Hundreds of medicines used today originated as plants that were employed in various parts of the world to treat everything from bronchitis to inflammation to bacterial infections. As you read these notes there are ethnobotanists scouring many regions of the planet in search of some new wonder drug. From the jungles to the deserts and even to that wooded patch behind your house scientists oftentimes begin their data collection through interviews with the locals. The inquiry often goes something like: “I’ve been told there’s a tree in these parts with a bark that’s used to make a tea that’s good for arthritis…..Have you heard of it?”
Remember that for every plant believed to have medicinal properties there was someone who was either brave or foolish enough to give it a try. Most likely people did not taste plants in search of medicine but instead to learn if they were edible. Understanding a plant’s medicinal properties probably took centuries. Tens of thousands of medicinal plants are found in the desert regions of the United States. Shrubs, grasses, trees and cacti have been used to cure things ranging from gum disease to ulcers. Speaking of gum disease there is an odd looking plant found in South Texas and on into parts of Mexico that has long been used to treat mouth sores, swollen gums and related ills. Mind you these curative plants were discovered by the native peoples who roamed the land as far back as twelve thousand years ago and whose progeny reside in this region even today. As such they should be given full credit for many of the medicines we now use derived through their experimentations over a dozen millennia.
Finding the plant called sangre de drago or dragon’s blood with leaves intact is an oddity. Most of the time these plants look (as their other common name implies) like long stems made of leather. The “skin” is quite thin however and is easily peeled away. Beneath the skin one finds an emerald green sheath with a clear juice (a type of latex) that upon contact with the air turns deep red. Thus the name Dragon’s Blood or Sangre de Drago.
Dragon’s blood is in the Euphorbiaceae family also called the spurge family. The genus and species is Jatropha dioica. Acclimatized to desert regions it quickly flowers and blooms following rainfall but then sheds its leaves to form that cluster of leather stems I mentioned above. I’ve always referred to the plant as Leather Stem or simply Jatropha because that’s how I learned it. You’ve got to cut it open in order to see the “blood.”
If goats eat leather stem stalks they will become quite ill. I saw this occur some years back when a flock munched on leather stem and a couple of them died. But the old people used to chew on the roots and apparently the juice or latex acts as an astringent in that it constricts tissues to limit bleeding gums. And therein is the reason that people found it useful with gum and mouth sore disorders. Mind you that you should not try any medicinal plant without first understanding the possible dangers involved. Allergic reactions (some quite severe) can occur as can other detrimental effects. In other words, you try these plants at your own risk. For me sangre de drago, or dragon’s blood, or as I call it, leather stem speaks of the desert brushlands and will always be a part of my life.
The leaves are beginning to drop after a week of rain. Soon the dragon's blood will appear like nothing but a cluster of leather stems.