You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘plant’ tag.
Musa acuminata is a species of herbaceous plant from Southeast Asia. Actually it is a very remarkable herbaceous plant because (along with certain other members of the Musa genus), it is the largest herbaceous plant living today. They are so large that some people call them trees—although they are not properly trees. The plant’s aspect is disturbing—almost like something out of a horror movie. A giant pseudostem sprouts rapidly from a fleshy underground corm embedded within the jungle earth. This pseudostem is a towering appendage made up of layer after layer of horny leaf sheaths. Giant leafs grow out from the top of it—some of them as long as a man.
At the very top of the pseudostem sits the elaborate reproductive apparatus of the plant, a grotesque inflorescence made up of alternating rows of flowers and petal-like bracts. The strange mass droops down from the tree and a wizened inferior ovary dangles at the bottom. As the female flowers are fertilized they form a hanging cluster of distinctive fingerlike fruits. These bulbous “fingers” are grouped in tiers and they angle upward giving the whole stem an alien look. The fruit of Musa acuminata is radioactive because it contains a large amount of potassium (including potassium-40). Botanists have described the fruit as “leathery berries” (although, to my eye, the elongated fruits suggest something other than berries).
Although the fruits have a stiff waxy covering and contain a great deal of potassium, they are sweet–so jungle animals carry the pods around, eat them, and distribute the seeds (although the plant also produces asexually by suckering off clonal buds). Some animals are especially drawn to the fruits and scientists speculate about whether Musa acuminate evolved symbiotically with the primates of Southeast Asia.
In fact 10,000 years ago an invasive species of African primate which had somehow made it to Papua began to select varieties of Musa acuminate trees which suited their taste while destroying (or at least not propagating) the other varieties. Soon the fruit began to change into something which fit the primates’ hands and suited the beings’ color palate.
Musa acuminata was hybridized with other Musa species (particularly Musa balbisiana) in order to create different varieties of fruits. Parthenocarpic varieties of bananas were discovered and the virgin plants were carefully nurtured and cloned. Ten thousand years of selective breeding has produced a big yellow glowing seedless fruit, far different from the little stunted green fruit. Archaeologists believe that the banana might have been the first domesticated fruit (the only other contender is the ancient fig—which did, in fact, evolve alongside African primates). Today they live throughout the tropics and subtropics. Banana plants are additionally used to make fiber and as ornamental plants, but their importance as a foodstuff for humankind is difficult to overstate. Not only are the yellow “Cavendish” fruits eaten in immense quantities, but starchy plantains are consumed with savory meals, and banana wine is the dominant spirit of large swaths of Africa. Bananas are the most popular fruit in the world and our fourth most abundant crop overall.
This week’s theme on Ferrebeekeeper is “Flowers of the Underworld.” So far we have featured a ghostly-looking flower which is actually edible and a demonic looking flower which is actually medicinal—hardly plants from the depths of hell. Today therefore we are proceeding in a scarier direction and featuring a flower of delicate beauty…which is profoundly poisonous. Aconitum is a genus of about 300 flowers belonging to the buttercup family (a family of flowering plants, notable for the number of toxic plants therein, which has been extant since the Cretaceous). The aconites are hardy perennial flowers which grow throughout the Northern Hemisphere but largely prefer mountain meadows and rich cool forests. The plants have many common names which range from whimsical to hair-raising: “blue rocket”, “monkshood”, “wolfsbane”, “woman’s bane”, “devil’s helmet”, “mourning bride”, “Hecateis herba” (which means “the herb of Hecate”, to whom the aconites are sacred) and so on. All aconite plants are extremely toxic. You should not eat them, touch them, or even write about them without taking precautions. Seriously—Pliny the Elder (absurdly) wrote that the smell of aconite could kill a mouse from a substantial distance! When something is so toxic that it hoodwinked the greatest naturalist of the Roman era, you know it is really a fraught topic (although, frankly, Pliny made some other errors as well).
Aconite plants have dark green leaves in a spiral pattern and a radish-like root. In the wild they live in rich soils, preferring those which are moist but well drained, however they can be cultivated easily in a variety of locations. The real glories of aconites are their flowers, which are lovely but difficult to describe–the tall upright stems support numerous blossoms each of which has five sepals. The posterior sepal is in the shape of a cylindrical helmet or hood from classical antiquity (the source of many of the aconites’ common names). The most common aconite in Europe is the common monkshood (Aconitum napellus) which is known from its brilliant blue-purple flowers and from endless mystery novels, but other species look somewhat different. For example, the yellow wolfsbane (Aconitum anthora) lives in the Alps and bears pretty yellow blossoms.
Since I am an avid flower gardener and do not have children, dogs, or livestock, I decided to plant monkshood in my old garden. Unfortunately, for all of their reputed hardiness, the flowers were no match for the toxic soil and the dreadful machinations of the Norway maple. Perhaps their failure was a good thing. Because aconites are so toxic, I became prey to paranoid thoughts that agile children would somehow steal into my (walled) garden and eat the (unappealing tasting) plants.
My paranoia was not groundless–aconites contain virulent neurotoxins. Inchem.org describes the mechanism of aconite poisoning in the typically bland language of pharmacology stating, “Aconite alkaloids activate the sodium channel and have widespread effects on the excitable membranes of cardiac, neural and muscle tissue.” In translation this means that alkaloid compounds found in all parts of the plant (but particularly the root) are potent neurotoxins which disrupt neural and nerve-to-muscle signals and usually prove fatal by stopping the heart. Because it is so dangerous, aconite has a substantial place in history. Chinese soldiers used the poison for their arrows and Greeks poured it into water supplies as an early form of bio-warfare. The roots were most infamous as a gastronomically administered stealth poison. Emperor Claudius was probably killed by aconite poisoning, as too was Emperor John I Tzimisces. These emperors were joined over the years by numerous other victims from all walks of life. Aconite has also been used as a medicine (and still is part of Chinese traditional homeopathy), but since it is so easy to kill patients with a slight overdose, Western doctors abandoned compounds derived from the plant as soon as other subtler neurological drugs were found.
Aconite flowers have an equally dramatic place in myth and literature. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, aconite plants first came into the world when Hercules dragged Cerberus, the monstrous canine offspring of Echidna, up from the underworld into the world of life. The poison drool–or “lip-froth” as it is written in my translation–fell from the hellhound’s three gnashing mouths, landed on the ground in Scythia, and transformed into aconite flowers. Ovid recounts the tale as an aside while recounting how the poison was a particular favorite of Medea (the citation is Ovid, Metamorphoses 7. 412 if you want to read the dramatic passage for yourself).
It was not just classical poets who wrote of the plant. In Ulysses, Bloom’s father died from a (deliberate?) overdose of aconite which he was self-administering as a homeopathic remedy for neuralsia/depression. Presumably the character failed to heed the counsel of Keats, who prominently alluded to aconite in the first stanza of his Ode on Melacholy which, in the second stanza, counsels the reader how to avoid despair through appreciation of the natural world, study of classical values, and delight in love. On the other hand, the third and last stanza of the poem seems to indicate that sadness is a requisite part of mortality which allows us to savor beauty, love, and joy—indeed by counter-example melancholy guides us towards these transcendent (but transient) feelings. Keat’s complex message steps far beyond thoughts of flowers and the underworld so I will leave you to read the entire poem on your own. Here, however is the first stanza, entreating you away from aconite (and from other forms of self harm). It goes without saying, gentle reader, that I am entirely of a mind with Keats:
NO, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.