April 22, 2024

Magical Botany T

         Welcome to the April A to Z Blog Challenge!  My theme this year is the Botany of the Realms of Imagination, in which I share a selection of the magical plants of folklore, fairy tale, and fantasy.  You can find out about the A to Z Challenge here.
        T seems to be a letter particularly richly grown with magical literary flora.  I’ll start with one of my all-time favorites, the Truffula Tree.  Truffula Trees have tall, slender trunks topped by bright-colored tufts.  The touch of their tufts is much softer than silk, and they have the sweet smell of fresh butterfly milk.  They’re also the favored habitat of Brown Bar-ba-loots, who eat the fruit of the Truffula Trees.  However, because truffula silk is so excellent for knitting thneeds, the trees were severely over-harvested in the 20th century, and are now nearly extinct.  Only careful conservation will be able to restore them and the beautiful habitat they provide - an appropriate reminder for Earth Day.
        Another classic is the triffid, a tall species of carnivorous plant that can walk about on three stubby “legs.”  Although they seem to have originated and spread faster in equatorial regions, triffids soon became invasive throughout the world.  They can be quite dangerous because they have a venomous stinger in the head, but the stinger can be docked, rendering them harmless for the next two years while the stinger regrows, when they can be pruned again.  When intact, the stinger is used to kill large prey instantly, which the triffid can then feed upon as it decomposes, plus they can also catch insects and small prey in the manner of a pitcher plant.  Despite these dangerous characteristics, triffids can be economically very useful as a source of high-quality oil.  Outside of oil farms, they are now mostly eradicated.
        Tesla trees are native to the planet Hyperion, where they are the defining species of the Flame Forest.  Named for the Tesla coil, these tall-trunked trees have a sort of bulb at the top in which they can store massive amounts of electricity that their branches draw in from static charge in the clouds.  When the trees discharge this electricity in powerful jolts like lightning strikes, it causes wildfires, which drive the cycle of regeneration and growth in the forest.
        While we’re covering the classics, I have to mention the Tumtum tree, even though we don’t know much about it.  In fact, all we know is that it grows in the tulgey wood, and is a good place to stand in uffish thought if you’re hoping to encounter a Jabberwock.  Most artists don’t pay a lot of attention to the Tumtum tree, but here are details of the tree from three of the books that I featured back in my prior post A Jumble of Jabberwocks, plus one extra.
        Finally, a much less well-known plant, another of the parallel plants (first introduced at P) described by Lionni: the tiril.  Of all parallel flora, tirils are the most widely distributed around the globe, and among the oldest.  They live in dense groups, and
although all parallel plants are black, tirils sport the widest array of black.
  (And by the way, parallel plants are generally matterless, indifferent to the passage of time, and impossible to photograph.)  One tiril species has a habit of lodging itself ineradicably in the memory and occasionally forcibly reappearing in the mind.  Another is a powerful aphrodisiac, and yet another species produces a loud, high-pitched whistle, but always stops as soon as anyone tries to get near enough to investigate.
        Even now, the floral bounty of T is not quite exhausted, as you can always go back and revisit the triglav flower introduced at my post R is for Regeneration.
        Gardening tip of the day for commercial triffid farmers: you can’t dock their stingers without lowering the quality of their oil, so be sure to wear protective gear and enforce strict safety protocols.  Triffids know to aim for the exposed face and hands.
        While the moral of triffids may be that many plants have immense commercial value, the moral of Truffula Trees is not to let exploitation of this commercial value get out of hand.  The moral of Tumtum trees is that trees can be an excellent place to stand awhile, but the moral of Tesla trees is that sometimes it is not a good idea to stand under a tree: particularly during a thunderstorm.  In short, you can surely find some plant to justify any moral at all that you’d like to draw!
        What words of wisdom do you think people most need to hear?  And what plant can be used to illustrate that moral?


