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Medieval Botanica: Mythical Plants of the Middle Ages

by James L. Matterer

January 2, 1994

Civilizations as early as the Chaldean in southwestern Asia were among the first to have a belief in plants that never existed, and the practice continued well beyond the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Originally, this was done to disperse the mystery surrounding certain seemingly-miraculous events and to symbolically embody in a physical form various aspects--wealth, happiness, fertility, etc. Later, people began to invent "nonsense plants" to enliven the tale of an otherwise boring voyage, and with the invention of the printed book, to entertain readers who loved to believe in such fables. The following is a short list of some of the fantastic plants our medieval forebears believed in. As will be evident, trees, because of their longevity and immensity, have been foremost among the plants considered sacred, mystic, or mythical.

The Barnacle Tree

One of the most amazing botanical myths is that of a tree that had barnacles that opened to reveal geese. The legend of this tree was of great antiquity, and although Albert Magnus in the 13th c. denounced it as false, the tales of this tree were popular among herbalists up until the 18th century. William Turner, a 16th c. English herbalist accepted the idea, as did John Gerard in his Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, published in 1597, in which he wrote: "...there is a small llande in Lancashire called the Pile of Foulders...whereon is found a certaine spume or froth, that in time breedeth unto certaine shels." These mussel-shaped shells would grow until they split open, revealing "the legs of the Birde hanging out...til at length it is all come foorth." The bird would hang by its bill until fully mature, then would drop into the sea "where it gathereth feathers, and groweth to a foule, bigger than a Mallard, and lesser than a Goo\ se."

Bohun Upas--the tree of poisons

The first voyagers to Malay returned with grisly tales of a poisonous tree growing on the islands near Cathay, which was called the Bohun Upas--the tree of poisons. To the medieval traveler this tree was to be shunned, as it produced narcotic and toxic fumes which killed plants and animals for miles around. If one were to fall asleep in the shade of this tree, he would never awaken. Malaysians supposedly executed prisoners by tying them to the trunk of this great tree.

The Tree of Knowledge

"...the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden" is the only reference in the Old Testament to that tree which has become known as the "tree of knowledge." In the Garden of Eden man was given a choice between this tree, which conferred mortality on mankind, and the tree of life, which granted immortality. Given no other indication, artists and writers have envisioned the tree of knowledge as an apple, a fig, a pear, dragon's blood, and a banana tree! The most bizarre interpretation comes from a 13th c. cathedral in Indres, France, which contains a fresco showing Eve encountering a serpent entwined around a giant branching mushroom common in Europe--the slightly toxic and hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria.

The Tree of Life

The identification of this tree varied among cultures and time periods. To the Druids, the tree of life was the Oak, due to its age and the fact that it was the host for mistletoe, their most sacred plant. To the ancient Hebrews, it was the Cedar, which provided wood and a delicate, precious oil. The Assyrians depicted the tree of life as a Date tree, and since they artificially pollinated their date trees to produce a greater amount of fruit, to them it was not only a source of food but a symbol of conception. Also, the fruit provided a date wine which was used as a libation to the gods.

Biblically, the tree of life is the Sycamore, which appears often in the Scriptures. To must of us, this suggests the western Sycamore, the Plant tree (Platanus). However, when it is read that the Egyptians regarded the Sycamore as their sacred "tree of life," we must question this, as the Sycamore is not indigenous to the Nile Valley. In reality, the Sycamore of the Bible was the wild Fig tree, dedicated to fertility, joy, and the afterlife. The fig tree has a leaf very similar to that of a mulberry tree, and over the years the two Greek words for fig and mulberry (sycos and moros) united to form the name sycamore. No real sycamore was ever a tree of life.

The Amber Tree

Amber, which we now know is the aging resin of several different tress and shrubs, was of unknown origin to the ancients, who revered it as a great element in magic and used it often as a talisman. Because it was found most frequently on the shores of streams, in old lake beds, or in the sea, it was often thought to be the product of a fish that was called, appropriately, the amberfish. Others believed it came from seafoam that had crystallized, or from resin put forth by certain trees. So when the artist of the Hortus Sanitatis, published in 1491 by Jacob Meydenbach, was required to portray amber, he cleverly composed all these legends and produced a foaming ocean in which an amberfish swims under an amber tree growing out of the waters. The look of doubt expressed in the glance of the fish perhaps says it best.

The Apple of Sodom & the Zieba Tree

To conclude this brief look at the mythical plants of the medieval world, there must be made mention of the Apple of Sodom, a gigantic tree which grew in the desolated area that was once Sodom & Gamorrah. Any traveler of the region foolish enough to pick one of the apples would have it turn to smoke and ashes in his hand--a sure sign of God's eternal displeasure with those who would succumb to their physical senses at the site of His retribution. And finally, no study of fabulous plants would be complete without mention of the Zieba tree, a huge, shingle-barked growth that supported in its lower branches a nest of bare bosomed men & women. Like all those who choose to believe in the tales of these incredible plants, the humans reposing in the Zieba tree spend their days sitting exalted in fantasy, contemplating in wonder all things seen and unseen.

Emboden, William A. Jr., Bizarre Plants, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.: New York, 1974.

Author: Lord Ian Damebrigge of Wychwood Please send coments to (MR JL MATTERER)

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