March 29, 2024

Magical Botany D

         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 all about the #AtoZChallenge here, if you're curious to learn what this whole April Blog Challenge thing is all about.  In the meantime, I've got the letter D to share.
        Despite not growing on Earth, today’s first plant is a very ancient discovery.  Around the middle of the second century CE a Roman by the name of Lucian of Samosata travelled to the moon, where he discovered all manner of strange alien life forms.  Among them were botanical creatures including Salad-wings (which are huge birds that are shaggy all over like grass and have wings like lettuce leaves), and, in honor of the letter D, Dog-acorns.  Actually, the dog part of the name refers to the dog-faced people who ride on the winged acorns, which are the actual plants.  At any rate, these cavalry were part of a force from Sirius, who had come to fight for the Sun in a battle against the Moon.  If you want to learn more about Lucian’s adventures, you can read my prior post about the tale: A True Story.
        The next marvelous journey we’ll join took place in 1681, when Lady Elizabeth Hurnshaw was lost at sea and eventually arrived at Amarantos, an island which descended from Atlantis.  As a botanist, Elizabeth made copious illustrations of the remarkable plant life she found there, and today I have for you the D plants Dragon Vine and Dillcorn.  The seeds of the dragon vine are crushed and made into a magical potion which allows anyone who drinks it to see the invisible dragons 
that inhabit the island.  I don’t know what properties the dillcorn may have, but it’s ce
rtainly a charming plant.  (We’ll be seeing a few more plants from Amarantos later in the alphabet.)
        Today’s final adventure is much better known, as we’re heading to the gardens of the Wizarding World to harvest dirigible plums.  These orange radish-shaped fruits float upward on their stalks instead of hanging down, and they may be used to enhance the ability to accept the extraordinary.  They are sometimes used as ornaments in jewelry, such as earrings and the diadem of Ravenclaw.  They’re also edible, and are especially popular when pickled.
        For a few bonus magical D plants, you can also take a quick glance at the devouring gourd in my previous post S is for Sentience, or download a coloring page of my own botanical dragon, the Dracophytum folium.
        The moral of today’s selection of plants is that botany is far more wild and adventuresome than most people seem to realize!  Gardening tip of the day: never leave your door without a pencil and notebook in hand, so that you can record in scientific detail the marvelous discoveries you may make.
        What’s the most adventuresome place you’ve ever been — and did you notice any special plant life while there?

[Pictures: Dog-acorn, based on rubber block prints by AEGN (Images from Nydam Prints);

Dragon Vine and Dillcorn, illustrations from Amarant by Una Woodruff, 1981;

Dirigible Plum detail from Bewildering Blooms, illustration from Harry Potter: Magic Awakened (Image from Fandom);

Dracophytum Folium, rubber block print by AEGNydam, 2020 (Image from Nydam Prints, but originals sold out).]

March 25, 2024

Magical Botany C

         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 view the Master List of participating blogs here, and see all the varied and wonderful topics my fellow bloggers are sharing with the world this year.  As for me, C is for…
        Chervona ruta is a plant that can be found in Ukrainian folklore, and the name is literally “red rue.”  If you’re a gardener or herbalist this tells you immediately that there’s something special going on, because the flowers of ordinary rue are always yellow.  For a brief moment on the eve of the summer solstice, the chervona ruta flowers turn red, and if you pick them you will have good fortune, especially in love and wealth.  (However, the flowers may be guarded by evil spirits, so beware!)  It’s the romantic connection of chervona ruta that made it the subject of an extremely popular Ukrainian song, the most popular version of which is sung by Sofia Rotaru.  You can listen to a performance here.
        Coco de mer is a special kind of palm tree that grows at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, and the great bird garuda (which may be related to the roc) lives in those trees.  When the nuts “fall” off the trees, they float up to the surface of the sea.  If the whole tree rises up, the garuda may  come, too, and eat any sailors who happen to be in the vicinity.  On the other hand, the nuts themselves, which are the largest in the plant world and look like a woman’s midsection, possess amazing healing powers and are an antidote to all poison.  In 1743 it was discovered that coco de mer trees can grow not just at the bottom of the ocean, but also on islands in the Seychelles, where the male trees uproot themselves on stormy nights and make passionate love to the female trees.  It is unwise (as well as impertinent) to watch this - you may go blind, or even die.
        I will also mention Chikorita, Cacnea, Cherubi, Carnivine, and Chespin as representative examples of “grass type” Pokémon, which are those with botanical characteristics.  All of these plant-animals are capable of independent locomotion, and, like other Pokémon, they can be captured by throwing a special ball trap at them, and then trained to battle each other.  Most of them can evolve into larger forms if fed enough candy, but I think they’re generally much cuter before evolution.  Personally, I find Chikorita and Chespin the most adorable.
        The moral of the first two plants is that the florists are right: flowers speak the language of love!  But mostly they just want to speak it to each other.  Gardening tip of the day: the sensitive gardener will give their plants a little privacy from time to time.  Who knows, they may propagate better if you do!
        What plants or flowers seem the most romantic to you?

