Since time unremembered we have held a certain fascination with the forests, trees, and plants of our world. They infuse much of our planet with verdant green, and although in more modern times they are something we mostly take for granted, a part of the background, there have always been mysterious plants and trees that have puzzled and perplexed. While mysterious animals and mythical creatures are fascinating enough, just as intriguing are often the equally bizarre and enigmatic plants and trees that have been reported throughout the ages, and here are some of the stranger of such accounts.
One curious tree supposedly existed in the garden of the home of regional Daimyo in Honjo, in the Hiradoshinden-han fiefdom of Japan sometime during the Edo Period (1603- 1868). The elegant mansion, which was known as the Matsura house, was located along what was then known as the Great River, now the Sumida River, and had a grand garden walled off from the outside world. Within this garden was a massive chinkapin oak tree with sprawling branches that arched right over the walls, and which was highly regarded by the people of the area. The strange thing about this particular tree was that it is said to have never dropped a single leaf, no matter what the season. The Daimyo’s gardener often spoke of having never found even one leaf to have fallen off the mysterious tree, even in the dead of winter, and suspected that the tree had some sort of magical power coursing through it.
The odd tree became known as the Ochiba Naki Shii, The Chinkapin Tree of Unfallen Leaves, and indeed, the Daimyo himself was said to be convinced that it had some form of magic, spirits, or even a curse infusing it. So unsettled was he by the tree that he apparently spent as little time at the home as possible, and even at times considered having it cut down, but the fame of the magical tree had spread, and to destroy it would have greatly upset the people. In fact, the mansion had become a popular destination for curiosity seekers from all over, to the point that it had become popularly known as the Chinkapin Tree Mansion. The unusual tree became so legendary that its story went on to be considered one of the Honjo Nana Fushigi, or “Seven Wonders of Honjo,” and its story told far and wide.
It is uncertain just how real the mysterious Chinkapin Tree of Unfallen Leaves was, and sadly we will probably never know. The land on which it stood was eventually purchased by the Yasuda zaibatsu financial conglomerate during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), which was a time of great social modernization for the country. The company had the area turned into a private garden called Yasuda Park, after which it was later made a public park which exists to this day in Sumida Ward, Tokyo. Although there is a stone monument to signify where the legendary tree is said to have once stood, the tree itself is long gone, the park completely unrecognizable from what it had once been. Whatever happened to it is anyone’s guess, but the tree lives on in myth and legend.
Also widely spoken of in Japan is a mystical type of tree known as the Jinmenju, "The Human-Faced Tree." Originally a tale from China, where they were written of in a book called Sansai Zue, “A Collection of Pictures of Heaven, Earth, and Man,” as well as similar accounts from India and Persia, these peculiar trees were said to have pinkish fruits that looked like human heads, called jinmenshi, or "human-faced child," complete with eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, and that these fruit were prone to fits of laughter. If one of these fruits were to laugh too hard, it was said to fall from the tree and wither away. They were also said to occasionally whisper or talk, which could be rather startling and unsettling indeed to anyone passing by. Interestingly, the fruit was said to have a very pleasant sour-sweet flavor if one were to gather up the nerve to actually bite into one.
According to the Edo period encyclopedia Wakan Sansai Zue, in Japan these trees were found in the south, and that there were some people who planted whole orchards of the bizarre trees with their laughing, smiling fruit. Another account says that there was a whole mysterious island overgrown with the trees somewhere out in the Indian Ocean, from a doctor who claimed to have actually been there.
One very curious account also came from another doctor in Japan, who wrote in his notes quite seriously of coming across a valley where he had found an odd, tropical looking tree the likes of which he had never seen before. As he passed it, he claimed to have heard voices, and when he asked who was there he heard the cryptic response, “We are we.” It was then that he noticed that the voices were coming from unusual fruits that had human faces, looked like baby heads, and had eyes that looked right at him. When he asked if someone was behind the tree, the voices answered “We are the tree,” which startled the doctor so much that he stumbled back and fell. This sent the fruits into a fit of laughter, and some of them purportedly laughed so hard that they fell from their branches and rolled along the ground while frowning and crying. The Jinmenju is a bizarre tale to be sure, and one wonders just how much of this is based in any sort of reality.
Another mysterious and legendary tree supposedly exists within the frozen wilderness of Tibet, at a Buddhist monastery called Kumbum, which lies among the frigid foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, where a mysterious and mystical tree grows at the bottom of a hill near the monastery. The legendary tree is a sandalwood tree, and from afar seems rather normal, but if one approaches it is said that one can see that the leaves are imprinted with various mystical symbols, letters, figures, and even the face of the Buddha himself, with the whole area infused with a sweet, intoxicating scent.
