June 15, 2022

Fantasy Botany

         This week I’ve finally been giving my garden some attention, so it seems a good time to share a bit of fantastical botany.  I have to start with the classics, which of course may or may not have been considered fantasy at the time.  The most famous is probably the mandrake, which is a a real plant, but had many fantastical properties attributed to it.  The root was said to be shaped like a person, and to shriek aloud when uprooted.  This scream could kill the hearer, but it was worth it to try to obtain the root because it could be used in love potions and flying ointments, as well as other magical brews.
        There’s a long history of fascination with plants that blur the line with animals, and I’ve featured a number in prior posts including: the vegetable lambs
        Alice encountered a garden of sentient flowers Through the Looking Glass, but really, they were so rude they were hardly worth knowing.  Consider instead how much fun illustrators have had with the nursery rhyme 
Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells, and little maids all in a row.
One need not necessarily interpret this to mean that the bells, shells, and maids were actually growing in the garden as plants, but it’s so much fun to illustrate them that way that there are many illustrations turning contrary Mary’s garden into a small fantasy world.
        Another place to find fantastical plants is the Voynich manuscript.  I’ve written before about this mysterious cipher manuscript, which dates to the fifteenth century and includes illustrations of plants most of which are not quite identifiable, and many of which seem to be entirely made up.
        A strange book that may have been inspired at least in part by the Voynich manuscript is the Codex Seraphinianus, made by Italian artist Luigi Serafini between 1976-1978.  It is in the form of an encyclopedia of a strange world, full of surreal and fantastical illustrations, and it is written entirely in a meaningless script.  The first chapter is on plants.  The illustrations are 
bright, detailed, sometimes grotesque or disturbing, but often beautiful and delightfully quirky.  Because of the indecipherable text, it’s impossible to know what any of these plants are called, or exactly what properties may be attributed to them.
        The Land of Neverbelieve by Norman Messenger, on the other hand, is a similar sort of encyclopedia of an imaginary world, but it’s written in English, so you get to learn fun facts about the marvelous illustrations, such as knowing that the cross-section of the chocolate tree depicts its delicious peppermint center.  This book includes all manner of fantastical creatures and things, but is especially rich in marvelous trees.
        I’m not going into too much depth in this post because Fantasy Botany is on my list of possible future A to Z themes, so I need to save up.  On the other hand, that’s no reason not to give plants a little attention in the meantime.  So, how does my garden grow?  With golden tomatoes, and tasty herbs, and pretty rudbeckia scattered all over the place.  What would you like to grow in your fantasy garden?

[Pictures: Mandrake, wood block print from Ortus sanitatis by Johann Prüss, 1499 (Image from Internet Archive);

My Lady’s Garden, color wood block print by Walter Crane from The Baby’s Opera, printed by Edmund Evans, c 1877 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);

Mary, Mary, illustration (possibly by Howard Del?) from Mother Goose’s Melodies for her Little Goslings, 1881 (Image from International Children’s Digital Library);

Two plants from Voynich Manuscript, c 1401-1599 (Image from Yale University Library);

Illustrations from Codex Seraphinianus, by Luigi Serafini, 1981;

Illustration from The Land of Neverbelieve by Norman Messenger, 2012.]

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