[Pictures: Truffula Trees, illustration by Dr. Seuss from The Lorax, 1971;

Triffid, illustration by John Wyndham from The Day of the Triffids, 1951 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Tesla Trees, detail of cover illustration by Garry Ruddell from Hyperion by Dan Simmons, 1990 edition (Image from Fandom);

Tumtum Tree, detail of illustration by Joel Stewart from Jabberwocky, 2003;

Tumtum Tree, detail of illustration by Kevin Hawkes from Imagine That! Poems of Never-Was selected by Prelutsky, 1998;

Tumtum Tree, detail of illustration by Eric Copeland from Poetry for Young People: Lewis Carroll, ed. E. Mendelson, 2000;

Tumtum Tree, detail of illustration by Stéphane Jorisch from Jabberwocky, 2004;

Tirils, illustrations from Parallel Botany by Leo Lionni, 1977 (Images from Ariel S. Winter on Flickr).]

April 20, 2024

Magical Botany S

         Welcome to the #AtoZChallenge !  My theme this year is the Botany of the Realms of Imagination, in which I share a selection of the magical plants of folklore, fairy tale, and fantasy.  You can see all my fellow A to Z bloggers on the Master List of participating blogs HERE.  Take a look, because you’re sure to find something of interest among them!
        To start with, S is for Sanjivani, another magical herb mentioned in Hindu epics.  It grows on a mountain beyond Mt. Meru, and has incredibly powerful healing properties.  Even a whiff of the scent is enough to bring people back from death (or at least, “mostly dead”).  Despite the fact that it glows in the dark, it’s not necessarily easy to identify.  Hanuman, who was sent to fetch some after a battle, couldn’t identify it, and had to bring the whole mountain, just to be sure he got it.  As for humans, they’ve been searching for centuries to find and identify sanjivani in real life, including with considerable state funds in India, but so far it remains elusive.  There are some more mundane herbs that are commonly sold under the name, but they’re not the real mythological thing.
        Another plant that’s certainly useful, if not so miraculous, is the spaghetti tree.  As its name implies, this is the plant on which spaghetti grows.  It can be farmed as far north as southern Switzerland although it cannot withstand hard late frosts.  A healthy adult tree can provide enough spaghetti for an average family, assuming mild winters and no trouble with spaghetti weevils.  The BBC reported a short segment on spaghetti trees on April 1, 1957, and afterwards told the people who enquired about it that they could grow their own tree by placing a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hoping for the best.  The spaghetti tree is obviously related to the pasta tree which grows on Neverbelieve Island, a location to which we were first introduced at G.
        Sapient pearwood is a kind of tree that grows in intensely magical areas mostly in the Agatean Empire on Discworld.  It is intelligent and impervious to magic, as well as being fairly impervious to sharp implements.  Like the Greek oaks we saw at O, these magical traits persist in objects made of the tree’s wood, and the most famous products are wizards’ staffs and luggage.  Trunks made of sapient pearwood can scurry around on little legs, defend their owners ferociously, have infinite storage and access to multiple pocket dimensions inside, and find their way back to their owner no matter how often they get lost.  Their one way of dealing with obstacles is to ignore them and smash or chomp straight through.
        Finally, I want to mention Codex Seraphinianus, an encyclopedia of a surreal magical world by Luigi Serafini, of which the first chapter is devoted to the flora of this land.  Because the book is written in an asemic script which is indecipherable, I can’t tell you what any of these plants are called or what fantastical properties they may have.  I can simply file them all under S and share some of the beautiful illustrations, which you can interpret as you will.
        The moral of our S plants is that no matter how appealing or how authoritative, sometimes things that sound fantastic really are just fantasy.  Gardening tip of the day: go ahead and poke a sprig of spaghetti into a tin of tomato sauce and see what happens.  After all, isn’t pretty much all gardening just hoping for the best?  (But remember, it has to be raw.  Once you cook it, it will certainly never germinate.)
        What unusual specialty crop do you wish you could grow in your garden?  Barnacle
geese?  Money?  Never-lost suitcases?  Or just strawberries that the critters never eat?


[Pictures: Sanjivani (actually detail from Gaudi Ragini), painting from India, probably Jaipur, 18th century (Image from Cleveland Museum of Art);

Spaghetti Tree, stills from BBC’s “Panorama” aired April 1, 1957 (Images from BBC.co.uk);

Pasta Tree, illustration from The Land of Neverbelieve by Norman Messenger, 2012;

Sapient Pearwood Luggage, illustration by Kidby? (Image from TerryPratchett.com);

Seraphinianus plants, illustrations from Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini, 1981.]