This sandalwood tree, which has also variously been called the “Golden Tree,” “The Mantra Tree,” “The Tree of Great Merit,” and “The Tree of Ten Thousand Images,” is also said to have various powers, such as healing, precognition, and divination, and over the centuries it became a holy place, particularly revered in throughout Tibet and Mongolia. The mysterious tree first became known to outsiders in the 1800s, and one of the first to lay eyes on it was a Lazarist priest by the name of Abbe M. Huc, who made the journey to this faraway land to see it after hearing rumors of its existence while traveling from Peking to Lhasa. Huc made the harrowing trek out to the remote monastery along with fellow priest Joseph Gabet, and they were both highly doubtful that such a legendary tree really existed, but they were in for a surprise. Huc would write of the magnificent tree in his travel journal Travels in Tartary, Thibet and China During the Years 1844-5-6, saying of it:
Yes, this tree does exist, and we had heard of it too often during our journey not to feel somewhat eager to visit it. At the foot of the mountain on which the Lamasery stands, and not far from the principal Buddhist temple, is a great square enclosure, formed by brick walls. Upon entering this we were able to examine at leisure the marvelous tree, some of the branches of which had already manifested themselves above the wall. Our eyes were first directed with eamest curiosity to the leaves, and we were filled with an absolute consternation of astonishment at finding that, in point of fact, there were upon each of the leaves well-formed Thibetan characters, all of a green color, some darker, some lighter than the leaf itself. Our first impression was a suspicion of fraud on the part of the Lamas; but after a minute examination of every detail, we could not discover the least deception. The characters all appeared to us portions of the leaf itself, equally with its veins and nerves. The position was not the same in all; in one leaf they would be at the top of the leaf; in another, in the middle; in a third, at the base, or at the side.,’the younger leaves represented the characters only in a partial state of formation. The bark of the tree and its branches, which resemble that of the plane tree, are also covered with these characters. When you remove a piece of old bark, the young bark under it exhibits the indistinct outlines of characters in a germinating state, and, what is very singular, these new characters are not infrequently different from those which they replace. The tree of the Ten thousand Images seemed to us of great age. Its trunk, which three men could scarcely embrace with outstretched arms, is not more than eight feet high; the branches, instead of shooting up, spread out in the shape of a plume of feathers and are extremely bushy; few of them are dead. The leaves are always green, and the wood, which is of a reddish tint, has an exquisite odour something like cinnamon. The Lamas informed us that in summer towards the eighth moon, the tree produces huge red flowers of an extremely beautiful character. We examined everything with the closest attention, in order to detect some case of trickery, but we could discern nothing of the sort, and the perspiration absolutely trickled down our faces under the influence of the sensations which this most amazing spectacle created. More profound intellects than ours may, perhaps, be able to supply a satisfactory explanation of the mysteries of this singular tree; but as to us, we altogether give it up. Our readers may smile at our ignorance; but we care not, so that the sincerity and truth of our statement be not suspected . . . . The Lamas informed us that. . nowhere else exists another such tree; that many attempts have been made in various Lamaseries of Tartary and Thibet to propagate it by seedlings and cuttings, but that all these attempts have been fruitless.
This tree is said to still exist there at the monastery, although it is off-limits to outsiders. One of the most bizarre and mysterious plants of all time was a supposed plant from Central Asia that was said to grow an outlandish fruit that took a form reminiscent of an actual lamb, which was attached to the main body of the plant by an umbilical cord of sorts and could actually walk and move around. Most commonly called The Lamb of Tartary, but also known by many other names such as The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, The Scythian Lamb, and The Borometz, Borametz, Barametz, or Barometz, this strange plant was first written of in the 14th century. The lambs these plants grew were said to be perfectly independent and mobile, even feeding on grass around them like a real lamb, but nevertheless a part of the plant as a whole, thus withering away and dying if the cord connecting them were to be severed. The vegetable lamb and the plant it was attached to would also purportedly die if the lamb ate all of the grass within its reach, after which it would starve to death. Once the lamb was dead, it’s wool was used and its flesh consumed, with the meat said to be quite tasty and succulent, and the blood said to taste like honey.
