Medieval Botanica: Mythical Plants of the Middle Ages

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

The Barnacle Tree

One of the most amazing botanical myths is that of a tree that hadbarnacles that opened to reveal geese. The legend of this tree was of greatantiquity, and although Albert Magnus in the 13th c. denounced it as false,the tales of this tree were popular among herbalists up until the 18thcentury. William Turner, a 16th c. English herbalist accepted the idea, asdid John Gerard in his Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, publishedin 1597, in which he wrote: "...there is a small llande in Lancashirecalled the Pile of Foulders...whereon is found a certaine spume or froth,that in time breedeth unto certaine shels." These mussel-shaped shellswould grow until they split open, revealing "the legs of the Birde hangingout...til at length it is all come foorth." The bird would hang by its billuntil fully mature, then would drop into the sea "where it gatherethfeathers, 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 treegrowing on the islands near Cathay, which was called the Bohun Upas--thetree of poisons. To the medieval traveler this tree was to be shunned, asit produced narcotic and toxic fumes which killed plants and animals formiles around. If one were to fall asleep in the shade of this tree, hewould never awaken. Malaysians supposedly executed prisoners by tying themto the trunk of this great tree.

The Tree of Knowledge

"...the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden" is theonly reference in the Old Testament to that tree which has become known asthe "tree of knowledge." In the Garden of Eden man was given a choicebetween this tree, which conferred mortality on mankind, and the tree oflife, which granted immortality. Given no other indication, artists andwriters have envisioned the tree of knowledge as an apple, a fig, a pear,dragon's blood, and a banana tree! The most bizarre interpretation comesfrom a 13th c. cathedral in Indres, France, which contains a fresco showingEve encountering a serpent entwined around a giant branching mushroomcommon 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 factthat it was the host for mistletoe, their most sacred plant. To the ancientHebrews, it was the Cedar, which provided wood and a delicate, preciousoil. The Assyrians depicted the tree of life as a Date tree, and since theyartificially pollinated their date trees to produce a greater amount offruit, 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 theScriptures. To must of us, this suggests the western Sycamore, the Planttree (Platanus). However, when it is read that the Egyptians regarded theSycamore as their sacred "tree of life," we must question this, as theSycamore is not indigenous to the Nile Valley. In reality, the Sycamore ofthe Bible was the wild Fig tree, dedicated to fertility, joy, and theafterlife. 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 andmoros) united to form the name sycamore. No real sycamore was ever a treeof life.

The Amber Tree

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

The Apple of Sodom & the Zieba Tree

To conclude this brief look at the mythical plants of the medievalworld, there must be made mention of the Apple of Sodom, a gigantic treewhich grew in the desolated area that was once Sodom & Gamorrah. Anytraveler of the region foolish enough to pick one of the apples would haveit turn to smoke and ashes in his hand--a sure sign of God's eternaldispleasure with those who would succumb to their physical senses at thesite of His retribution. And finally, no study of fabulous plants would becomplete without mention of the Zieba tree, a huge, shingle-barked growththat supported in its lower branches a nest of bare bosomed men & women.Like all those who choose to believe in the tales of these incredibleplants, the humans reposing in the Zieba tree spend their days sittingexalted in fantasy, contemplating in wonder all things seen and unseen.

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

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Created Dec 8 1994 by Aaron Rice (
a Timpview High School student
in partnership with the
David O. McKay School of Education
Brigham Young University