April 19, 2024

Magical Botany R

         Welcome to the April A to Z Blog Challenge!  My theme this year is the Botany of the Realms of Imagination, in which I share a selection of the magical plants of folklore, fairy tale, and fantasy.  If you don’t know about the #AtoZChallenge you can find out all about it here, and thank the organizers for putting it together for us.  And now, diving right in…
        R is for raskovnik, an herb which is neither rare nor remote, but it’s almost impossible to pick anyway, for the simple reason that it’s almost impossible to identify.  According to Slavic folklore, only certain animals can find it: a tortoise, a snake, or a hedgehog, depending on whether you’re in Bulgaria, Dalmatia, or Serbia.  But however hard it may be to find the raskovnik, it’s worth it, because this plant can unlock any sort of lock, and reveal hidden things, especially treasure.  All you have to do is touch the herb to the lock, or walk over the place where the treasure lies, and all is laid open before you.
        The opposite in some ways is red weed, a plant from the planet Mars.  Brought to Earth during the War of the Worlds in the mid-1890s, it spread across Earth invasively, marking the areas that the Martian invaders had conquered.  Its appearance is described by the original chronicler, H.G. Wells, as being a prickly creeper of a vivid blood-red tint.  It has cactus-like branches, but unlike cactus, it grows near water, and indeed water makes it grow so quickly and tumultuously that it entirely chokes the waterways.  It’s not poisonous, but it has a sickly, metallic taste, and it gives off a faint violet fluorescent glow.  On the planet Mars there’s so much red plant life that it’s what gives the entire planet its characteristic red hue, but on Earth, although the red weed initially spread vigorously, it was ultimately wiped out by Earth bacteria.
        The raskovnik may be beneficial, and the red weed may be destructive, but our third plant for the day is simply puzzlingly useless.  According to Douglas Adams,
"The life cycle of ratchet screwdriver fruit is quite interesting. Once picked it needs a dark dusty drawer in which it can lie undisturbed for years. Then one night it suddenly hatches, discards its outer shell which crumbles to dust, and emerges as a totally unidentifiable little metal object with flanges at both ends and a sort of ridge and a sort of hole for a screw. This, when found, will get thrown away. No one knows what it is supposed to gain from this. Nature, in her infinite wisdom, is presumably working on it."
        I can’t resist adding two plant-animal hybrids from Scranimal Island, recorded by Jack Prelutsky.  The radishark is an underwater nightmare whose only thought is to catch and bite its prey, while the rhinocerose is too firmly rooted to chase anyone, and is beloved for its captivating blossom and enchanting scent.
        The moral of R is that nature does what it does, without regard for your opinion.  Nature doesn’t care whether or not you can identify its forms or make use of its products; nature may cause things to grow like fury or die away just as quickly, all without any intervention or effect from your actions.  Which means that our gardening tip of the day is: the one thing every gardener absolutely must cultivate is a spirit of patience and resignation.  You can’t control your garden!
        But if you could choose one plant to be able to grow successfully without fail, what would it be?

[Pictures: Raskovnik (actually European waterclover), plate from Flora von Deutschland, Österreich un der Schweiz by Otto Wilhelm Thomé, 1885 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Red weed, illustration (colored by AEGN) by Henrique Alvim Corrêa from The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, French edition of 1906 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Ratchet Screwdriver Fruit, illustration by AEGNydam, 2024;

Rhinocerose and Radishark, illustrations by Peter Sís from Scranimals by Jack Prelutsky, 2002.]