One of the first real mentions of these creatures by outsiders was in a travelogue written by a Sir John Mandeville in the 14th century, who allegedly travelled the world and wrote extensively about the many amazing and strange things and people he encountered on his adventures. At one point he found himself in what was then Tartary, which is now part of China, where he encountered the fabled lamb and said of it thus:
There grows there a kind of fruit as big as gourds, and when it is ripe men open it and find inside an animal of flesh and blood and bone, like a little lamb without wool. And the people of that land eat the animal, and the fruit too. It is a great marvel.
It is interesting that this report mentions no wool, whereas other accounts say that the lambs have a thick fleece. Unfortunately, it is thought that it is very likely that this travelogue was a hoax and that Mandeville never actually existed, so the veracity of this particular account is questionable. Nevertheless, The Lamb of Tartary was mentioned in other reports from explorers to the region, and began to interest naturalists, who were excited about this strange plant’s potential existence. In the 16th century, a well-respected scholar and diplomat named Baron Sigismund von Herberstein included a report of the lambs within his influential 1549 work on the Court of Muscovy in Russia, called Notes on Muscovite Affairs. In addition to all of the dry political talk, there are some eye-opening accounts of the Lamb of Tartary, which apparently came from Russian witnesses. Karl Shuker wrote of this account in his book A Manifestation of Monsters, in which he writes of the Baron’s report thus:
The Baron's account stated that the vegetable lamb possessed not only a normal lamb's head with eyes and ears, but also a normal lamb's woolly fleece. Its tiny limbs even sported hooves, though these were exceedingly delicate as they were apparently composed merely of compressed hairs, not the hard horny substance of real lambs' hooves. The lamb was permanently attached to a long stem, comparable to an umbilical cord, which grew vertically to a height of approximately 2.5 ft, thus suspending the lamb high above the ground, but it could apparently use its weight to bend the stem downwards, thereby enabling it to stand and walk upon the ground, and also to graze upon any grass or foliage that was within its reach.
There was much excitement at the time that this could be anomaly of nature that fused the worlds of plants and animals into one, and the lamb became a regular inclusion in most bestiaries, where it was considered to be very real indeed. For centuries occasional expeditions were sent to look for specimens of the elusive plant, but evidence was typically scarce. Some explorers coming from the regions where the lambs were said to lurk told tales of the wool being used for clothing, and claimed that whole vegetable lamb skins could sometimes be found for sale for exorbitant prices. On occasion, some of these skins even found their way to civilization, such as a coat lined with vegetable lamb skin that allegedly came into the possession of a Sir Richard Lea, who was an English ambassador to the court of the Russian Tsar, Ivan IV in 1570. The coat was donated to Oxford’s Bodleian Library in 1609 along with other samples of strange plants and animals kept by Lea, but it was more or less stored away, forgotten, and has been lost to time, its ultimate fate unknown.
Even more impressive still was an alleged preserved specimen of one of the vegetable lambs, which was supposedly purchased from an Indian merchant by a Mr. Buckley, after which it went on display at the Royal Society of London in 1698. The specimen was around 1-foot-long and was covered in a dark yellow fleece. The Royal Society would put on display yet another alleged specimen of an alleged vegetable lamb in 1725, which had supposedly been acquired from Russia by a German doctor named Dr Johann P. Breyn. Unfortunately, just as with the skin-lined coat these specimens have since been lost.
In more modern times it has been speculated that the tale of the Lamb of Tartary may have stemmed from a misidentification of a plant now known as the woolly fern (Cibotium barometz), which has a fluffy rhizome, or modified subterranean stem of a plant, that can resemble a lamb if its leaves are removed and it is turned upside down. Indeed, two supposed surviving specimens of vegetable lambs, one at the Garden Museum in London and another at London's Natural History Museum, are thought to be fakes cleverly crafted out of the woolly fern, although they are not on public display and have not been properly examined since they are too old and frail, so it is hard to say for sure.
While the woolly fern idea is certainly interesting, it still does not explain the many reports of these vegetable lambs moving about and grazing on their own, dying when separated from their host plant, or having wool coats that can be made into clothing and flesh that tastes like honey, all of which are present in these accounts and none of which ferns are known for. While of course the idea of such a botanical oddity actually existing may seem preposterous, one is left wondering just what could have started such amazing tales, and if there is any real plant at all, some grain of truth, that could lie at the heart of it all. We may never know, and the Lamb of Tartary still remains largely a mystery.
