Q: “Evidence please?” (f.25v)

c.2500 words
I am grateful to a correspondent who has asked… well, not exactly asked… to see evidence that I treated f.25v in 2009.

This is an analytical study of the plant-drawing, treating it detail by detail and bringing in comparative and historical arguments, though the last are briefer than they might be in a formal study. If writing the paper today, I should probably leave out the ‘either-or’ argument because subsequent work on the plant-pictures showed that they are not single-plant ‘portraits’ in the European – or if you prefer, the western ‘herbal’ – mode.

The 2009 version was published at ciphermysteries courtesy of Nick Pelling and at the request of Adam Morris. I provided the paper as an outsider who as yet had no contact with Voynich community apart from Adam and Nick, knew of no precedents, and as yet hadn’t read Elegant Enigma..

I soon decided I should start a blog and stop wasting Voynich researchers’ time typing up my work, so Nick agreed to let me have the paper back and so it went up at my first ( ‘Blogger’) blog called Findings on May 24th., 2010. In retrospect, that wasn’t such a great idea.

What I’ve done now is copy-and-paste from my 2010 Findings post. The illustrations had to be re-made. For some I’ve used screen-print copies; for others, accessed the original sources again; for a few I’ve had to find different photos – those have inset labels.

The paper as I sent it to Nick was, I guess, around the five- or six-thousand word mark, and covered much more than folio 25v. Pelling edited it very well and wisely, and I’ve now pruned it even more, adding bridges in italics where the gaps became too great.

Re-reading it now, after so long a time, two things impress me: first the fact that by not later than 2010, Adam Morris had told me about Dana Scott’s offering “a Dracaena” for the plant on f.25v in a communication to Jim Reeds’ mailing list, seven years before* – yet my memory held only the names Neal and Sherwood. So the second lesson from revisiting this paper has been, for me, that not even a memory which has served me so well, for so long, can be expected to perform perfectly always. I have no cause to complain about its failing me on that point, but others may feel they do.

In 2009, I used the form ‘Socotra’; these days I use ‘Soqotra’.

(16th May) – photos that are mislabelled and altered are everywhere online when it comes to the Dracaenas but at least since the post was written the ‘mystery’ of D.cinnabari’s reproduction is gone. I think I can safely recommend the photos on one Yemeni ‘tour’ site; they give a clear idea of the island’s appearance and include genuine photos of D.cinnabari in bloom – some of which appear to be the source of altered/enhanced photos you’ll see elsewhere.


FIG. 1

Folio 25v shows a plant whose form, habit, and implied habitat are indicated, and confirmed by the additional device of the supping ‘dragon’ (Lat: draco).

I believe that the subject of the image is the plant whose current taxonomic description is Dracaena cinnabari, and which produces neither fruit nor flowers. That Socotran plant, and the one now described as  Dracaena draco, were known to classical authors, valued for the type of resin they produced and for one reason and another – not only because the resin was called ‘dragonsblood’ were associate with ideas about preservation and delayed aging as longevity.

It has always been the resin of the Socotran species preferred for medical and for the various other uses to which the ‘dragonsblood’ was put.


Illustrated (aboveD. draco, Morocco. The photo shows the yellow racemes of fruit and flowers – things that D. cinnabari does not bear.

(below) D. cinnabari.  (earlier ‘D. socotrana’). Soqotra. 


Modern opinion calculates there to be about fifty species of Dracaena, most in tropical Africa and Asia, with six in China.

The illustrator drew the plant’s roots in fol.25v forming a noticeable mound, evoking the sense of steep or rocky habitat in which these two dracaenas are normally found, but the propensity of the Socotran tree for lifting surrounding ground and for showing so much of its roots is, in my opinion, the distinction being emphasised in f.25v.

FIG 4 – detail f.25v

(above) Root-mounds of D. cinnabari, Soqotra. This phenomenon does not occur in the Mediterranean species -not even in mature plants, no matter what you may see in labels added to photos on commercial sites.

The roots of the fruit- and flower-bearing  D.draco scarcely show above ground when a specimen is mature. What we see in f.25v is not growth-habit of D. draco.