April 18, 2024

Magical Botany Q

         Welcome to the April A to Z Blog Challenge!  My theme this year is the Botany of the Realms of Imagination, in which I share a selection of the magical plants of folklore, fairy tale, and fantasy.  You can find all my fellow A to Z bloggers on the Master List of participating blogs.  Be sure to check them out!
        I’ll begin with another plant from my own books.  Quercia is mentioned in the Kate and Sam Adventures, although she isn’t a character who appears in her own right.  The toad Grimm tells the following anecdote about her: “Haven’t you ever heard of the dryad Quercia?  Very famous old dryad, ‘Queen of the Forest’ folks used to call her.  Her oak was the biggest and oldest tree in the woods.  She always used to tell a story about when she was still in her acorn before she’d sprouted, all enclosed in that tiny black space, squashed too tight to move.  She said when she was inside that dark acorn she’d promised herself, ‘If I ever get outta this place, so help me, I’m gonna get me a green lace gown and go dancing every day.’  And she did, too, at least in the summer.”  Obviously she was really more of a hamadryad (see H) than just an ordinary dryad.
        You may guess from the Latin name of our next tree, Quercus Nicholas Parsonus, that it’s also some kind of oak, but in fact its common name is the walking tree of Dahomey.  This mighty tree
strolls through Nigeria, perhaps swaggering a little as it crosses the border into Zaire, hops through the tropical rain forests, trying to find a quiet grove where it can jump around on its own, sprints up to Zambia for the afternoon, achieving speeds of up to 50 miles per hour…  Quercus Nicholas Parsonus was introduced to the world by David Attenborough, in a sketch by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but I can’t show you a picture of the tree itself because in fact Attenborough and his team never did catch up with it.
        Because Q is always a difficult letter for the English language, I’m rounding out today’s post with three Aztec herbs.  These are all mentioned in the Codex de la Cruz-Badianus, an herbal written in both Nahuatl and Latin in 1552.  I’m assuming that most if not all of the plants in the book are actually based on real plants, but I don’t know their identities, so I’m going by their listed properties and declaring that some of them must be magic!  For example, both quauh-yayahual and quauh-yyauhtli are used to aid “those harassed by a tornado.”  Quauh-yyauhtli is also good for those struck by lightning, so it’s definitely a useful plant for storm-prone areas - especially magical areas where the storms seem to have intents and purposes of their own!  The quauh prefix, by the way, defines these plants as woody.
        Perhaps even more magical is the quetzal-ylin, which (along with many other flowers and leaves - not to mention precious stones and various body parts of animals) is an ingredient in a complicated potion “for relieving the fatigue of those administering the government and discharging public offices.”  Quetzal can mean either green or feathery (just like the bird), and ylin may be alder, so it’s worth making an effort to identify this plant for modern use.  I’m sure that if we could recreate that magic potion it would be very popular, and you can certainly trust the Aztecs to be experts in dealing with government bureaucracy!
        The moral of the first two Q plants is that you should never assume you know what other people get up to in their spare time.  Trees are more busily active than you may suppose, and other people may be, as well!  The gardening tip of the day comes from our 
other Q herbs: sometimes the weather seems to have a malicious spirit of its own, so plan accordingly.
        What’s your favorite sort of weather?

[Pictures: Quercia, sketch by AEGNydam, 2024 (See Kate and Sam and the Chipmunks of Doom here);

Quercus Nicholas Parsonus, still from “The Walking Tree of Dahomey” sketch, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, 1974 (Image from Fandom);

Quauh-yayahual, Quauh-yyauhtli, and Quetzal-ylin, illustrations from Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis by Martin de la Cruz and Juan Badiano, 1552 (Images from Academia).]

