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Home > Products > Trees > Big Dracaena draco in Santa Barbara

  Big Dracaena draco in Santa Barbara

Quest to Find the Biggest Dragon Trees (Dracaena draco), in Santa Barbara, California
by Randy Baldwin, San Marcos Growers

Santa Barbara Dragon Trees
Dragon Tree at Alameda Park

On February 14, 2014, Matt Ritter, Cal Poly Professor and author of A Californian's Guide to the Trees Among Us, threw down the gauntlet when he measured the large old Dracaena draco in Alameda Park (downtown Santa Barbara) and declared it the National US Champion Dragon Tree. Knowing that there were larger dragons hiding in private estates and gardens elsewhere in town, Matt's action mobilized the plant forces in Santa Barbara to measure all of the biggest dragon trees to determine which was actually the largest. Emails quickly went out and a committee was rapidly formed that included arborists, architects, botanists and other genuine "plant freaks". A plea was also made to the public to help through a Santa Barbara news blog called >EdHat and soon there was a long list of large dragon trees to investigate and measure. On March 5, 2014 members of our dragon tree committee, including Randy Baldwin, Mollie Barker, Susan Chamberlin, Jeff Chemnick, Virginia Hayes, Duke McPherson, John Bleck and Don Harris (members Bob Cunningham and Tim Downey could not make it) went to the El Mirador Estate in Montecito to see one of the biggest dragon trees we had ever seen. We were led to the tree by the property owner Tita Lanning and Joe Gonzales, the estate gardener who had recently retired after 55 years working at El Mirador. John Bleck, Jeff Chemnick and Randy Baldwin measured the tree using a 100 foot tape measure and a Nikon laser hypsometer to determine its canopy width, height and trunk circumference.

Later on that same day, March 5, 2014, Randy Baldwin, John Bleck and Jeff Chemnick measured what turned out to be a slightly shorter but bigger overall dragon tree at the Mount Calvary Monastery behind the Santa Barbara Mission. This location was formerly called St. Mary's Retreat House but the monastery was moved to this location when its previous location burned down in the 2008 Tea Fire. The amazing dragon tree specimen there is tall, robust and healthy with a full dense canopy.

On Earth Day (April 22) 2014 the group measured what we all believe is the tallest and most impressive Dragon Tree in the Santa Barbara area at the Sotto il Monte Estate (also known as La Tosana). Heide Baldwin, Randy Baldwin, Molly Barker, Susan Chamberlin, Tim Downey, Jeff Chemnick, Ken Greby, Virginia Hayes, Don Harris, Don Hodel, Gretchen Ingmanson and Duke McPherson joined estate manager Tobias Pohlmeyer and estate gardener Jose Lopez for this occasion. Though its point value on the Big Tree Registry formula of 223.8 is actually .6 less than the Mt. Calvary Monastery Tree, this is only .27% less in value, a difference that is not statistically significant, so we consider these two giant dragon trees tied for the honor of National Champion. This Sotto il Monte was remeasured by Matt Ritter in 2017 and determined to actually be a couple feet taller so may actually be THE Champion.

This committee's work is not done as there are likely other dragon trees yet to be measured (see list below of those identified) but we now have at least two very large dragon trees on the California Big Tree Registery as co-champions - see Sotto il Monte Dragon Tree and list that will soon go up on the Mount Calvary Monastery Dragon Tree. We have also surveyed the trees of the San Diego area and have this on our The Biggest Dragon Trees in San Diego page


Current National Co-Champions
Santa Barbara Dragon Tree Santa Barbara Dragon Tree
Dragon Tree at Mount Calvary Monastery Dragon Tree at Sotto il Monte with measuring team
Mount Calvary Monastery Dracaena draco was measured on April 22 2014 at: Sotto il Monte Dracaena draco was measured on April 22 2014 at:
  • 39 feet tall
  • 40 feet crown spread (44'9" at widest by 36'6" at narrowest)
  • 175.2 inch circumference at Breast Height (54" DBH)
  • Points Formula
    Trunk circumference in inches + Height in feet + 1/4 of the crown spread in feet = Total Points
    175.2+39+ 10.2 = 224.4

  • 43.5 feet tall
  • 32.4 feet crown spread (32'6" at widest by 32'3" at narrowest)
  • 172.2 inch circumference at Breast Height (54" DBH)
  • Points Formula
    Trunk circumference in inches + Height in feet + 1/4 of the crown spread in feet = Total Points
    172.2+43.5+8.1 = 223.8

