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H-140-42 Hura crepitans

Today let us appreciate a fearsome tree! The Sandbox tree (Hura crepitans) is a native of the spurge family (like poinsettias and baseball plants). However the Sandbox tree is not a tiny houseplant: it can grow to 60 meters (200 feet) tall and has majestic oval leaves that measure 60 centimeters (2 feet) across.  The tree originated in the super competitive biome of the Amazon rainforest, but it has been spreading North through tropical Central America, and invasive colonies have a foothold in tropical East Africa.

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The bark of the sandbox tree

Perhaps the somewhat  anodyne name “sandbox tree” has you picturing a lovable tree for a children’s nursery or something.  Dispel that rosy picture from your mind!  Hura crepitans is a monster plant in every way.  Not only is it 60 meters tall,  its trunk is covered in enormous sharpened spines which would make a Clive Barker villain cry.  If you hack through the spines to injure the tree, the sap turns out to be a milky caustic poison which has been used by indigenous hunters to tip arrows and (allegedly) to kill fish.  The tree grows a fruit which looks like a vile pumpkin made of hardwood.  These jabillo fruit are toxic, but they are not meant to beguile animals into devouring the seeds anyway.  Instead they explode like hand grenades causing a raucous bang and throwing seeds 50 meters (150 feet) from the tree.

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So why is this giant, spiny, exploding, poisonous tree called the sandbox tree anyway? We don’t call rhinoceroses “playground ponies”.  It feels like there has been a substantial nomenclatural failure here (at least in terms of the English common name).  As it turns out, during the 19th century, the symmetrical green jabillo pods were harvested, dried out, and sawed into little dishes which were filled with pounce.  Pounce is powder made of pulverized cuttlefish bone which was sprinkled on crude paper of yesteryear to size it (i.e. to make it possible to write on) or to dry the heavy ink lines from nibs and quills.  Wow! It is easy to forget that people of yesteryear were as freakish in repurposing natural materials into household items as we are with our endless disposable plastic goods.

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Did you grow up playing adventure games and reading fantasy literature (a la “Dragonlance”, “Lord of the Rings”, and “Harry Potter”)?  Well if so, you are familiar with a standardized stable of fantasy creatures from medieval lore–familiar mythical beasts such as Manticores, griffins, dragons, and trolls.  The creatures which didn’t come from classical mythology originated in bestiaries–medieval fieldguides of astonishing creatures.  These treatises didn’t just have made-up monsters they also had a moralizing flavor…and hopefully some illustrations!

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However there were some beasts in the bestiaries that didn’t make it past the red pencil of Tolkien and Gygax–like the unhappy subject of today’s post, the bonnacon.  The Bonnacon comes down to us from no less a source than Pliny the Elder (who thought it lived in Paeonia (which is modern Macedonia/Bulgaria).  The bonnacon was the comic relief monster in medieval bestiaries.  The medieval manuscript writers loved it because of its scatalogical hijinks, however the mythical animal’s means of defending itself was so uncouth that the prim myth-makers of the present left it out of the worlds which they built.

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I will leave it to the Aberdeen Bestiary to describe the creature to you in its own words.  I have stolen the translation from Wikipedia, but the page is immediately above this paragraph, if you want to translate the Latin yourself.

In Asia an animal is found which men call bonnacon. It has the head of a bull, and thereafter its whole body is of the size of a bull’s with the maned neck of a horse. Its horns are convoluted, curling back on themselves in such a way that if anyone comes up against it, he is not harmed. But the protection which its forehead denies this monster is furnished by its bowels. For when it turns to flee, it discharges fumes from the excrement of its belly over a distance of three acres, the heat of which sets fire to anything it touches. In this way, it drives off its pursuers with its harmful excrement.

The poor bonnacon thus seems like a beast which ate too much spicy Taco Bell.   This was obviously a source of much glee to the illuminators and scribes of yore, but it was too much for J.K. Rowling.  Even fantasy beasts have to get with the times and so the bonnacon has been left behind in the dark ages.  Even if it didn’t make it into adventure books and golden tales of magical enchantment, I wonder if there isn’t a place for the monster in contemporary music or modern stand-up.  This thing might fit right into Andrew Dice Clay’s act and who can doubt that it would naturalize instantly into Eminem’s lyrics.

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