April 16, 2024

Magical Botany P

         Welcome to the April A to Z Blog Challenge!  My theme this year is the Botany of the Realms of Imagination, in which I share a selection of the magical plants of folklore, fairy tale, and fantasy.  You can find out about the A to Z Challenge here
.
        I have a particular soft spot for the peridexion tree, which was described in the earliest Greek proto-bestiaries from the second or third centuries and remained common in the medieval bestiaries.  It grows in India, where apparently the doves are in particular danger of being eaten by dragons.  Luckily for the doves, the peridexion tree not only has sweet fruit, but also repels dragons.  The doves are safe as long as they stay in the tree, since the dragons can’t go too near the tree and are afraid of its shadow.  We don’t know why the tree is so scary to dragons, only that if the doves want to be secure they need to stay among its branches.
        Our next plant was discovered more recently.  Protorbis is a genus of plants like mushrooms in form, color, and opacity.  Unlike mundane mushrooms, however, protorbis can be any size from infinitely small to infinitely large.  According to Leo Lionni, who wrote the definitive work on parallel botany, “Certain specimens in the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona… are as big as the nearby mesas, and are indeed often mistaken for these hills, with their flat tops…  Protorbis is in fact composed of a substance which has only superficially the aspect of stone. If it is struck with a normal geological hammer it emits a high-pitched metallic sound totally at variance with its heavy and opaque appearance...  Apart from P. minor, which disintegrates instantly at the least touch of a hand into the merest pinch of white powder, all specimens of Protorbis may be transported (size permitting), while their conservation requires no special techniques or environmental conditions.”
        I may as well mention one of my own imaginary plants, the pelif trees from which the Tungoldroleth elves of my Otherworld build their homes.  Each pelif tree sprouts new saplings in a circle all around the spread of its crown, so that when the original tree dies, there is a perfect circle of young trees.  The elves use these circles of living trees as frames for wattle and daub walls, with  thatched roofs to cover the middle.
        Finally, a couple of P plants from prior posts.  The flora-fauna hybrid the porcupineapple was featured in my post Of Porcupineapples and Umbrellaphants.  And don’t forget the moon pumpkins discovered by John Wilkins in about 1638.  You can revisit my prior post Moon-Veggies to learn how these giant
pumpkins are used as dwellings by the inhabitants of the moon.  (And while we’re on the subject of living in pumpkins, there’s also the giant pumpkin home of Peter Peter Pumpkin-Eater and his wife!)
        Unlike a number of other flora we’ve encountered so far in this alphabet, the moral of P is that plants can keep us safe and sheltered from the many dangers of the world.  Gardening tip of the day: surround yourself with benevolent plants, and you need fear neither dragons, nor wolves, nor ravening moon-beasts.
        When you think about it, any ordinary house built of wood is taking advantage of the shelter of plants, but setting that aside, how would you like to live in a plant?  A tree house?  A giant vegetable?  A burrow among the roots?  What sounds homiest to you?


[Pictures: Peridexion tree, illumination from Bestiary, c. 1275-1299 (Image from Bibliothèque nationale de France);
Peridexion, illumination from The Ashmole Bestiary, c. 1201-1225 (Image from Bodleian Library);
Peridexion, illumination from Bestiary, c. 1320 (Image from Bodleian Library);

Peridexion, illumination from Bestiary, 13th century (Image from Bibliothèque nationale de France);

Protorbis, illustrations from Parallel Botany by Leo Lionni, 1977 (Images from Ariel S. Winter on Flickr);

Pelif tree house, sketch by AEGNydam, 2024 (see the Otherworld series here);

Peter Peter Pumpkin-Eater, illustration by Billie Parks from Childcraft: Poems of Early Childhood, 1934;

Peter Peter Pumpkin-Eater, (inset) illustration by William Donahey from The Teenie Weenie Man’s Mother Goose, 1921 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library).]