[Pictures: Chervona Ruta, adapted from a hand-colored wood block from De historia stirpium commentarii insignes by Leonhart Fuchs, 1542 (Image from Cambridge Digital Library);

Coco-de mer, watercolor from the William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings, c. 1803-1818 (Image from Roots Collection of Singapore);

Chikorita, Chespin, and Other Assorted Grass-type Pokémon (Images from Pokémon Go).]

March 22, 2024

Magical Botany B

         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 all about the A to Z Blog Challenge here.
        Today’s first plant is a classic which you can learn about in the famous English fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk.”  Magic beans sprout overnight and grow right up to the sky, providing a sort of ladder for a bold adventurer (or thief) to climb.  I’ve previously written a whole post about them, so you can find out more, plus see more illustrations, at my prior post Beanstalk!
        Today’s second magical plant is a plant-animal hybrid - but while it’s the first plant-animal to be mentioned in this alphabet, it certainly won’t be the last.  The barnacle goose begins its life cycle growing on a tree which grows in Ireland.  It’s attached by its beak, and enclosed in a shell that looks a bit like a pistachio (or, of course, a barnacle).  Eventually the shell cracks open and the tiny 
bird drops out into the water and s
wims or flies away.  If any of the birds fall onto land, however, they die.  Barnacle geese were a wonder reported in the travellers' tales and bestiaries of the medieval era, and there was quite a bit of debate over whether they should be treated as plants or animals for religious dietary laws.  By the early 13th century both Jewish and Catholic authorities had decided they should be treated as meat, but I still think it’s fun to think of them as plants!
        Heading around to the other side of the world for our third plant, you should beware of the banana trees of Okinawa, Japan!  Some of them may be spirits called bashonosei.  These plant spirits like to startle people by suddenly appearing as a human face among the leaves.  That’s not the worst, though.  Sometimes they even impregnate women with demon babies.  (Apparently you can never trust a banana alone with a woman.  This sounds like a tale told by seriously insecure men.  Just sayin'.)
        The moral of today’s plants is that you should never assume that plants are boring, immobile things.  They can carry you to adventure, or fly off on adventures of their own.  Gardening tip of the day: never go into the garden without your wallet and toothbrush, just in case.
        How much would you trade for a handful of magic beans?  And how high would you climb?

[Pictures: Jack Climbs the Beanstalk, illustration by Mildred Lyon from Journeys Through Bookland, 1922 (Image from Internet Archive);
Barnacle Geese, wood block print from Cosmographia by Sebastian Münster, c. 1544-52 (Image from The British Museum);

Bashonosei, wood block print by Toriyama Sekien in Hyakki shūi 3, 1805 (Image from Smithsonian Libraries).]

March 18, 2024

Magical Botany A

         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 few of the magical plants of folklore, fairy tale, and fantasy.  You can find the Master List of participating A to Z blogs here, where you can explore all the other varied topics my fellow bloggers are writing about.
        I have three plants to start us off on A, and they represent one traditional herb plus two very different flavors of modern fantasy.
        First is Audrey II, the carnivorous monster plant from “Little Shop of Horrors.”  The version most people are familiar with is the musical made into a movie in 1986.  According to the musical, Audrey II (who is named after its owner’s love interest) is an alien species that colonizes planets in order to feed on their inhabitants and ultimately destroy them.  Described as a cross between a Venus fly trap and an avocado, its ever-growing pod opens to a huge mouth with vicious teeth, and the plant feeds on blood and eventually human flesh.  When mature it also speaks (and sings) in English, and is, in fact, quite clever and conniving, getting people to provide its food for it.
        Our second plant of the day comes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earthAthelas, also known as Kingsfoil, may be just the antidote you need when anthropophagus aliens start growing in your neighborhood.  The sweet-smelling herb was brought to Middle-earth by the wise and noble people of old, but after many centuries its healing properties had been forgotten by most people and the lore was considered a mere nursery rhyme.  Athelas is especially efficacious when administered by the true king, and it’s the only cure for the Black Breath, which is poisoning by a Ringwraith.  The name means “beneficial leaf” in Sindarin.
        And finally, to head off in yet a third direction, we have aglaophotis, an herb with a very long and mysterious history.  The first century Greek pharmacologist Dioscorides mentioned aglaophotis, which he said was used for warding off demons, witchcraft, and fever.  An Herbal of 1597 says its seeds shine in the night like a candle.  On the other hand, according to 1977’s occult grimoire Simon Necronomicon by Peter Levenda, the plant calls up dark forces, rather than repelling them.  This is not an insignificant difference of opinion!
        The moral of these plants is that you absolutely want to know how to definitively identify what’s growing in your garden.  The little details make a big difference.  Gardening tip of the day: root up the noxious plants when they’re small, or they really may take over the world.
        This may be the place to confess that I lovingly cherish a Venus fly trap.  Here she is!  But don’t worry - I don’t feed her blood (or indeed anything), and all she catches is little bugs.  Do you grow any unusual plants in your home or garden?

