For centuries, the ancient Greeks believed that the Canary Islands were the legendary site of the Garden of Hesperides. Upon this island rested the many-headed dragon Landon, guardian of this island paradise. In the tales of Hercules’s 12 tasks, the legendary hero was required to bring back three golden apples from the Garden of Hesperides. In order to fulfill his quest, Hercules slew the many-headed dragon, and as the creature lay dying, its red flowed over the land and from it sprang mighty trees, the famed dragon trees of the Canary Islands.
The fearsome ‘dragon’ of the Isles
Perhaps Hercules, if he really existed, did meet a monstrous serpent when he journeyed to the island. More likely, the legend was inspired by the dragon trees of the Canary Islands, which are hardly less impressive than their supposedly draconic creator.
Rearing high above the dry arid landscape is an awesome tree, with much-divided branches and dark spiky leaves. Its strange, almost fearsome appearance does indeed bring to mind a many-headed dragon. It may even by that the fleshy orange fruits of the tree were the golden apples the Greek adventurer was seeking and he chopped down the tree to reach the fruit, thus giving rise to the story of ‘slaying the dragon’.
The rich sap of the tree is a deep red, inevitably resembling spilt blood. The sap has been imbued with mystical and magical properties for centuries. In the Middle Ages, it was a highly sought after ingredient in numerous fantastic alchemic recipes, and much prized for by the mysterious Guanche natives for use in their traditional mummification process. The resin had its more commonplace uses as well — the islanders used it for war paint, as decoration, and more recently, even as furniture wax.
Despite the proletarian uses of such a noble ingredient, there is strong respect and caring for the tree, as it is in many ways considered a symbol of the island. The dragon tree even appears on the country’s coat of arms. Dragon trees are extremely slow-growing, and many of the most impressive specimens are many hundreds of years old. Unfortunately, through the ages they have become much rarer as humans felled them for land and timber, and now the most well-known dragon tree is a grand old fellow standing in the town of La Palma. Some date it to be from 1500 to 3000 years old, though most would safely estimate a no less respectable age of 650 years. Today, the few remaining dragon trees are highly protected as the last members of a dying species.
The secret of water on a barren island
On the Island of El Harrio, the smallest of all the Canary Islands, one fact comes sharply into view: there is very little natural water on the island. There are no rivers, no lakes and no visible source of fresh water. Despite the arid barrenness however, a population of about a thousand aboriginal Bimbaches lived on the island.
It was a great mystery to the invading Spaniards, who couldn’t colonise the islands due to the lack of water, and were unable to wrest the secret from the natives, despite a variety of punishments. The Bimbaches were experienced with such foreign invasions, for they had often before been subjected to pirate raids, in which their people were carried off to slavery. The raiders never stayed long because of their own thirst. The understandably cautious Bimbaches had no intention of sharing their secret even with the Spaniards, who had pledge friendship and prosperity with the natives.
The Bimbaches obtained their fresh water not from a river or a spring, but from a tree and the very same trade winds that had blown the Spaniards to their island. The trade winds carry a high percentage of humidity, and the air-born moisture is condensed on the mountainsides. This gentle moisture was enough to support the forests clinging to the side of the mountains, but would have been completely inadequate for human needs if it were not for the single Garoe tree growing in the upper reaches of the island. The water condensed on the dense foliage of the garoe, and then trickled down the leaves. The droplets of precious water were collected in urns and transferred to an elaborate waterworks for storage. Scholarly research indicates the single Garoe tree supported the entire population.
To the Bimbaches, the phenomenon of a tree dripping continuously with life-giving water was nothing less than a miracle. They worshipped the Garoe as a God, guarding it as the source of their well-being and security. When the Spaniards came and began their conquest, the Bimbaches craftily hid the Holy Garoe and swore everyone to secrecy, knowing the Spaniards would soon leave them due to thirst.
Unfortunately, the secret was betrayed by one of their own: a young woman by the name of Agarfa fell in love with one of the Spaniards and revealed the secret, little knowing her confession would result in the loss of her people’s freedom. It was no small surprise when the Spaniards captured the sacred tree and successfully conquered the island. In retribution, a party of Bimbaches kidnapped Agarfa from the Spanish camp where she resided with her lover, and hanged her at dawn the following day. A few days later, Armiche the King of the Bimbaches offered tribute to the conqueror Maciot de Bethencourt. It was not long before the Bimbaches populations were entirely slaves.
As for the Garoe, though it was no longer sacred, it still supported the people of the island until its demise in 1610, when it was uprooted by the furious winds of a hurricane. A laurel tree was planted in its memory in 1945. Today, residents of the island obtain their water mostly from desalination plants, but visitors to the upper slopes of the island’s mountains can still see the traces of the water works in which the Bimbaches stored their water, and upon which once depended the fate of the island.