CHAPTER 15 – FABULOUS PLANTS.
The curious traditions of imaginary plants found amongst most nations have partly a purely mythological origin. Frequently, too, they may be attributed to the exaggerated accounts given by old travellers, who, “influenced by a desire to make themselves famous, have gone so far as to pretend that they saw these fancied objects.” Anyhow, from whatever source sprung, these productions of ignorance and superstition have from a very early period been firmly credited. But, like the accounts given us of fabulous animals, they have long ago been acknowledged as survivals of popular errors, which owed their existence to the absence of botanical knowledge.
We have elsewhere referred to the great world tree, and of the primitive idea of a human descent from trees. Indeed, according to the early and uncultured belief of certain communities, there were various kinds of animal-producing trees, accounts of which are very curious. Among these may be mentioned the vegetable lamb, concerning which olden writers have given the most marvellous description. Thus Sir John Maundeville, who in his “Voyage and Travel” has recorded many marvellous sights which either came under his notice, or were reported to him during his travels, has not omitted to speak of this remarkable tree. Thus, to quote his words:–“There groweth a manner of fruit as though it were gourdes; and when they be ripe men cut them in two, and men find within a little beast, in flesh, in bone, and blood–as though it were a little lamb withouten wolle–and men eat both the fruit and the beast, and that is a great marvel; of that fruit I have eaten although it were wonderful; but that I know well that God is marvellous in His works.” Various accounts have been given of this wondrous plant, and in Parkinson’s “Paradisus” it is represented as one of the plants which grew in the Garden of Eden. Its local name is the Scythian or Tartarian Lamb; and, as it grows, it might at a short distance be taken for an animal rather than a vegetable production. It is one of the genus Polypodium; root decumbent, thickly clothed with a very soft close hoal, of a deep yellow colour. It is also called by the Tartars “Barometz,” and a Chinese nickname is “Rufous dog.” Mr. Bell, in his “Journey to Ispahan,” thus describes a specimen which he saw:–“It seemed to be made by art to imitate a lamb. It is said to eat up and devour all the grass and weeds within its reach. Though it may be thought that an opinion so very absurd could never find credit with people of the meanest understanding, yet I have conversed with some who were much inclined to believe it; so very prevalent is the prodigious and absurd with some part of mankind. Among the more sensible and experienced Tartars, I found they laughed at it as a ridiculous fable.” Blood was said to flow from it when cut or injured, a superstition which probably originated in the fact that the fresh root when cut yields a tenacious gum like the blood of animals. Dr. Darwin, in his “Loves of the Plants,” adopts the fable thus:–
“E’en round the pole the flames of love aspire,
And icy bosoms feel the sacred fire,
Cradled in snow, and fanned by arctic air,
Shines, gentle Barometz, the golden hair;
Rested in earth, each cloven hoof descends,
And round and round her flexile neck she bends.
Crops of the grey coral moss, and hoary thyme,
Or laps with rosy tongue the melting rime,
Eyes with mute tenderness her distant dam,
Or seems to bleat a vegetable lamb.”
Another curious fiction prevalent in olden times was that of the barnacle-tree, to which Sir John Maundeville also alludes:–“In our country were trees that bear a fruit that becomes flying birds; those that fell in the water lived, and those that fell on the earth died, and these be right good for man’s meat.” As early as the twelfth century this idea was promulgated by Giraldus Cambrensis in his “Topographia Hiberniae;” and Gerarde in his “Herball, or General History of Plants,” published in the year 1597, narrates the following:–“There are found in the north parts of Scotland, and the isles adjacent, called Orcades, certain trees, whereon do grow small fishes, of a white colour, tending to russet, wherein are contained little living creatures; which shells, in time of maturity, do open, and out of them grow those little living things which, falling into the water, do become fowls, whom we call barnacles, in the north of England brant-geese, and in Lancashire tree-geese; but the others that do fall upon the land perish, and do come to nothing.” But, like many other popular fictions, this notion was founded on truth, and probably originated in mistaking the fleshy peduncle of the barnacle (_Lepas analifera_) for the neck of a goose, the shell for its head, and the tentacula for a tuft of feather. There were many versions of this eccentric myth, and according to one modification given by Boëce, the oldest Scottish historian, these barnacle-geese are first produced in the form of worms in old trees, and further adds that such a tree was cast on shore in the year 1480, when there appeared, on its being sawn asunder, a multitude of worms, “throwing themselves out of sundry holes and pores of the tree; some of them were nude, as they were new shapen; some had both head, feet, and wings, but they had no feathers; some of them were perfect shapen fowls. At last, the people having this tree each day in more admiration, brought it to the kirk of St. Andrew’s, beside the town of Tyre, where it yet remains to our day.”
