Mysterious Plants & Where To Find Them
Discovered in the mountains of Siberia in 1886 by the explorer and botanist Père Emboden, Toastus bernadettus was brought back to Europe as a gift for his wife Bernadette, in an attempt to win her back after he accidentally backed over her cat with his horse and carriage. T. bernadettus is now cultivated all over the world, not only for its aesthetic qualities and pleasant fragrance, but also for its medicinal properties. During its flowering season (June to September), the tendrils can be boiled and eaten. This is believed to lessen the consumer’s chances of being struck by lightning. The roots also have anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties and are often used to bind superficial wounds. T. bernadettus does well in medium-heavy, non-calcareous, acidic soil, preferably in sun or partial shade. The vines are normally between 1-2 metres in length, but have been known to reach 4 metres in their native Siberia.
Receiptus printeri, native to the Pacific, grow on rock faces next to freshwater. The tendrils, flat and paper-white with flowers approx. 15 cm in diameter, extend towards the water source where liquids, nutrients, and occasionally small fish, are absorbed into the plant. Several deaths have been reported due to swimmers becoming entangled in advanced stage R. printeri, and many governments have thus issued warnings about bathing in areas known to be infested with the plant. R. printeri reach maturity at 20 years of age, and once this point is reached they are very hard to remove. Flame-torches are often resorted to, as the plants dislike heat, hence they are normally found in deep valleys where the sun rarely penetrates. It is worthy of note that the tendrils, once cut and dried, burn cleanly and easily, and are often used as kindling by bushmen.
The first Toastus tiptopolous was brought to England in 1840 after the discovery of the plant by British colonists in New Zealand, and ever since they have been grown in private gardens, parks and botanical gardens. T. tiptopolous is a botanical curiosity of great aesthetic value for the unusual shape of the leaves, which are flat, deciduous, and about 15cm across. The leaves are attractive to moths, particularly the margerine moth (Margerinus adicae), found in the South of New Zealand. T. tiptopolous is edible, in fact a certain Colonel stationed in New Zealand reportedly ate them from his garden every morning, writing in his diary in 1848, “These strange plants, native to this strange country, taste more like home than the English breakfast my wife tries to make me”. T. tipopolous thrives well in sunny areas with well-drained soil. Not to be confused with the commonly grown cultivar hybrid Toastus molenburgus.
Found at altitudes of 400m and above, Lactis shakeus prefer a moist soil and dappled light. They are immensely popular with birds and people alike, and in regions where they grow you will generally find a wide variety of dishes containing the sweet nectar from the flower during the blooming season (November through July, peaking in February to April). Because of this the numbers of L. shakeus in the wild are swiftly dropping and in some places have become so low that takings are limited and monitoring is required to combat poaching. Many a lost and hungry tramper has been revived by the nectar, which can be sucked into the mouth using the stalk of the plant, delivering high calories with minimal energy expenditure. The stalks are tubular with longitudinal veins, ending in a delicate, milky coloured flowers which emit a pleasant scent.
Toastus jamcissus originates from Finland and is rampant throughout Sweden and Norway. Reports have come from as far afield as Mongolia and Suriname of the vined plant, which grows in river valleys. The vines are 2cm in width and the colour of light toast. The flowers are approximately 10cm in diameter and the fruit a vibrant red. The fruit is produced in late autumn and gives off an attractive scent that is often likened to the smell of a good sandwich. However, though endowed by nature with lovely flowers, T. jamcissus should instil caution: all parts of the plant are poisonous. A singular flower is suffice to induce a painful transformation in which the victim sprouts a singular tusk from the bridge of their nose, for which no cure has yet been discovered. The plants cause much damage to cereals, vegetables and fruit trees. Careful preventative measures keep them in check.
“Before you can change the world you have to be able to form a picture of the world being other than it appears. Imagination, not intelligence, made us human. Squirrels are quite intelligent when it comes to nuts, but as far as we can tell they have never told stories about a hero who stole nuts from the gods” [i]
– Terry Pratchett, 1998
Once upon a time, while sitting in a café on a dark London day, Charles Dickens looked up and noticed the words MOOR-EEFFOC written on the glass door (COFFEE-ROOM seen backwards)[ii]. A shock went through his blood, and suddenly he found himself transported into a strange land, not the trite England he knew before, but somewhere fresh and exciting. From this alternate perspective, he was able to look with new eyes. Fantasy is often dismissed for its “irrelevance” to the world we live in, and documentary cited as the ultimate truth, particularly in photography. But is fantasy any less real than documentary? Documentary, with its viewpoint and bias, its cropping and framing, its presentation out of context, masquerading under the pretext of truth could be seen as more misleading, and human imagination the ultimate root of our own reality.
Fantasy has also been endowed with the power of metaphor and hyperbole, to speak intensely and compellingly of things that relate to our own world. The distance between the two worlds creates space for ideas to flow between, and in this space things can be said with more impact than the often exhausted, “real-life” based approaches that have lost force. This defamiliarisation can make us look at the world in a different way.
In Mysterious Plants & Where to Find Them, a book of botanical curiosities, self-created worlds are used as a vehicle for environmental comment. The medium of fantasy is apt for this; according to author David Pringle, fantasy is “the yearning of the human heart for a kinder world… fantasy seeks to heal the waste land.”[iii]
van der Voorn takes conventions we associate with authenticity – latin names, documentation and presentation, but uses them to create total artifice. Plants are constructed from mundane appliances; toasters with stems of toast and a milkshake maker with drinking straw flowers. The uncomfortable combination of the organic with the inorganic draws attention to the differences and indicates how far we have come in alienating ourselves from nature. These electronic machines, designed to save us time and energy and produce uniform results at the whim of man, are not designed to sit out in the elements, but in the stark, cleanliness of a white kitchen where the rules are different and humans hold supremacy. Set amongst the forces of nature, man is unveiled as vulnerable, our creations frivolous, and indeed at times harmful – unlike the surrounding plants, they will not break down organically, providing sustenance for the earth and other living matter.
Fantasy is currently more important than ever before, for, in the words of David Pringle, “throughout most of human history and prehistory that quality of “unknown-ness” existed for most people, most of the time; it was a simple fact of life in a world where few people travelled more than a few miles from home. Today, although we have gained in so many way from the advances of modern science, modern medicine, modern transport and modern communications, we have lost that feeling of otherness, that sense of mystery which sustains the human imagination.”[iv]
[i] Pratchett, T & Pringle, D. (2006). The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Fantasy, p6. London: Carlton Books Ltd.
[ii] Tolkien, J.R.R. (1964) Tree and Leaf, p52. London: Unwin Books.
[iii] Pratchett, T & Pringle, D. (2006). The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Fantasy, p8. London: Carlton Books Ltd.
[iv] Pratchett, T & Pringle, D. (2006). The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Fantasy, p16. London: Carlton Books Ltd.