When he first saw the tree, growing wild among the crevices of a hillock in Assam’s West Karbi Anglong district, Jatindra Sarma had to stop his car. Years of scouting around the thickets of Assam, the 55-year-old had never seen anything like it before. “I went closer to examine it; shook it a little,” says Sarma. “It looked different. It was beautiful.”
In the years that followed — the forest department official who had a keen eye for rare plants — studied the curious clump of trees. “The year’s two flowering seasons (winter and summer) passed, yet these trees, about three to five metres tall, would never flower, neither in April nor in November,” says Sarma. On one occasion, he tasted the red sticky substance that it produced. “It was bitter,” he recalls.
What Sarma had sampled was “dragon’s blood” — a resin that was typically produced by the Dracaena cambodiana, a species of dragon tree found in China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The substance was rare and had valuable medical properties, considered a precious traditional antidote in China. “And all these years know one knew we have it here — in Karbi Anglong!” says Sarma, “It is big news.”
Sarma’s sighting of India’s first “dragon tree” has been published in the latest issue of the Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. Along with Sarma, the paper has been co-authored by Hussain Ahmed Barbhuiya of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and Santanu Dey of Nagaland University’s Department of Botany.
When Sarma, who keenly tracks the developments in the world of botany, saw that a very similar-looking plant had been discovered in Myanmar, he immediately called up the scientist. “It took us years of field trips (2016-19) to establish scientific proof but today the tree is is officially a part of India’s botanical directory,” says Sarma, who is Northern Assam Circle’s Chief Conservator of Forests.
The self-taught botanist has been roaming the forests of Assam for years now. His adventures have led him to discover eight new species of medicinal plants in Assam, sight 12 new species for the first time in India, and compile two think volumes of a book titled “Medicinal Plants and Mushrooms of India.” He also serves as the Member Secretary-CEO of the State Medicinal Plants Board, Assam. “I like exploring places others do not. For example, not many people have explored the wilds of Karbi Anglong properly. I observe constantly, question and see,” he says.
The Dracaena cambodiana is valuable for its medicinal properties. “Several antifungal and antibacterial compounds, antioxidants, avonoids, etc. have been extracted from various parts of the plant” states the paper published in the Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas.
“When a leaf falls, it leaves a scar on the stem of the plant. The latex which pours out is like a gelatinous resin — and on oxidation, it turns red. This is called the dragon’s blood,” explains Sarma.
As soon as he realised how rare it was (the species is already listed in the inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants of China), Sarma has been working hard to propagate it: Dracaena cambodiana saplings are currently growing in nurseries in Sonitpur, Guwahati, Dhemaji and Jorhat.
“The plant looks very ornamental too — and people would love to plant it in their garden,” he says. Currently the only full grown Dracaena cambodiana trees — fifty of them — are found in the area Sarma first sighted them: Dongka sarpo in Karbi Anglong, where illegal mining activities are rampant. “All the more reason we should propagate it,” says Sarma.