Du Bartas thus describes the various transformations of this bird:–
“So, slowe Boôtes underneath him sees,
In th’ ycie iles, those goslings hatcht of trees;
Whose fruitful leaves, falling into the water,
Are turn’d, they say, to living fowls soon after.
So, rotten sides of broken ships do change
To barnacles; O transformation change,
‘Twas first a green tree, then a gallant hull,
Lately a mushroom, now a flying gull.”
Meyer wrote a treatise on this strange “bird without father or mother,” and Sir Robert Murray, in the “Philosophical Transactions,” says that, “these shells are hung at the tree by a neck, longer than the shell, of a filmy substance, round and hollow and creased, not unlike the windpipe of a chicken, spreading out broadest where it is fastened to the tree, from which it seems to draw and convey the matter which serves for the growth and vegetation of the shell and the little bird within it. In every shell that I opened,” he adds, “I found a perfect sea-fowl; the little bill like that of a goose, the eyes marked; the head, neck, breast, wing, tail, and feet formed; the feathers everywhere perfectly shaped, and the feet like those of other water-fowl.” The Chinese have a tradition of certain trees, the leaves of which were finally changed into birds.
With this story may be compared that of the oyster-bearing tree, which Bishop Fleetwood describes in his “Curiosities of Agriculture and Gardening,” written in the year 1707. The oysters as seen, he says, by the Dominican Du Tertre, at Guadaloupe, grew on the branches of trees, and, “are not larger than the little English oysters, that is to say, about the size of a crown-piece. They stick to the branches that hang in the water of a tree called Paretuvier. No doubt the seed of the oysters, which is shed in the tree when they spawn, cleaves to those branches, so that the oysters form themselves there, and grow bigger in process of time, and by their weight bend down the branches into the sea, and then are refreshed twice a day by the flux and reflux of it.” Kircher speaks of a tree in Chili, the leaves of which brought forth a certain kind of worm, which eventually became changed into serpents; and describes a plant which grew in the Molucca Islands, nicknamed “catopa,” on account of its leaves when falling off being transformed into butterflies.
Among some of the many other equally wonderful plants may be mentioned the “stony wood,” which is thus described by Gerarde:–“Being at Rugby, about such time as our fantastic people did with great concourse and multitudes repair and run headlong unto the sacred wells of Newnam Regis, in the edge of Warwickshire, as unto the Waters of Life, which could cure all diseases.” He visited these healing-wells, where he, “found growing over the same a fair ash-tree, whose boughs did hang over the spring of water, whereof some that were seare and rotten, and some that of purpose were broken off, fell into the water and were all turned into stone. Of these, boughs, or parts of the tree, I brought into London, which, when I had broken into pieces, therein might be seen that the pith and all the rest was turned into stones, still remaining the same shape and fashion that they were of before they were in the water.” Similarly, Sir John Maundeville notices the “Dead Sea fruit”–fruit found on the apple-trees near the Dead Sea. To quote his own words:– “There be full fair apples, and fair of colour to behold; but whoso breaketh them or cutteth them in two, he shall find within them coals and cinders, in token that by the wrath of God, the city and the land were burnt and sunken into hell.” Speaking of the many legendary tales connected with the apple, may be mentioned the golden apples which Hera received at her marriage with Zeus, and placed under the guardianship of the dragon Ladon, in the garden of the Hesperides. The northern Iduna kept guarded the sacred apples which, by a touch, restored the aged gods to youth; and according to Sir J. Maundeville, the apples of Pyban fed the pigmies with their smell only. This reminds us of the singing apple in the fairy romance, which would persuade by its smell alone, and enable the possessor to write poetry or prose, and to display the most accomplished wit; and of the singing tree in the “Arabian Nights,” each leaf of which was musical, all the leaves joining together in a delightful harmony.
