Socotra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a treasure trove of unique plant species. Out of 830 vascular plants found on the island, 322 (or 39%) are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else on Earth. This level of endemism is comparable to some of the most isolated and biodiverse islands in the world.
The scientific exploration of Socotra’s flora began in the mid-19th century, although the island’s role in the incense trade dates back almost two millennia. The first significant botanical expedition was led by Isaac Bayley Balfour in 1880. His work, “Botany of Socotra,” published in 1888, described over 200 new species and 20 new genera, many of which are endemic to Socotra.
Among the most iconic plants on the island is the Socotran dragon’s blood tree, Dracaena cinnabari. This species is unique in its ability to form extensive woodlands and is currently threatened by climate change and overgrazing. Another noteworthy plant is the cucumber tree, Dendrosicyos socotranus, which has a massive swollen trunk and is part of the gourd family.
The island is also home to various other bottle trees, including the desert rose, Adenium obesum subsp. sokotranum, and the Socotran fig, Dorstenia gigas. Socotra also has a range of endemic plants that are familiar to gardeners, such as hibiscus, Hypericum, Pelargonium, Geranium, Exacum, and Begonia socotrana.
Many of these plants have local uses, including medicinal applications. For example, the sap of the dragon’s blood tree is used for various medicinal purposes. Frankincense is another valuable commodity harvested from the Boswellia tree, which is also found on the island.