    Santa Barbara Dragon Tree Santa Barbara Dragon Tree
    Dragon Tree at Santa Barbara Zoo Dragon Tree at El Mirador Estate with gardener Joe Gonzales
    The Santa Barbara Zoo Dracaena draco was measured on May 9, 2014 at: The El Mirador Estate Dracaena draco was measured on March 6, 2014 at:
  • 35 feet tall
  • 21.25 feet crown spread
  • 109 inch circumference at Breast Height (54" DBH)
  • Points Formula
    Trunk circumference in inches + Height in feet + 1/4 of the crown spread in feet = Total Points
    109+35+5.3 = 149.3

  • 41 feet tall
  • 38.5 feet crown spread
  • 164 inch circumference at Breast Height (54" DBH)
  • Points Formula
    Trunk circumference in inches + Height in feet + 1/4 of the crown spread in feet = Total Points
    164+41+9.6 = 214.6

    Dragon Trees at Lotusland (Montecito)
    Santa Barbara Dragon Tree Santa Barbara Dragon Tree
    Dragon Trees at Casa del Herrero (Montecito)
    Santa Barbara Dragon Tree Santa Barbara Dragon Tree
    Santa Barbara Dragon Tree Santa Barbara Dragon Tree
    Dragon Tree at Hitchcock Ranch (Santa Barbara) Dragon Tree at Samarkand(Santa Barbara)
    Santa Barbara Dragon Tree Santa Barbara Dragon Tree
    Dragon Tree at the Historical El Paseo (Santa Barbara) Dragon Tree at Rancho Monte Alegre (Carpinteria)
    Santa Barbara Dragon Tree Santa Barbara Dragon Tree
    Dragon Tree on Valley Club Road (Montecito) Laying down Dragon Tree at Quien Sabe Estate (Montecito)

    Other large dragon trees noted in Santa Barbara

  • Arrellaga Street Tree (21 East Arrellaga)
  • Former Camillo Fenzi Property (215 E. Padre Street)
  • Franceschi Park (several)
  • Orpet Park (several)
  • Santa Barbara Mission (several)

    History of Dracaena draco in Santa Barbara
    Dr. Franceschi (AKA Emanuele Orazio Fenzi) recorded Dracaena draco as already having been planted in Santa Barbara when he surveyed the area in 1895. In his Santa Barbara Exotic Flora: A Handbook of Plants From Foreign Countries (1895) the listing for Dracaena draco (pg 18) states "Dracaena draco, the true Dragon tree from the Canary Islands, must be quite an old inmate of our gardens, judging from the large specimens existing in front of the Arlington Hotel, at the corner of State and Valerio streets, at Ellwood in Mrs. Cooper's garden, and at Carpinteria in the grounds of the late Professor Ford." The best evidence is anecdotal but we believe that that the tree was introduced into the area (and perhaps into the US) by Sarah Cooper or by nurseryman Joseph Sexton. Sarah Cooper was a noted plantswoman of her day with an interest in succulents and the wife of Ellwood Cooper, famous for the intoduction of many Eucalyptus species to California. In Tangible Memories: Californian's and Their Gardens, 1800-1950 (2003) author Judith M. Taylor notes that Sarah Cooper and Joseph Sexton worked together to acquire seeds of various plants.

    The earliest referenced date regarding the area's dragon trees is from The Santa Barbara Gardener, a monthly newsletter published by Lockwood and Elizabeth De Forrest. In the July 1926 issue (Vol. 1 No 8 pg. 8) there was a short piece about the Dracaena draco that had been located at the corner of Victoria and State Street (this would have been the grounds of the original Arlington Hotel) having just been moved to Alameda Plaza and 4 issues later in November 1926 (Vol. 1 No. 12 pg. 2) there was an article titled "The Golden Dragon" noting that this tree was doing very well and that it had grown at its previous site at the Arlington Hotel for 50 years. The article further states "It makes us tired when people exclaim "But it is such an ugly tree!" We'll admit that it is not pretty but there is a certain rugged strength and character about it which to our mind gives a very great distinction. Here we have a tree, hoary with age and with the history and tradition of Santa Barbara. Need we remind our readers that it was a part of Mr. Sexton's very generous gift to the Arlington grounds in 1874 when that hostelry was struggling to get started."