April 15, 2024

Magical Botany O

         Welcome to the April A to Z Blog Challenge!  My theme this year is the Botany of the Realms of Imagination, in which I share a selection of the magical plants of folklore, fairy tale, and fantasy.  You can find all my fellow A to Z bloggers on the Master List of participating blogs here.
        Obliviax is a kind of black moss that steals memories from intelligent creatures.  It especially favors the memories of wizards and other spell-casters.  It can then use those memories to form a little moss offshoot in the form of the victim, and this mossling can cast any spells that the victim had memorized.  However, if your memories are stolen, it is possible to regain them by eating the moss, although eating the moss may also make you very ill for a while, as it is somewhat poisonous.  Obliviax grew in the Forgotten Realms (which seems appropriate for a plant that makes people forget), but may now be extinct.
        The men of
θ Orionis are another variety of tree-people, but this time they resemble saguaro cactuses.  Their feet are sort of like starfish, and reach out short armlets covered in suckers to grab the ground.  They migrate (slowly) according to the seasons.  You can read a little more about them and the author who discovered them in my prior post People of All Possible Forms.
        Our final plants for today are oracular trees, a class of beings rather than a specific species or individual.  As the name tells you, oracular trees are trees that can foretell the future, impart great wisdom, and answer arcane questions.  A particularly famous example is the paired Trees of the Sun and the Moon, which were encountered in India by Alexander the Great.  Unfortunately for him, the Tree of the Sun foretold his demise.  (The fruit of these trees also allowed the priests who tended them to live for 500 years.)
Then there were the oak trees consulted by druids in the British Isles.  It’s unclear whether these were special trees, or whether all oaks could be oracular to those with the druidic power to divine their speech.  There was a grove of oaks in Greece that were definitely special, and had the gift of prophecy.  They not only spoke while living, but a ship built of their wood could also deliver warnings about the future.
        Oracular trees of various sorts appear in folklore and mythology from around the world, so the moral of the day is that people have always sensed that trees, with their deep roots, long lives, and arms reaching to the heavens, must have great wisdom to impart, if we could only understand what they’re trying to tell us.  Gardening tip of the day: go ahead and talk to your plants.  You never know when they just might answer.
        We’re hardly more than halfway through the alphabet and we’ve already had a number of intelligent trees, tree spirits, and tree people (although some have been evil rather than benevolently wise).  If you could talk with a tree, what would you ask it?

[Pictures: Obliviax, illustration from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Monstrous Compendium V. 2, 1989 (Image from Internet Archive);

θ Orionis (actually Saguaro National Park) linocut print by AnneMarie Kuhns (Image from the artist’s Etsy shop LovePlusLino);

Trees of the Sun and the Moon, illumination from manuscript of the Alexander romance, 1444-5 (Image from the British Library).]

April 13, 2024

Magical Botany N

         Welcome to the April A to Z Blog Challenge!  My theme this year is the Botany of the Realms of Imagination, in which I share a selection of the magical plants of folklore, fairy tale, and fantasy.  You can find out more about the A to Z Challenge here
.
        Twelve Nariphon trees grow in the ancient kingdom of Sivi, where they were planted by Indra.  Their magical trait is that their fruit grows in the shape of beautiful maidens, who are attached at the crown of the head and emerge feet first from the buds.  These Nariphon maidens are just like human women except in having no bones.  They can sing and dance, and also possess some other magical and medicinal powers.  Each fruit lasts for seven days before it withers, but if picked, the Nariphon maiden can be taken home by the lustful.  The purpose of the trees is to protect real women from lustful men, by providing a distraction and substitute.  Divine blow-up porn dolls for a good cause.
        We travel next into the center of the Earth to find the tree people of Nazar.  Nazar is a planet that orbits around the bright core of Earth, which is otherwise completely hollow inside.  The tree people of Nazar have up to six arms, but very short legs.  They are intelligent and highly civilized, including a belief in the equality of the sexes.  Like ents, they believe things should be thought through slowly, and distrust jumping to conclusions and learning too quickly.  Nazar and its sensible trees were discovered by Norwegian scholar Niels Klim in the eighteenth century.  You can read a little more about it, with a few more pictures, in my previous post on Intelligent Underground Trees.
        Nefertem is the ancient Egyptian god of the first sunlight, famous for his beauty, and he gives good luck to those who honor him.  What is he doing here in my alphabet of botany?  Well, he was born a blue lotus flower, which grew from the primal waters at the creation of the world.  Alas for my purposes, he doesn’t seem to retain any other botanical qualities beyond the flower’s fragrance.
        The moral of N is that apparently the line between plant and human can become very blurred.  Plants can easily turn human, or can simply be more advanced than humans to begin with.  Gardening tip of the day: the plants may be unimpressed by your claims of moral virtue because you’re vegetarian!
        What plant do you think might be the most intelligent?

[Pictures: Nariphon tree, illustration from Kitāb al-Bulhān (Book of Wonders), ca. 1330-1450 (Image from Bodleian Library);

 Nariphon I, acrylic and gold leaf on silk by Phaptawan Suwannakudt, 1996 (Image from National Gallery Singapore);

Two scenes of the trees-citizens of Nazar, engravings from Niels Klim’s Journey Under the Ground, 1845 edition (Images from Internet Archive);

Two scenes of tree people, block prints(?) by Hans Scherfig from Niels Klims underjordiske rejse, 1961 (Images from Rundt om Holborg);

Nefertem, detail of Kheker frieze, tomb of Rameses I, ca. 1300BCE (Image from Theban Mapping Project).]