FIG 7 D. draco – fully mature tree.
FIG, 6

This view is reinforced still further by the form given the leaves on f.25v These broad soft leaves forming a ‘whorl’ are the leaves of a young plant of D.cinnabari – nothing like appearance of the Mediterranean’s D.draco- whether young (see FIG. 9) or mature, and that includes the Gran Canary species (Fig 10.).

FIG. 8 (left) detail from f.25v. (centre) young leaves of D. cinnabari (right) full grown tree of D. cinnabari.
FIG 9. Young plant of D.draco

The next illustration shows a Dracaena in a public gardens of the Canary islands. Despite what you may see online, the Gran Canary species is neither D. draco not D. cinnabaris. On which 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. 
FIG 10 Dracaena photographed in gardens in the Canary islands.

A pale trunk is not natural to D. cinnabari, whose bark is naturally reddish but occurs when the outer bark splits (as it will do naturally) or when it has been removed to make extraction of the resin easier. The wounds you see in the tree shown in Fig.3 are also due to this removal of the bark – a sight so widely seen in Socotra that the draftsman’s leaving the bark uncoloured in f.25v is entirely understandable.

FIG. 11

The resin of Socotra’s D. cinnabari is still a commercial product today. In 1932 an important English pharmacopoeia refers to it as being imported to England through entrepots in India and in Zanzibar just as it had been ever since Roman times, and:

The resin extracted from the bark of D. cinnabari is called “Socotrine Dragon’s Blood” when imported from Bombay, and “Zanzibar drop’” when imported through Zanzibar”.

Mrs. Grieve’s New Herbal,

added note – 13th May 2023. On preferred sources and continuity:the Zibaldone da Canal‘s one reference to dragons’ blood lists it among the more expensive among the eastern ‘spices’ then being obtained through the port of Ayas, or Laiazzo* : “New cloves, and cubebs, and rhubarb, and spike lavender, and long pepper, and cardamoms, dragons’ blood, lign aloes [also gained from Soqotra], camphor [southern India and the far east], and all small spices are sold at Ayas [Laiazzo] by the light ounce of the market, and light twisted silk in colours

  • John E. Dotson (translation and commentary), Merchant Culture in Fourteenth-Century Venice (1994) p.162. The manuscript is in the Beinecke Library as MS 327.

*Ayas/Laiazzoater was later re-named by the Turks as Yumurtalık.

Both  Dracaena cinnabari and D. draco were widely associated with longevity and preservation. Socotra’s trees are credited with being thousands of years old, while the Guanches of the Canary islands were said – again in 1932 = to maintain a reverence for it, and to use “its product for embalming in the fashion of the Egyptians.”  

To see insects preserved in the resin is not rare and among its other names, the Soqotran plant has been known is ‘Phoenix tree’. Unlike its Mediterranean cousin, Soqotra’s D. cinnabari seems to produce neither fruit not flowers, and what appears to be its ‘youthful’ phase thus lasts longer than human memory – or so it has ever seemed to people who knew it.

Western drawings

The 1633 edition of Gerard’s European Herbal contains our earliest printed picture of the Mediterranean plant, labelling it a ‘Dragon tree’ – but not yet ‘Dracaena draco’.

FIG. 12
FIG. 13. I suggest that folio 36r represents D. socotrana in the late stage of flowering.

For that ‘Dragon tree’ the reader is shown as a composite image, with racemes of fruit – which D. cinnabari does not bear but the Mediterranean species does. Those things are not shown in folio 25v, though in western botany, fruit and flower define a plant.

The mystery of how D. cinnabari reproduces has always intrigued commentators and had not been solved even by 2010. Some reports mention popular legend that another Soqotan plant (Fig. 13) was the ‘female’ but I have no more information than that.

Thus, the form given the roots on folio 25v, their being shown exposed to a substantial length, with the absence of fruit or flowers all direct us towards the Soqotran rather than the Mediterranean ‘dragon tree’ as the focus of f.25v

*Darius Lorek recently found reason to refer to Psalm 1:3 when illustrating that the term ‘leaf’ in Biblical Hebrew can refer not only to the offshoot of a plant but to living offspring. “And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither.” – this note added, May 2023

The Socotran dragonsblood resin was so famed in classical times, and so constantly preferred to other materials even during the the west’s medieval centuries (as indeed into modern times, as we’ve seen), that the seemingly barren D. cinnabari, with its highly visible roots and wide flat young leaves is unsurprising to find here.