[Pictures: Feed Me - Audrey II, linocut by Jacob of Low Road Press (Image from Low Road Press);

Kingsfoil, Athelas, design by Studio Pandemonia (Image from Pandemonia shop on RedBubble);

Aglaophotis (the role of Aglaophotis is actually being played today by Paeonia Foemina Altera), wood block print from Florum et coronarium odoratarumque by Rembert Dodoens, 1568 (Image from Biodiversity Heritage Library);

Venus fly trap, photo by AEGN, 2024.]

March 13, 2024

A to Z 2024 Theme Revelation!

         This will be my eighth year participating in the April A to Z Blog Challenge (plus one more year in which I did an alphabet series on my own).  During the Challenge, bloggers from around the world post 26 pieces through the month of April, arranged according to the alphabet.  Because this blog is about both Fantasy and Relief Block Printmaking, my themes in past years have been
     2016 - Mythical Creatures, a general digest
     2017 - Relief Block Printmakers
     2018 - Characters in the Books I’ve Written
     2019 - Mythical Creatures featured in my own book On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination
     2020 - Traditional English-language Nursery Rhymes and their block printed illustrations
     2021 - Mythical and Imaginary Places
     2022 - How to Make a Fantastical Creature (Traits common among monsters and marvels)
     2023 - Block Printed Alphabet Squared (an Alphabet of Block Printed Alphabets)
        That’s the history - feel free to revisit any of them (you can use the labels in the sidebar) and drop new comments.  But now the time has come to reveal the future: the theme for… (sound the fanfare…)
     2024 - The Botany of the Realms of Imagination
        I’ve done many many posts on magical creatures, but not too many on magical plants… and that omission ends now!  Presenting twenty-six posts lavishing attention on magical botany!  To clarify, this is about mythical plants of folklore, fairy tale, and fantasy, not about real plants that are said to have magical properties (although occasionally those categories may blur slightly).  As usual, I’ll give preference to block prints to illustrate the featured plants, but that won’t be possible for many of them, so there will be a wide variety of illustrations.
        In my usual sanity-saving practice, I will be starting early in order to give myself a few days off during the month of April.  You can come back next week for the letter A, or you can come back on April 1, and each day in April I’ll direct you to the officially scheduled letter with links.  This year, however, in a new and desperate additional attempt to preserve my sanity, I really am going to rein myself in and feature just a few plants each time.  And since my posts will be a little shorter than some years, you’ll have more time to read more of the other A to Z Blogs!  Be sure to check out the Master List of all the participating bloggers, which you can find HERE.
        So, put on your magical gardening gloves and get ready to dig in.  Maybe you’ll discover some new plants to grow in your own fantasy garden!  Or, if you’ve been around for a while, which was your favorite of my previous themes?

[Pictures: Assorted illustrations from Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis by Martin de la Cruz and Juan Badiano, 1552 (Images from Academia);

Garden Apartments, rubber block print by AEGNydam, 2017 (sold out).]

