Bizarre Plants by William A. Emboden

Originally published in 1974 ‘Bizarre Plants: Magical, Monstrous, Mythical’ was written by William A. Emboden. Emboden was the senior curator of botany at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, professor of biology at California State University and lectured at the University of California, Los Angeles. He also authored the book ‘Narcotic Plants’.

Bizarre Plants is a fascinating book that was published during the rising shamanic consciousness of the 1970s. After the psychedelia of the 1960s, with its emphasis on LSD and Eastern religious models, the alternative drugs discourse began to pay more attention to plant hallucinogens and shamanistic models, largely South American ones. However, one should not give the impression that this is a countercultural drugs text. Rather, Emboden’s book is botanically-centred and, moreover, its emphasis is on how various plants have been captured by the imagination of humanity. It covers many cultures and civilisations from across history and although some of the information is dated, it still remains a fascinating window into the botanical imaginal.

“The curious history of the uses of orchids is really a synoptical sketch of the evolution of magic into medicine or of the origin of many medical traditions. Only recently it was discovered that both tranquilizers and birth-control agents have histories rooted in folk traditions. Perhaps some enterprising pharmacologist will conduct an ethnobotanic survey of some of the bizarre traditions connected with orchids, and find equally interesting chemical attributes in these, the most beautiful of flowers” (Emboden 1974, 51)

The mythologies that accompany plants like the orchid, in all its variations, are numerous and fascinating, linked to humanity through witchcraft, religion and medicine. Emboden’s narrative beautifully places plant knowledge within wider historical processes, like the evolution of alchemy and magic into medicine and the various branches of science. Indeed, in many respects, plants play an important role in the growth of human knowledge. However, while the magical, medicinal and tripping qualities may have provided humans with a bevy of uses, some plants hold a place in our imagination, merely because of how they look. These are the monstrous plants.

Plants like the Chiranthodendron pentadactylon, or the Aztec ‘hand flower’, which as its name suggests looks like a human hand and the gigantic water lily, Victoria regia, impress via their shape and size. They stand out as something we recognise in ourselves or as plants that do not live up to our expectations and surpass our imagination, either way eliciting a strong emotional response of wonderment, or the sacred. One plant in particular, Amorphophallus titanium, has engaged numerous people. The plant does not flower very often but, when it does, it produces a huge phallic bloom made up of many smaller flowers. Emboden quotes from the Journal of the New York Botanical Garden about one of the largest specimens recorded at the gardens: “What they saw when the spathe was open was somewhat the form of a gigantic upturned morning glory, four feet across and nearly thirteen [feet] in circumference” (Emboden 1974, 5). Yet these monsters, as spectacles, have not played so much of an intrinsic role in human history.

“Incantation or exorcism of evil often accompanied the use of herbs at an earlier date. When plagues were prevalent throughout the Old World, it was a frequent practice to attempt to reduce the casualties by spreading odoriferous herbs on streets where people congregated for fêtes or for the entrance of a regal personage into a city” (Emboden 1974, 97)

The shared territory between the spiritual world of witches and religion, and their social and cultural roles in herb-lore is a complexion of dark and light forces. In the chapter Satan’s Simples, Emboden looks at herbs associated with black magic. These include plants with proven psychoactive properties like the nightshade Atropa belladonna, which was purportedly a staple ingredient in the witch’s flying-ointments of medieval times. Mythology tells us that Satan himself guards the plant and it can only be picked on Walpurgis nacht (April 30); on this night Satan can be controlled through belladonna. And, of course, there are numerous herbs that bare Satan’s name in some way, usually referring to one of his body parts.

On the other side of this coin are the plants and herbs that are described through heavenly mythology. For instance, “Scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis), [is] said to have appeared on the soil at Calvary when the drops of Christ’s blood fell to the ground” (Emboden 1974, 91). Also, these Christian-mythos plants engage with the supernatural imaginals of the witches, seemingly mirroring the attitudes of certain elements of the established Church toward folk, religious practice. The Scarlet pimpernel, for example, was believed to be useful in counteracting spells cast by witches. There is a fantastical world of spiritual forces embedded in the common names of plants and the stories that accompany them. Rather than reflecting a certain categorical framework in plant mythology, they outline a story of interplay, one that shows the cultural period, with its various knowledge-bases, but that also alludes to the actuality of the medicinal properties and psychoactive qualities that we know today.

Bizarre Plants has a number of other fascinating chapters. The one concerned with fungi, Fungal Fantasies, is heavily influenced by R. Gordon Wasson, although only speaks of the Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) without discussing Psilocybe mushrooms. Also, the ancient use of ginseng in China and its spread across the globe is interesting so far as the inclusion of a trade and travel point-of-view helps make the text richer in its approach. Finishing the book, Emboden discusses the plants that appear to have no basis in reality, the ones that are symbol and metaphor, like the Yggdrasil of Norse mythology that bound heaven, earth, and the underworld together. This finished the book off perfectly; a great arc from the reality of monstrous plants at the start, to the pure mythology of our imagination. Overall, a neat little book with a good deal of thought provoking content.

Via the House

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1 Response

  1. Lady Revlin says:

    Sounds like a great book, can’t wait to have a read!

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