This blog post was written by Tom Pink, Assistant Librarian at the RHS Lindley Library. It is one of a series of blog posts on the theme of Magic and the Supernatural, as part of History Day 2017.
The Lindley Library is home to many weird and wonderful records of plants; from the rancid smelling ‘Corpse flower’ Raffelsia arnoldii named for its odour of decomposing flesh (Companion to the Botanical Magazine, 1835), to the downright bizarre, such as Henry Lee’s Vegetable Lamb of Tartary (1887). In it Lee outlines this “plant-animal” which was thought to be the fruit of tree, something like a melon or gourd, which when ripe, “burst open and disclosed to view within it a little lamb, perfect in form, and in every way resembling an ordinary lamb naturally born” pp. 1.
In preparation for our attendance at the supernatural themed History Day 2017, here are a few more ghoulish and gruesome examples of other plants from our collection.
Dracunculus vulgaris – Dragon Arum – LIB0005859
In his Temple of Flora, or garden of the botanist, poet, painter, and philosopher (1807), Robert Thornton could not find the words to describe “this extremely fœtid [sic] poisonous plant”, such was the horror he was confronted with. He instead resorted to personifying it:
“She comes peeping from her purple crest with mischief fraught: from her green covert projects a horrid speer of darkest jet, which she brandishes aloft: issuing from her nostrils flies a noisome vapour infecting the ambient air: her hundred arms are interspersed with white, as in the garments of the inquisition; and on her swollen trunk we observed the speckles of a mighty dragon: her sex if strangely intermingled with the opposite! Confusion dire! – all framed for horror; or kind to warn the traveller that her fruits are poison-berries, grateful to the sight but fatal to the taste, such is the plan of PROVIDENCE, and such HER wise resolves.”
Endemic to south-east Europe, the species was named by Heinrich Wilhelm Schott in Meletemata botanica (1832).
Atropa belladonna – Deadly Nightshade – LIB0046336
The potential danger of this plant has been noted throughout the history of garden literature, in no uncertain terms. As early as 1597 John Gerard in his Herball or generall historie of plantes implored gardeners to, “…banish it from your gardens and the use of it also, being a plant so furious and deadly…” pp.270, ch. 51.
It has been linked with superstition, witchcraft, and the occult and was given common names such as ‘Death’s Herb’; “a plant of ill omen, and one of which witches are reported to be fond…” (Folkard, 1884, pp.460). But there have also been descriptions of its real-world danger, and tragic consequences. James Edward Smith, in The English Flora (1828), describes the berries it produces as:
“…the size of a small cherry, sweetish, and not nauseous, so that children have often been tempted to eat it, to their own destruction. Only half one of these fruits is said to have proved fatal, producing deadly stupor. To make the patients swallow vinegar, and to keep them from sleeping, may avert the fatal consequences. Emetics do not take effect. The leaves applied externally, as well as taken in powder, or infusion, have been recommended to cure cancers; but their use in any way occasions dreadful uneasiness, horrors and swoonings, so that few practitioners can preserve long in prescribing so distressing and ambiguous remedy.” pp. 317-318
Dionaea muscipula – Venus’s flytrap – LIB0008163
Venus’s flytrap has become a ubiquitous plant associated with the supernatural and horror, ever since Audrey Jr. appeared in The Little Shop of Horrors in 1960. But almost 100 years before that, it’s appetite for destruction was already being written about.
In 1879, Jane Ellis Hopkins described the process by which small insects may meet their demise in the jaws of this carnivorous plant:
“If the captive is fat and nourishing, the old haunting story of the prisoner who finds the walls of his cell gradually closing in upon him comes true, not in the gloomy human dungeons, but down among the starry moss, and windy lights, and lovely glowing things, and all the wide peacefulness of upland nature. Slowly the walls of his leafy prison approach, the intercrossing spikes interlock like the teeth of two combs, the lobes themselves become slightly less concave, and the prisoner is gradually but irresistibly crushed to death. Occasionally an active beetle with his wits about him, rapidly gnaws his way through the walls of his living grave, and escapes as other prisoners have done. But generally his lifeless corpse can be traced bulging out between the two partitions…” pp. 43-44:
In this engraving by Robert James, you can even pick out a fly and beetle that have met their doom!
- Companion to the Botanical Magazine… (1835-6) ed. W.J. Hooker. Vol. 1, London: Samuel B. Curtis.
- Folkard, R. (1884) Plant lore, legends and lyrics. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington.
- Gerard, J. (1597) The herball or generall historie of plantes. London: John Norton.
- Hopkins, J.E. (1879) Carnivorous plants, in, Contemporary Review, vol. 35, pp. 37-50. London: The Contemporary Review Company.
- Lee, H. (c1887) The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington.
- Schott, H.W., Endlicher, S. (1832) Meletemata botanica. Vindobonae: Typis C. Gerold. Accessed: http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/40101#/summary [23/08/2017].
- Smith, J.E. (1828) The English Flora. 2nd edition. London: (Richard Taylor) for Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green.
- Thornton, R.J. (1807) New illustration of the sexual system of Linnaeus. London: T. Bensley
- Dracunculus vulgaris – Temple of Flora, or garden of the botanist, poet, painter, and philosopher, 7318-1001
- Atropa belladonna – Pen and ink wash drawings, Aubriet, Claude (1665-1742) (Artist) 37678-1001
- Dionaea muscipula – Ellis, John: Directions for bringing over seeds and plants from the East Indies and other distant countries. London: L. Davis, 1770. 910 Ell. Plate facing page 37.