    From this we know that Dracaena draco had at least made its way to Santa Barbara by 1874 and one could infer that it likely was introduced at least a few years before this since the plant had been nurtured up to a size that Sexton thought worthy to give as a gift to the Arlingon Hotel. The article in the The Santa Barbara Gardener also notes that Mr. Huntington tried to buy this same tree for $2,000 to move to another city (presuming this would have been to his San Marino garden). Unfortunately, in the January 1932 issue of The Santa Barbara Gardener (Vol. 7 No. 2), it notes "Well, well, the old Dragon tree, Dracaena draco, is gone from Alameda. Some will say, 'Thank heavens, that eye sore has been removed;' and others will shed a tear for the passing of 'that fine, rugged old specimen,' for such is taste and likes and dislikes." From this commentary, and from Peter Riedel's below, it is pretty clear that the large dragon tree now in Alameda Park is not the same as the one moved from the Arlington Hotel in 1926.

    Other Historical Santa Barbara Dragon Tree Tidbits:
    Victoria Padilla in Southern California Gardens: An Illustrated History (1961) mentions that the entrance to Montarioso (now Franceschi Park ) was graced by "two sturdy groups of dragon trees (Dracaena draco), standing like guardians at the entrance to this modern garden of the Hesperides." Perhaps Dr. Francesci's fascination with dragon trees is understanding given what Gary Lyons at the Huntington Botanic Garden had written about him in his article "In Search of Dragons" in the November-December 1974 issue of Cactus and Succulent Society of America Journal (Vol. 46 No. 6 pg. 267-282). In this incredibly detailed article Lyons notes that Dr. Franceschi (as E.O. Fenzi) visited Tenerife Island in the Canary Islands in 1856 and is credited with taking the only known photograph to exist of the "Giant Dragon Tree of Orotava", a tree once called one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It had been measured by Alexander von Humboldt 1799 with a circumference of 45 feet (measured at 15 feet high, above the basal swelling) and 65 feet tall - that would have been amazing to see!

    One of the more interesting dragon trees in town is on an old estate in Montecito called Quien Sabe. This is the tree shown above that is partially laying down. The current owner of the property, who has lived there since the early 1960s, noted that the tree has this odd form because it was growing partially under a large tree that has since been removed. The Quien Sabe estate is particularly notable as the original owners, John D. Wright and wife Ysabel, were succulent enthusiasts in the 1920s and planned to build a grand house on the site. The Great Depression stopped these plans and forced the Wrights to move back to the east coast with many of their plants going to Lotusland and Casa del Herrero and the property was then leased to the botanist Donald Culross Peattie, who wrote about the garden it in his book Flowering Earth (1939), including a mention of the dragon tree in the garden.

    Peter Riedel in Plants for Extra-tropical Regions (published in 1957 after Riedel's death in 1954) states "the "Dragon-blood-tree" from the Canary islands is well represented here, and when mature is an impressive plant. ... The largest specimen in Santa Barbara grew in the grounds of the Arlington Hotel and was moved to Alameda Park but failed to survive. … Although, it is only after many years growth that these plants become effective, they live for a long time and are well worth the waiting. At present they are but seldom planted"

    Maunsell Van Rensselaer's Trees of Santa Barbara (1940) listed the Alameda Dragon Tree (with a photograph by Josef Muench!), noting it a "fine spreading specimen" and located an "unusually tall individual at 1630 Grand Avenue" [No longer there – 2/2014]. He listed the "largest Dragon Tree on the campus (Leadbetter) of the Santa Barbara State College." [this would be Santa Barbara City College now though it is thought this plant removed when the Garvin theater was built - Correspondence with SBBC staff 2/2014]. Van Rensellaer also references the 3 street trees at 21 E. Arrellaga [only one left - 2/2014] as being the only place he witnessed to have it used as a street tree. Of note there is still a very tall street tree on Valley Club Road or East Valley Dr. and it would be in contention for among the tallest but it is not very healthy looking with very yellow foliage. [Personal observation 2/2014]

    In the 1974 Trees of Santa Barbara by Katherine Muller, Will Beittel and Richard Broder, they describe the El Mirador Dracaena draco as "about 45 feet tall with a trunk 5 feet thick." In Bob Muller and Bob Haller Trees of Santa Barbara (2005) it also mentions a specimen in the inner courtyard of the El Paseo. Visiting this tree recently I found that while it is tall, its circumference and head is small and spindly as it searches upward for light in its narrow confines. [Personal observation 2/2014]