April 12, 2024

Magical Botany M

         Welcome to the #AtoZChallenge !  My theme this year is the Botany of the Realms of Imagination, in which I share a selection of the magical plants of folklore, fairy tale, and fantasy.  You can find all my fellow A to Z bloggers on the Master List of participating blogs here.
        We have to start M with the mandrake, one of the most famous of magical plants.  The root of the mandrake was much desired for use in witches’ flying ointment, love potions, and all manner of hallucinogenic magical effects, for which reason there are many detailed methods outlined for how to harvest it.  You can’t just pull it up willy-nilly because the roots, which are in the form of humans, will scream, and their shriek will kill all who hear it.  The trick is to make a dog pull it up, (assuming that you don’t care about killing the dog).  You also have to time the whole operation correctly for maximum efficacy.  The first Monday after the vernal equinox is a good time to try. (Sorry, I’m a little too late with this advice.  You’ll have to wait until next year.)  And in case you’re wondering whether it really is helpful as an aphrodisiac and cure for sterility… just consider the well-
known fact that elephants can’t conceive - or even mate - until they’ve eaten some!
  (And for whatever reason, elephants must be able to withstand the mandrake’s scream, because apparently they don’t need to sacrifice any dogs to help them get it.)
        Another magical herb with an ancient lineage is moly.  The plant has a white flower and a black root and, like mandrake, it’s apparently dangerous for mortals to pluck from the soil, although Homer failed to specify the nature of the danger.  The virtue of the herb is that it protected Odysseus from the magic spell of the sorceress Circe, who would have turned him into a pig along with the rest of his crew.  Therefore it’s presumed to be good against all kinds of curses, poisons, and enchantments.
        Back to Middle-earth for the mallorn tree.  These are the quintessential trees of the elves: tall, with smooth silvery bark and leaves that turn golden in the fall and stay on the tree through the winter.  They also have golden flowers.  However, the most exciting thing about them, at least in my opinion, is that their wide crowns of branches are perfect for building elven tree houses.
        Finally, M is also for the Man-eating Madagascar tree, the star of the earliest-known of a number of  lurid and sensational reports of anthropophagus plants from “deepest, darkest” parts of the world.  According to a story written by Edmund Spencer in 1874, a tribe in Madagascar sacrificed maidens to this demonic tree.  In 1889 James W. Buel wrote about a very similar tree called the Yateveo, which is native to both Africa and Central America.  Judging by the graphic descriptions, being fed to either of these savage trees is a terrible way to go.
        The moral of M is that you shouldn’t sacrifice animals in your greed to get magical powers — after all, you yourself could be transformed into an animal, or sacrificed in turn.  Gardening tip of the day: the humane modern mandrake farmer can use robots for harvesting, or simply invest in a high-quality pair of noise-cancelling ear muffs.
        Do you think being turned into an animal would be a curse or a blessing?

[Pictures: Mandrake, illustration from the Dioscurides Neapolitanus, ca. 500 CE (Image from Library of Congress);

Moly (actually allium), hand colored wood block print from Hortus sanitatis, ca. 1497 (Image from University of Edinburgh);

Mallorn trees, screen shot from Lord of the Rings Online game (Image from lotro-wiki);

Madagascar tree (inset), illustration from Madagascar: Land of the Man-Eating Tree by Chase Salmon Osborn, 1924 (Image from Hathi Trust);

Ya-ta-veo, engraving by Armand Welcken from Sea and Land by James W. Buel, 1887 (Image from Internet Archive).]