Getting into perhaps even more bizarre territory we come to a plant that seems as if it must surely be purely a mythical construct. Buried within an ancient work reconstructed by Una Woodruff in 1979, called Inventorum Natura: The Expedition Journal of Pliny the Elder, is an account of a very strange plant indeed. The volume supposedly catalogues natural wonders that the great Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder during a 3-year journey he took around the known world of the time, and within its pages is a description of a miraculous type of grass native to mainland Asia, which had flowers said to morph into tiny colorful birds that would fly off when ripe. These birds were said to look mostly like the real thing and could act independently, yet when dissected showed that they were still anatomically botanical in nature. The weird plants would be also mentioned in a 1667 work by Athanasius Kircher called China Illustrata, where it was described thus:
In Sichuan Province there is said to be a little bird which is born from the flower called Tunchon, and so the Chinese call it Tunchonfung. The Chinese say that this measures its life by the life of the flower, and that flower and bird die at the same time. The bird has a variety of colours. When flying and beating its wings, the bird looks like a beautiful flower flying across the heavens.
Cryptozoologist Karl Shuker has written of these anomalous flowers, and has theorized that this could be a legend born from a misconception that small, nectar-loving birds such as hummingbirds or sunbirds that hovered about actually came from the flowers themselves. Shuker has written of this theory:
It is possible that the latter is a species of sunbird (nectariniid). Native to Africa, Asia (including China's Sichuan Province), and Australasia, sunbirds are small, extremely brightly coloured, and mirror ecologically albeit not taxonomically the New World hummingbirds. Feeding primarily upon nectar, moreover, they spend much of their time in such close proximity to flowers that this intimate association may well have inspired an erroneous belief that these diminutive birds were actually being engendered by the flowers.
Some mysterious, possibly mythical plants are more sinister in nature. One type of legendary grass common in Irish lore is called féar gortach, or “Hungry Grass.” Often said to be cursed or under the influence of some sort of entity such as fairies, Hungry Grass was said to cause an insatiable hunger, possibly even starvation, and profound weakness in anyone who walked across it, with the only way to pass safely being to carry some food. In some versions of the tale this grass is somewhat snake-like, and will actively wrap itself around unwary passersby. The grass was also said to corrupt and eat other crops, and was so persistent in lore that it was blamed in part for the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s. In some areas, such as a place called Hungry Hill, the grass was supposedly so plentiful that it was considered to be a death sentence to venture there, with those who entered never returning.
Also deadly is the man-eating plant, a type of oddity which I have written of at Mysterious Universe before. One of these is the so-called “Man-Eating Lotus of Nubia,” which was an enormous lotus tree known to lure in prey with sweet, succulent fruit, only to lash out kill, and consume them. In an 1881 travelogue called Under the Punkah, explorer Phil Robinson told of how one of these man-eating plants had attacked his uncle. The uncle was reported as having emptied his firearm into the blood-thirsty tree, after which he had hacked away at it with a knife as it grabbed and stabbed at him with vines and branches. He was finally able to barely escape with his life, but one of his native guides had not been so lucky, and was devoured. Robinson described the Man-Eating Lotus thus:
This awful plant, that rears its splendid death-shade in the central solitude of a Nubian fern forest, sickens by its unwholesome humours all vegetation from its immediate vicinity, and feeds upon the wild beasts that, in the terror of the chase, or the heat of noon, seek the thick shelter of its boughs ; upon the birds that, flitting across the open space, come within the charmed circle of its power, or innocently refresh themselves from the cups of its great waxen flowers ; upon even man himself when, an infrequent prey, the savage seeks its asylum in the storm, or turns from the harsh foot-wounding sword-grass of the glade, to pluck the wondrous fruit that hang plumb down among the wondrous foliage. And such fruit ! Glorious golden ovals, great honey drops, swelling by their own weight into pear-shaped translucencies. The foliage glistens with a strange dew, that all day long drips on to the ground below, nurturing a rank growth of grasses, which shoot up in places so high that their spikes of fierce blood-fed green show far up among the deep-tinted foliage of the terrible tree, and, like a jealous body-guard, keep concealed the fearful secret of the charnel-house within, and draw round the black roots of the murderous plant a decent screen of living green.
In this green world of ours there will probably always be a certain wonder and awe associated with the trees and plants of our planet. Just as they have spawned legends, myths, and bizarre tales, they also seem to have mysteries that beckon us from beyond our understanding. With the accounts that we have looked at here, is there any truth lying at the bottom of these anomalies? From where did these stories evolve, and are they based on any truth at all? We may perhaps never know, but we can wonder about such things, look out into the vast sea of green and wonder.