March 8, 2024

Eclipse Legends

         Planet Earth is due for a total solar eclipse this year on April 8.  I’ve got my astronomically-approved eclipse glasses, and I’m ready to view it!  By the time the eclipse rolls around, however, I’ll already be ten letters deep into the April A to Z Challenge here on this blog, so I thought I’d better take the opportunity today to take a brief look at how humans have viewed eclipses through the lens of myth.
        Not surprisingly, an eclipse is the sort of natural phenomenon that catches people’s attention, that is not readily explainable to the pre-Copernican understanding, and that is dramatic enough to suggest that something really wild is happening in the heavens.  A situation ripe for legend!
        The most widespread explanation that seems to have occurred to people around the world is that something must be devouring the sun.  After all, we can see the bite being taken from the shining disc in the sky, and during a total eclipse it’s evidently been swallowed completely.  Vietnamese legend holds that a giant frog swallows the sun.  Javanese mythology accuses the god of darkness.  Chinese culture attributes the eclipse to a celestial dragon’s maw.  According to Andean cultures, it’s a puma; Choctow legend has a mischievous black squirrel; and Kwakiutl stories tell of some kind of sky creature.  Norse mythology claims the sun and moon are swallowed by giant wolves created by Loki.  Luckily, all these monsters always spit the sun back out again for one reason or another, sometimes because it’s too hot or because gods make them, but often because people scare the monster away with loud noises.  The Kwakiutl people light fires so that the smoke will make the sky creature sneeze and spit out the sun.  In Hindu mythology the sun is occasionally swallowed by the decapitated head of the demon Rahu — but since the monster is just a head, the sun quickly comes out from the back of his throat!
        But what if the sun weren’t being swallowed by a monster?  Perhaps instead the eclipse is the result of love.  In traditions of southeast Australia, the Moon chases the Sun across the sky and threatens to darken the world if she can’t catch him.  In Inuit legend it’s the Sun chasing the Moon.  In both German and Tahitian mythology the Sun and Moon are in a sort of “Ladyhawke” scenario in which they are lovers and the eclipse is one of the rare times they can actually be together.  Some people of Benin add the idea that when the Sun and Moon do get together, they turn off the light for privacy!  The Maya make loud noises to make the Sun and Moon break up their embrace, which seems kind of cruel.  Surely you could wait patiently in darkness for just a little while, to give them a rare chance to enjoy each others’ company!  (On the other hand, another source claims the Maya were in the sun-eating camp.  It’s entirely possible that there were multiple legends.  Also entirely possible that some of my sources for a shallow little survey post like this are not very accurate!)
        We get our word eclipse from Greek, and it meant literally “abandonment, forsaking,” because it happened when the gods were angry and the sun abandoned the Earth.  The Inca also believed an eclipse was a sign of the wrath of the sun god, and in Transylvania it was said that the sun would cover herself in darkness when she was angry with humans' bad actions.
        Sometimes it isn’t the sun’s fault at all.  Stories of the Aymara of South America say that an eclipse comes when the sun is sick.  People have to light fires to keep the Earth warm until the sun gets better.  The Ojibwa and Cree people of North America tell of a boy who catches the sun in a snare.  Only the mouse gnawing through the ropes can set the sun free.  Other indigenous North American stories suggest that the sun has dropped its torch or somehow gone out and needs to be rekindled with flaming arrows.  Persians suggested that an eclipse was caused when a peri (like a fairy or jinni) hid the sun as a prank.
        Perhaps the best take on it that I’ve read is the story from the Batammaliba of western Africa.  They say that the eclipse is caused when the sun and the moon fight — and the people's response is to gather together and try to sort out all their own arguments, in order to encourage the sun and the moon, too, to work out their differences and go back to their usual peaceful routines.
        What’s your favorite explanation for an eclipse?  And will you be able to observe the one on April 8?

[Pictures: Dragon and sun, detail from embroidered court robe, China, 19th century (Image from The Met);

Wolves pursuing the sun and moon, illustration by J.C. Dollman from Myths of the Norsemen by H.A. Guerber, 1909 (Image from Project Gutenberg);

Demon Rahu eating the moon, linoleum block print by Brian Reedy ca. 2018 (Image from @brianreedy on Instagram).]

March 4, 2024

Helbig's Holzschnitte

         Walter Helbig (Germany/Switzerland, 1897-1968) was active during that artistic ferment of the Brücke, Neue Secession, and Blaue Reiter groups, and he even took part in the first Dada exhibition in Zurich.  Indeed, he continued to work with all kinds of new artistic movements until his death in 1968.  Today, though, I have a selection of wood block prints from a portfolio of 16 wood block prints that were made in the 19-teens and twenties.  These 
particular pieces are strongly influenced by German Expressionism and Die Brücke, which means that on the whole I like the people less than the other subjects.
        My favorite is this scene of a cluster of houses, with its strong black and white, clean geometry, and rougher, more organic rocks and trees.  The landscape is also fun, looking almost diagrammatic with tiers of simplified hills and trees.
        I have included two people, however.  The first is entitled “Sermon for the Birds,” which may be St Francis.  I really like the birds, especially in the lower left, but what I really like is the light.  Although Helbig has placed a sun up in the upper right, the real light comes from the top center, where it seems to shine from behind the man’s head and upraised hand.
        The second person is “The Artist.”  I can’t help laughing at this depiction of an artist so clearly confused and beset by so much going on.  Are these external distractions interfering with his work, or is he overrun with too many ideas all clamoring to be created?  It’s certainly an interesting image and I can’t help assuming it must be somewhat autobiographical.
        I’ve included one last piece from Helbig’s portfolio: the table of contents, also a wood block print.  Carving all the little letters for all the words is never easy, and these come out with a nice balance between clear legibility and hand-carved quirkiness.  I always wonder what makes someone choose to carve a page of text like this when there are 
certainly easier ways to do it!  But it is undoubtedly fun for us to see it this way.

[Pictures: Häuser, woodcut 1911;

Landschaft, woodcut 1912;

Vogelpredigt, woodcut 1916;

Der Künstler, woodcut 1918;

Table of Contents, 1926, all woodcuts by Walter Helbig from 16 Holzschitte (Images from MoMA).]