    Dragon Trees outside of Santa Barbara
    Likely there are additional large Dragon Trees in the areas of Southern California that we have yet to find. That Henry Huntington was trying to purchase the large tree at the Arlington Hotel in the 1920's indicates that he was searching for a larger specimen and in Volume 4 of the The New York Botanical Garden Illustrated Encyclopedia of Horticulture (1981) there is a picture of a nice sized specimen in the Huntington Botanic Gardens but this picture is undated and, as nice as the plant pictured is, it is still much smaller than most we see in Santa Barbara. The Los Angeles Arboretum has a nice collection of good sized younger trees but these too are small in comparison with the Santa Barbara giants. In George Hastings "Trees of Santa Monica" (1976) he describes Dracaena draco as ""occasionally planted as an oddity"" with a list of addresses where several dragon trees can be found in that city, and while these can be found at these addresses using Google Map Street View, none are close to the size of our Santa Barbara trees. I have also contacted Don Hodel, author of Exceptional Trees of Los Angeles, and Kathy Musial, curator at the Huntington Botanic Garden, to inquire about this and they told me that they knew of no plants larger than our large Santa Barbara specimens.

    In Ornamental Trees of San Diego (2003), author Steve Brigham mentions an impressive group of specimens at the San Diego Botanic Garden (Quail) and on their website is an article about then retiring Director of Horticulture Dave Ehrlinger. In this article Dave noted that the largest Dracaena draco in the San Diego area is the 100 year old specimen at the Hotel Del Coronado. This Hotel del Coronado Dragon Tree, while not being as big as our biggest Santa Barbara trees, is quite impressive and the fact that it was in the background for Marilyn Monroe's "Some Like it Hot" movie, well that's just HOT!. Other people have sent me pictures of large For more information on the San Diego dragon trees see our The Biggest Dragon Trees in San Diego page.


    More General Dragon Tree Information
    The Dragon Tree (Dracaena draco), also called the Dragon's Blood Tree, is a magnificent and large succulent tree in the genus Dracaena, which has about 40 to 100 species primarily from Africa, with a few in southern Asia and one in tropical Central America. They have long been considered to be in the Lily Family, the Liliaceae and more recently placed in the Agave Family, the Agavaceae or in their own family the Dracaenaceae, but the most current nomenclature places many of these related plants in the Asparagus family, the Asparagaceae in the subfamily Nolinoideae. The name Dracaena comes from the Greek 'drakaina' meaning "female dragon" with the specific epithet being the Latin word meaning "dragon". The common name Dragon's Blood Tree seems to have originated from the use of the resin of one of the tree forms of Dracaena as a traditional medicine and to stain wood, such as for the color of a Stradivarius violin. There is some disagreement on which Dracaena was first used but it is believed that it may have originated from Dracaena cinnabari, a species that grows on the Indian Ocean island of Socotra. An article "Dragon's blood: Botany, chemistry and therapeutic uses" by Deepika Guptaa, Bruce Bleakleyb and Rajinder K. Gupta in the Journal of Ethno-Pharmacology V 115 (2008) 361–380 discusses this in detail.

    Dracaena draco is native to Macronesia on the Cape Verde Islands, Canary Islands, Madeira and possibly in the Azores northwest of the Canary Islands, though these Azores plants are thought possibly to be early transplants by man. There is also a population found in western Morocco (as the subspecies ajgal). The other aborescent Dracaena that are also called dragon trees include the Socotra Dragon Tree (Dracaena cinnabari found on the island of Socotra (Yemen) and looking very similar to Dracaena draco, the gray foliaged Yemen Dragon Tree (D. serrulata), the Nubrian Dragon Tree (D. ombet) and the East African (Kenya) Dragon Tree (D. ellenbeckiana). A recently described species, Dracaena tamaranae, from the island of Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands, was discovered by Günther Kunkel in 1972 but officially described in 1998 by Aguedo Marrero, Rafael S. Almeida and Manuel González-Martín. It is considered distinct from Dracaeana draco, the other species growing on the Canary Islands, as having a growth form and inflorescence type and leaves more similar to the East African and Arabian species of Dracaena.

    Dragon trees are known to be very long lived. A massive specimen of Dracaena draco described by German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt in 1799 at Orotava on Teneriffe Island in the Canary Islands was 69 foot tall and 78 feet in circumference at ground level, 48 feet around at several feet above the ground and 12 feet in circumference measured 10 feet above the ground and this same tree had previously been described as massive over 4 centuries prior (1402). Unfortunately this tree was severely damaged by a storm in the early 19th century and destroyed in 1868. The largest dragon tree known to exist today, known as the "El Drago Milenario", is one at Icod de Los Vinos (Tenerife) that is nearly as big at 55 feet tall and 65 feet in circumference. As the colloquial name of this specimen implies some, estimates of its age range as high as one thousand or more years old but more recent estimates place it in the range of 250 to 400 years. Since Dracaena are monocotyledons and do not produce growth rings, the actual age is difficult to determine.