Leaf-footed dragon.

FIG. 14 From Clonmacnois. Often called a ‘gargoyle’. This is the nearest form, stylistically, that I have seen for the little dragon in fol. 25v. It was found after making the 2010 post.
FIG. 16

In the original post, I said much more about Soqotran fauna and flora, but for this revisiting, I’ve cut the section to a few paragraphs.
Socotra is renowned for the number and variety of its reptiles. Among its geckos are the ‘Leaf-footed’ genus (Hemidactylus) of which, alone, Soqotra has 22 endemic species of the 25 species that are known world-wide. (Whether these numbers are still accurate, in 2023, I don’t know)

Geckos are the most represented reptiles in the island.. 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 chthonian 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.

from a website devoted to Soqotra’s flora and fauna. No longer a live link in 2023.
FIG. 17

Socotra’s giant gecko, Haemodracon is so named for itsdevotion to the island’s dragonsblood trees and it exists nowhere but Socotra where the two species are as H. riebeckii and H. trachyrhinus.
H. riebeckii is describes as the largest nocturnal gecko on [Socotra] island, frequently found associated with Dracaena trees or found in rock holes.” The specimen seen in the illustration (above), though labelled H. riebeckii is out and about in daylight, and has climbed another of Socotra’s endemic species, Adenium obsesum socotranum.  (2023 – there is now a wiki stub Haemodracon)

The island was once called Disocorides.  

Practical/commercial uses

The sap-resin of D. cinnabari, cooked over an open fire and made into balls, seems to have been used from before historical records begin. It was certainly traded through middlemen into western Europe, where it was used to stain glass and marble, as well as being used in internal and external medicine. It gave the reddish lustre to gold. In the east it was a pigment for paints used in pottery decoration and was used as a cosmetic.

Today in Socotra, the dragonsblood resin is used to treat dysentery and burns, and for fastening loose teeth. We are told the Romans used it as an antiseptic, and that it was specially valued by gladiators.

The red  pigment used in manuscripts to indicate the points of beginning and end, or to indicate the holy word was still sometimes termed ‘dragonsblood’ (rather than ‘minim’) in medieval times and described thus even if other forms of red pigment were used. The idea came from older traditions in which dragonsblood was imagined the colour and material of immortal ichor. The association is particularly clear in astronomical figures, where that colour (often as cinnabar or as vermillion) marks the stars that compose a figure.

[paragraphs omitted]

It should not be thought that none but Socotran plants appear in the manuscript’s botanical section. Its subject would appear to be, rather, the range of commercially valuable plants, including but not limited to those of the east Indies.  Socotra was among the chief entrepots, a point of exchange between the eastern and western sphere in this trade, even before medieval Europeans found their way east by sea.

Early travellers speak of Socotra as fringed with ships from all the eastern countries, and they remark on its limited trading season, due to the winds which prevented access for most of the year. 

Each ship which came served as the traders’ own floating market.

It is interesting to note that when the first ships sent by the Dutch Company for Afar reached Java, they found a similar custom in place. It is telling that the account seems to have an underlying petulence, as if the Dutch foreigners resented finding that distant places contain distant peoples.

…such a multitude of Javanese and other nations such as Turks, Chinese, Bengali, Arabs, Persian, Gujrato and others that one could hardly move. .. each nation took a spot on the ships where they displayed their goods, for all the world as if it were a [proper] market.”


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”. Yet at the time of writing, a most valuable record on this subject was a set of documentary photographs – some provided with polyglot labels –  created by a Japanese scholar in her personal blog online. Sadly, that blog has now been archived in a Yemeni website, among its “uncatalogued photos” section.

Note: May 2010: efforts to re-locate that blog have failed.

© Diane O’Donovan. Dec.2009; (and 2010- 2023 etc.).

Some other time, if it’s needed, I’ll see if I can find that post about the many terms used for these plants over the centuries.

Postscript (16th May). See comments below this post. I meant to add a link to this diagram (below) rather than copy it, but the hotlink is being refused. The link to that article is given in the ‘Comments’ section below.