April 11, 2024

Magical Botany L

         Welcome to the April A to Z Blog Challenge!  My theme this year is the Botany of the Realms of Imagination, in which I share a selection of the magical plants of folklore, fairy tale, and fantasy.  You can find out about the A to Z Challenge here.
        Following straight on from the last post, we’ll begin today with the tree of Life.  This is a general term, rather than a specific species, and cultures around the world and through history have had their own different versions.  Nevertheless, it’s a fairly universal motif in folklore and mythology.  Sometimes it’s conflated with the tree of Knowledge (flashback to K), and sometimes it’s conflated with the World Tree (foreshadowing), but generally speaking its most fundamental trait is that it represents the connections between living things and all of creation, and that it has properties of immortality and/or fertility.  We’ve already seen five plants that may be considered trees of Life: the Fusang tree at F, Hera’s Golden apples at G, the Huluppu tree and the Haoma plant at H, and the Jo Mu tree at J.  There will be more to come, as well, so I won’t mention any other specifics today.  Trees of Life are a very popular motif in art - indeed, I’ve done it myself!  They can be depicted naturalistically or very stylized, so I’ve selected a sampling just to give you a very small taste of some of the diversity.  (Mine is the first.)
        Love-in-idleness is the flower that Oberon, king of the fairies, describes to Puck in Shakespeare’s play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  Oberon explains that when the plant was accidentally hit by one of Cupid’s arrows, it gained the magical power to make a man or woman madly dote upon the next live creature that they see.  This is the flower that knavish Puck then uses to drive the plot of the play, with people falling in and out of love with each other all over the forest.
        Leaves of Pearls is found in an Iranian folktale that begins (flashback to Gul-e-Bakavali) with princes on a quest to find the magical plant that will cure their father’s blindness.  In fact, the parallels between the two stories are so close that they could be considered variants, and there are a 
number of other variants of the Leaves of Pearl story, as well.  In one there’s a bird that sings flowers into existence, which is a lovely image.  In another the brothers seek Leaves from the Tutia Tree, in another there’s a magical Zay Tree, and in yet another it’s a Magpie Tree.  This might lead one to believe that the world is actually quite full of plants and birds that cure blindness, as well as treacherous brothers, and beautiful fairy princesses who think thieves are super hot.  However, I have never experienced any of these things at first hand, so I am not really qualified to comment.
        The moral of L is that many of the medicines and drugs considered by the World Health Organization to be most basic and essential are derived from plants, so there really could be some that might help cure blindness or all manner of other ills.  This is just one more huge reason we need to stop the destruction of rainforests and other natural reserves, where plants with practically magical powers may yet be growing undiscovered.
         Gardening tip of the day: if you wake up one morning madly in love with someone (or something) completely new and unprecedented, try scrubbing out your eyes thoroughly.  After all, if magical plants cause love, and love is blind, and magical plants cure blindness… it’s hard to know how to get out of that cycle.
        But seriously, if you woke up from a nap and discovered that someone had stolen your greatest treasure, would you want to marry the thief?  (There’s no accounting for the taste of fairies.  Or perhaps, although it isn’t mentioned in the stories, the prince uses some variant of love-in-idleness on the sleeping princess.  What do you think?)

[Pictures: Tree of Life, rubber block print by AEGNydam, 2005 (Image from my web site NydamPrints.com);

Tree of Life palampore, painted resist and dye on cotton, India, first quarter of the 18th century (Image from Met Museum);

The Tree of Life, drawing by G. Howell-Baker from Penholm, 1901 (Image from Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library);

Tree of Life, relief from Taq-e Bostan, c. 4th century CE (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Tree of Life, wall painting in Shaki Khan palace, Azerbaijan National Art Museum, 1797 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Albero della Vita, sculpture and light show designed by Marco Balich and Studio Giò Forma for Italia Expo Milan 2015 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Árbol de la Vida, scupture by Alfonso Soteno and Oscar Soteno, c. 1990 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

L’Arbre de Vie, Stoclet Frieze, painting by Gustav Klimt, 1909 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

Tree of Life, relief from the Palace of Sargon II at Dur Sharrukin, 716-713 BCE (Image from Louvre);

Love-in-Idleness (aka viola), wood block print from Florum et coronarium odoratarumque by Rembert Dodoens, 1568 (Image from Biodiversity Heritage Library);

Leaves of Pearls (adapted from cardamom), illumination from Arabic translation of De materia medica, c. 1889 (Image from New York Public Library).]