick matter which issues from the dragon when crushed beneath the weight of the dying elephant, mixed with the blood of either animal.. Indeed this last is the only colour that in painting gives a proper representation of blood. This cinnabaris, too, is extremely useful as an ingredient in antidotes and various medicaments.

    And in the old translation which you can see at Perseus, a note is added to Book XXIX.c.8, where Pliny
    “..speaks of the mistake made by the physicians in giving mineral vermilion or minium to their patients instead of Indian cinnabar. The latter substance is probably identical with that which is now used for varnishes, being imported from India, and still known as ” dragons’ blood,” the resin of the Pterocarpus draco, or Calamus palm…”
    As you can see, western botanists were still to settle on the current nomenclature, or to correctly identify the Soqotran plant as late as 1855, when that translation was made.

    – Hope this clears up an old source of confusion. Cheers.


  2. .. and for the academic-critically minded:
    ” The ” Dragon’s Blood” of Pliny … cannot be determined with certainty, but [in the accompanying note 32] ” The Greek name kinnabaris was properly applied to this resin, but was transferred to mercury sulphide (our “cinnabar”) through the confusion to which Pliny alludes. Minium in turn was displaced from mercury sulphide to red lead oxide, the latter being Pliny’s secondarium minimum. Dioscorides also tells of kinna baris brought from Africa: “… some thought it to be
    ye blood of ye dragon.”

    quoted from another of the sources consulted in making the original paper I sent so long ago to ciphermysteries, namely:
    Edward H. Shafer, ‘Rosewood, Dragon’s Blood, and Lac’, Journal of the American Oriental Society
    Vol. 77, No. 2 (Apr. – Jun., 1957), pp. 129-136 (p.132)


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