But peculiarities of this kind are very varied, and form an extensive section in “Plant-lore;”–very many curious examples being found in old travels, and related with every semblance of truth. In some instances trees have obtained a fabulous character from being connected with certain events. Thus there was the “bleeding tree.” It appears that one of the indictments laid to the charge of the Marquis of Argyll was this:–“That a tree on which thirty-six of his enemies were hanged was immediately blasted, and when hewn down, a copious stream of blood ran from it, saturating the earth, and that blood for several years was emitted from the roots.” Then there is the “poet’s tree,” which grows over the tomb of Tan-Sein, a musician at the court of Mohammed Akbar. Whoever chews a leaf of this tree was long said to be inspired with sweet melody of voice, an allusion to which is made by Moore, in “Lalla Kookh:”:–“His voice was sweet, as if he had chewed the leaves of that enchanted tree which grows over the tomb of the musician Tan-Sein.”
The rare but occasional occurrence of vegetation in certain trees and shrubs, happening to take place at the period of Christ’s birth, gave rise to the belief that such trees threw out their leaves with a holy joy to commemorate that anniversary. An oak of the early budding species for two centuries enjoyed such a notoriety, having been said to shoot forth its leaves on old Christmas Day, no leaf being seen either before or after that day during winter. There was the famous Glastonbury thorn, and in the same locality a walnut tree was reported never to put forth its leaves before the feast of St. Barnabas, the 11th June. The monkish legend runs thus: Joseph of Arimathaea, after landing at no great distance from Glastonbury, walked to a hill about a mile from the town. Being weary he sat down here with his companions, the hill henceforth being nicknamed “Weary-All-Hill,” locally abbreviated into “Werral.” Whilst resting Joseph struck his staff into the ground, which took root, grew, and blossomed every Christmas Day. Previous to the time of Charles I a branch of this famous tree was carried in procession, with much ceremony, at Christmas time, but during the Civil War the tree was cut down.
Many plants, again, as the “Sesame” of the “Arabian Nights,” had the power of opening doors and procuring an entrance into caverns and mountain sides–a survival of which we find in the primrose or key-flower of German legend. Similarly, other plants, such as the golden-rod, have been renowned for pointing to hidden springs of water, and revealing treasures of gold and silver. Such fabulous properties have been also assigned to the hazel-branch, popularly designated the divining-rod:–
“Some sorcerers do boast they have a rod,
Gather’d with vows and sacrifice,
And, borne aloft, will strangely nod
The hidden treasure where it lies.”
With plants of the kind we may compare the wonder-working moonwort (_Botrychium lunaria_), which was said to open locks and to unshoe horses that trod on it, a notion which Du Bartas thus mentions in his “Divine Weekes”–
“Horses that, feeding on the grassy hills,
Tread upon moonwort with their hollow heels,
Though lately shod, at night go barefoot home,
Their maister musing where their shoes become.
O moonwort! tell me where thou bid’st the smith,
Hammer and pinchers, thou unshodd’st them with.
Alas! what lock or iron engine is’t,
That can thy subtle secret strength resist,
Still the best farrier cannot set a shoe
So sure, but thou (so shortly) canst undo.”