    Dragon trees have been long been cultivated around the world and it seems that they were imported into Australia around the middle of the 19th century, around the same time as they were brought to California. In Australia they have identified two forms, one with more upright growth, relatively massive trunks and longer leaves that are more typical of the plants growing on Tenerife Island and a second with a more spreading canopy, very umbrella-like, lower and more slender branches and shorter leaves that more resemble the dragon trees growing on the Cape Verde Islands, the archipelago of 10 volcanic islands in the central Atlantic Ocean 350 miles off the coast of Western Africa south of the Canary Islands. In Australia it is the Cape Verde form that is thought more common in cultivation. This lower branching more slender branched form is also noted on La Palma island, the most western of the larger islands in the Canary Islands group.

    The branching of Dracaena is called sympodial (literally meaning "with conjoined feet"), which happens when the apical meristem is terminated at the time of flowering and replaced by laterally initiated meristem. Sometimes it is only one shoot that emerges, resulting in a slight constriction in the branch but at other times the shoots are dichotomous with 2 or more branches radiating upwards. In Dracaena draco the first flowering is thought to occur after a plant reaches 9 to 11 years and then about every 10 years after this which alows for stem elongation betweeen branching. The massive tapered trunks are not evident in the first 100 years with trunk diameter in young trees (50-100 years) increasing at the rate of about 1 cm. per year. This secondary thickening of the trunk is so unusual in monocotyledonous plants that it is actually called dracaenoid thickening and is similar to the vascular cambium development in dicotyledonous trees.

    Brigham, Steve, Ornamental Trees of San Diego, San Diego Horticultural Society, 2003.

    De Forrest, Lockwood and Elizabeth,"Dracaena draco" The Santa Barbara Gardener>/i> Vol. 1 No 8 July 1926.

    De Forrest, Lockwood and Elizabeth,"The Golden Dragon" The Santa Barbara Gardener>/i> Vol. 1 No. 12 November 1926.

    De Forrest, Lockwood and Elizabeth, The Santa Barbara Gardener>/i>, Vol. 7 No. 2, January 1932.

    Fenzi, Emanuele Orazio,Santa Barbara Exotic Flora: A Handbook of Plants From Foreign Countries, 1895

    Greentree, Carol, "Dracaena draco in San Diego", California Garden Nov-Dec. 1991

    Guptaa, Deepika, Bleakleyb, Bruce and Gupta, Rajinder K. "Dragon's blood: Botany, chemistry and therapeutic uses", Journal of Ethno-Pharmacology V 115 (2008) 361–380

    Hastings, George, Trees of Santa Monica, Self published, 1976.

    Krawczyszyn, Jozef and Krawczyszyn, Teresa, Massive Aerial Roots Affect Growth and Form of Dracaena draco, Trees Structure and function doi: 10.1007/s00468-014-0987-0

    Lyons, Gary, ""In Search of Dragons," Journal of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America, Vol.46, 1974.

    Riedel Peter,Plants for Extra-tropical Regions:A Catalog of the Plants that Are, Have Been, Or Might be Grown where the Orange and the Avocado Thrive, Including Brief Mention of Others Every Plantsman Should Know, Los Angeles County Arboretum, 1957.

    Muller,Katherine and Beittel, Will and Broder, Richard Trees of Santa Barbara Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, 1974.

    Padilla, Victoria, Southern California Gardens: An Illustrated History, University of California Press, 1961.

    Peattie, Donald Culross, Flowering Earth, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1939.

    Symon, D.E., "The Growth of Dracaena draco – Dragon's Blood Tree", Journal of the Arnold Arboretum, v.55 (1974)

    Taylor, Judith M., Tangible Memories: Californian's and Their Gardens, 1800-1950, Self published, 2003.

    Van Rensselaer, Maunsell, Trees of Santa Barbara, The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and The City of Santa Barbara, 1940.

    Walker, Colin, "A Tale of Dragons - The Pachycaul Species of Dracaena" British Cactus and Succulent Society Journal Vol. 17, No. 4 December, 1999.

    Thank you to everyone that helped with this project. If you know of another large Dragon Tree in California or elsewher or have more information about the introduction of this speciees into cultivation, please contact me.