Legend has it that the tree sprung up from congealed blood shed by a dragon and an elephant as they fought to the death. Cinnabar, the crimson red resin from the tree's leaves and bark, was highly prized in the ancient world. It was used as a pigment in paint, for treating dysentery and burns, fastening loose teeth, enhancing the colour of precious stones and staining glass, marble and the wood for Italian violins. Although it no longer has a commercial value, cinnabar is an important resource for the 40 000 people who live on Soqotra. They use it to cure stomach problems, dye wool, glue pottery, freshen breath, decorate pottery and houses and even as lipstick.
Many other Soqotran plants are descendants of ancient species which have adapted to their new island environment. A varied landscape of semi-desert coastal plains, limestone hills and granite mountains, together with an extreme climate of low rainfall and hot summer winds of up to 70 miles per hour, create countless ecological niches and explain the wealth of endemic plants. Often these are restricted to highly localised habitats.
The rugged granite pinnacles of the Hagghier mountains, which rise to over 1500 metres and dominate the Soqotran skyline, are a prime site. Heavy cloud hangs over the pinnacles during winter-hence Soqotra's ancient name of "Isle of Mists"-bringing muchneeded moisture to the pinnacle plants. The wealth of unique plants here include a species of Woody Cabbage (Hemicrambe townsendii) whose nearest relative is on the other side of Africa, in Morocco. New species are uncovered on every trip to the pinnacles, which are surrounded by almost impenetrable vegetation.