The blasting-root, known in Germany as spring-wurzel, and by us as spring-wort, possesses similar virtues, for whatever lock is touched by it must yield. It is no easy matter to find this magic plant, but, according to a piece of popular folk-lore, it is obtained by means of the woodpecker. When this bird visits its nest, it must have been previously plugged up with wood, to remove which it goes in search of the spring-wort. On holding this before the nest the wood shoots out from the tree as if driven by the most violent force. Meanwhile, a red cloth must be placed near the nest, which will so scare the woodpecker that it will let the fabulous root drop. There are several versions of this tradition. According to Pliny the bird is the raven; in Swabia it is the hoopoe, and in Switzerland the swallow. In Russia, there is a plant growing in marshy land, known as the rasir-trava, which when applied to locks causes them to open instantly. In Iceland similar properties are ascribed to the herb-paris, there known as lasa-grass.
According to a piece of Breton lore, the selago, or “cloth of gold,” cannot be cut with steel without the sky darkening and some disaster taking place:–
“The herb of gold is cut; a cloud
Across the sky hath spread its shroud
On the other hand, if properly gathered with due ceremony, it conferred the power of understanding the language of beast or bird. As far back as the time of Pliny, we have directions for the gathering of this magic plant. The person plucking it was to go barefoot, with feet washed, clad in white, after having offered a sacrifice of bread and wine. Another plant which had to be gathered with special formalities was the magic mandragora. It was commonly reported to shriek in such a hideous manner when pulled out of the earth that, “Living mortals hearing them run mad.”
Hence, various precautions were adopted. According to Pliny, “When they intended to take up the root of this plant, they took the wind thereof, and with a sword describing three circles about it, they digged it up, looking towards the west.” Another old authority informs us that he “Who would take it up, in common prudence should tie a dog to it to accomplish his purpose, as if he did it himself, he would shortly die.” Moore gives this warning:–
“The phantom shapes–oh, touch them not
That appal the maiden’s sight,
Look in the fleshy mandrake’s stem,
That shrieks when plucked at night.”
To quote one or two more illustrations, we may mention the famous lily at Lauenberg, which is said to have sprung up when a poor and beautiful girl was spirited away out of the clutches of a dissolute baron. It made its appearance annually, an event which was awaited with much interest by the inhabitants of the Hartz, many of whom made a pilgrimage to behold it. “They returned to their homes,” it is said, “overpowered by its dazzling beauty, and asserting that its splendour was so great that it shed beams of light on the valley below.”
Similarly, we are told how the common break-fern flowers but once a year, at midnight, on Michaelmas Eve, when it displays a small blue flower, which vanishes at the approach of dawn. According to a piece of folk-lore current in Bohemia and the Tyrol, the fern-seed shines like glittering gold at the season, so that there is no chance of missing its appearance, especially as it has its sundry mystic properties which are described elsewhere.
Professor Mannhardt relates a strange legend current in Mecklenburg to the effect that in a certain secluded and barren spot, where a murder had been committed, there grows up every day at noon a peculiarly-shaped thistle, unlike any other of its kind. On inspection there are to be seen human arms, hands, and heads, and as soon as twelve heads have appeared, the weird plant vanishes. It is further added that on one occasion a shepherd happened to pass the mysterious spot where the thistle was growing, when instantly his arms were paralysed and his staff became tinder. Accounts of these fabulous trees and plants have in years gone been very numerous, and have not yet wholly died out, surviving in the legendary tales of most countries. In some instances, too, it would seem that certain trees like animals have gained a notoriety, purely fabulous, through trickery and credulity. About the middle of the last century, for instance, there was the groaning-tree at Badesly, which created considerable sensation. It appears that a cottager, who lived in the village of Badesly, two miles from Lymington, frequently heard a strange noise behind his house, like a person in extreme agony. For about twenty months this tree was an object of astonishment, and at last the owner of the tree, in order to discover the cause of its supposed sufferings, bored a hole in the trunk. After this operation it ceased to groan, it was rooted up, but nothing appeared to account for its strange peculiarity. Stories of this kind remind us of similar wonders recorded by Sir John Maundeville, as having been seen by him in the course of his Eastern travels. Thus he describes a certain table of ebony or blackwood, “that once used to turn into flesh on certain occasions, but whence now drops only oil, which, if kept above a year, becomes good flesh and bone.”
1. Laing’s “History of Scotland,” 1800, ii. p. II.
2. “Flower-lore,” p. 46.