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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Dragon's Blood - A Pigment With A Mysterious History

Updated: Aug 7, 2022

Sangre de Drago

Vacations are wonderful times to relax and leave behind the routines practiced daily to seek different experiences. One such adventure took place with a visit to the Huntington Library Art Collection and Gardens in San Marino, California. It is a beautiful site where sections of desert, tropical, exotic and the common local flora all come together to form a spectacular collection of living plant life. The only real negative on the day of the visit was the 104 degree F heat that made us feel like a slice of bacon sizzling in a skillet. I swear that just a few minutes out in the intense sun would have resulted in some form of human spontaneous combustion.

After moving from the desert garden to the tropical forest area, the tour guide at the Huntington pointed out a tree called the Dracaena. This species varies in the size from trees, like the one I was observing, to a wide variety of fairly common moderately small houseplants. The tree in front of me was far from being any kind of houseplant and certainly not manageable in the interior of a typical home, unless you live in a heated airplane hangar with lots of windows. Under the name Dracaena was the subtitle “Dragon’s Blood” tree. So I was transported right back to my interest in unusual pigments and their origins.

Dragon’s blood is usually listed as an exotic pigment with mysterious origins. With a name that should belong in the inventory of substances found in the potions and magical spells classroom from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the origin of dragon’s blood plays right into our sense of the supernatural. The name tends to imply that at one point in the past brave pigment harvesters actually killed dragons to obtain the red resinous material used as a colorant. Perhaps to the medieval mind, the suggestion that dragons existed and unwillingly yielded blood to color the pages of parchment manuscripts and early tempera and oil paintings made the color far more special. What has more status in the economic order of pricing, a blob of red color that a foolhardy laborer obtained from a dragon or the same material procured from harvesting resin plucked off berries from a unflinching and defenseless tree?

As a pigment for paintings dragon’s blood has little going for it as far as documented uses are concerned. Rosamond Harley sites that because it had the appearance of dried blood, it was somehow associates with a combination of dried dragon and elephant blood. Since it is well know that where you find elephants you will also find dragons lurking ready to pounce on an unsuspecting pachyderm. It was documented by George Field to retard drying oil by keeping it tacky, it is rarely mentioned in description of painting materials and it had the tendency to fade. Basically it has all of the characteristics to make it a first class looser among materials in the pigment world.

Colorants like dragon’s blood appear in the literature because pigments of any type are exotic materials that come mostly from difficult to extract sources. In several cases, ancient pigments continue to breathe life because they have other inherent properties that make them useful to the modern world. In this instance, a colorant like dragon’s blood has medicinal purposes and straddles the fence between mainstream and homeopathic medicine.

Dragon’s blood ironically is a substance that stops bleeding. It helps with healing wounds and related injuries. However, in reading about dragon’s blood it becomes clear that two distinctly different uses exist within this one material. Dragon’s blood is derived from several botanical sources such as berries from one species, exudates from another and sap flowing from gashes made into the bark of trees in yet another species. The resin is used as previously stated for medical purposes and in other references the resin was a traditional coating for musical instruments, mainly rare violins. Considerable study has been initiated on violin resin coatings to unlock the secrets of why certain violins possess such wonderful sound making abilities.

For as many writers on violin surface coatings that exist, the same number or more theories and formulations for violin varnishes are presented as the true coating used by the great master violin makers. It is akin to all of the relics of the True Cross. Put all together they would form enough wood to build a sailing ship. Regardless, dragon’s blood is either totally ignored or is the key ingredient in the creation of outstanding violins in the world.

Currently extracts of dragon’s blood resin are sold from a variety of Internet retailers. They are used to stop bleeding gums, healing wounds and treating a variety of gastric distress issues. One product even boasts that it is not irradiated or fumigated. Wow! I am glad for that. You can also skip all the medical uses of dragon’s blood and just burn it. It is sold in chunk form as incense. Many of the products come with the name Sangre de Drago to add that special foreign language marketing appeal so you are certain that it is rare and exotic and thus expensive.

I saw no evidence of any resin, red berries or drops of anything on the Dracaena tree I visited at the Huntington Library. Even if I did, sampling is strictly forbidden. Given my luck, even if I did find a sample ripe for the taking, I would have undoubtedly injured myself attempting to wrestle the raw dragon’s blood sample from the rather large tree standing in front of me. Falling and collapsing quickly in the 104 degree heat, I would have stammered something about wrapping a violin around my wound to stop the bleeding. The paramedics would have assumed that I was just another victim of heat stroke suffering a delusional episode.

Little would they know I was trying to save myself with my esoteric knowledge of pigments. Mumbling in the ambulance as they took me away, I would have told the paramedics the story of how the Caduceus (the double intertwined snakes on a staff with wings on the top) is commonly mistaken for the real symbol of medicine, the Rod of Asclepius. Mercury caries the Caduceus and the element mercury is very interesting. It is a key component in the red pigment mercuric sulfide. At this point the paramedics would inject more sedative in my body to quell what they would think are delusions and basically just shut me up.

Syntax of Color

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