Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 
Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

4 Legendary Plant-Animal Hybrids

Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 
Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

In the Middle Ages, travelers brought home tales from all over the globe of wondrous and fantastic plants and beasts—but many of these travelers were just relaying stories they’d heard instead of things they’d actually seen. These stories, in turn, were written about by educated men who’d never traveled. And they were illustrated by artists who only had hearsay to go by. It’s no wonder they were completely misunderstood.

1. WAQ WAQ TREE

Bodleian Libraries via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

According to legend, the Waq Waq Tree, which bears human or animal fruit, grows on an island in the Indian Ocean or China Sea. In some of these stories, the fruit begins as human heads that grow into entire bodies, while in others the fruit begins as human babies that mature. Either as the fruit grows, or when it falls, it cries “Waq waq!” There's a possibility that the Waq Waq tree might have been a reference to coconut trees, which has fruit that kind of looks like a human head. The tree began appearing in Islamic art in the 12th and 13th centuries.

2. JINMENJU

Toriyama Sekien via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Jinmenju is a tree similar to the Waq Waq, but the story originates from China and was passed to Japan. According to the legend, the tree produces fruit that has the face of a human child. These faces don’t speak, but they smile and laugh all the time. If they laugh too exuberantly, they fall to the ground. The fruit is both sweet and sour, and the seeds inside also resemble human faces.

3. BARNACLE TREE

The legend of the Barnacle Tree, or Goose Tree, involves two animals and a plant, and it was an attempt to explain several odd phenomena that were observed but misunderstood. In the Middle Ages, people saw black and white geese in Ireland and Scotland in the wintertime, but in the spring, the animals disappeared. No one saw them nest or reproduce, and yet there they were, every winter. (The animals, of course, had migrated and nested elsewhere, but people didn't know about that behavior at the time.) However, small barnacles were seen clinging to driftwood that had white shells and black stalks that looked like the goose—so people came to believe that a tree produced the barnacles as fruit, which grew into the geese. Those barnacles are now known as goose barnacles (Lepas anserifera), and the geese are known as barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis).

4. VEGETABLE LAMB

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary was a legendary plant that produced an animal, native to Central Asia and Europe. Given the names Tartarica barometz (Tartar lamb) and Agnus Scythicus (Scythian lamb), the “vegetable lamb” was described as a plant between 2.5 and 3 feet tall that bore a pod at the end of a stem. The pod eventually opened to reveal a lamb inside. The lamb remained attached to the rest of the plant by its stem, but could eat the vegetation around the plant, as far as the stem reached. Once all that was eaten (or if the stem somehow broke), the lamb would die.

There’s a specimen of the vegetable lamb at the Garden Museum in London. The small picture looks as if it could be a lamb, or an animal’s paw with long claws, or a part of a plant. Once samples were relayed to naturalists in the 17th century, though, it became clear that the “lamb” was part of a plant, and not an animal. The plant was eventually identified as Cibotium barometz, an evergreen fern that produces a hairy cover.

For misunderstood animals from this period, see 20 Bizarre Beasts From Ancient Bestiaries.

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The Royal Mint
Loch Ness Monster Spotted on British Coin Series
The Royal Mint
The Royal Mint

The latest British icon to be immortalized on currency isn’t human (or real, for that matter). As Atlas Obscura reports, the Loch Ness Monster is the face of a new 10-pence piece from the British Royal Mint.

The nickel-plated steel coin depicts Nessie swimming in her natural habitat, with her tail curled around the letter L. The cryptid (a creature that hasn’t been confirmed to exist by science) has been described as everything from a prehistoric marine reptile to a giant salamander, but the version on the coin shows a serpentine creature with a humped back.

The Nessie coin is one of 26 10-pence pieces in the new Quintessentially British A to Z series. Each coin represents a different letter of the alphabet and a corresponding piece of British culture. Along with L for Loch Ness, there’s B for Bond … James Bond, F for Fish and Chips, S for Stonehenge, and Q for Queuing. Britons are encouraged to take part in the “Great British Coin Hunt” by looking for the coins in their change and collecting all 26.

For coin collectors more interested in currency adorned with non-existent beasts than British treasures, there are many options. In 2011, the Canadian Mint produced a Bigfoot coin and a series of 25-cent coins commemorating legendary lake dragons and aquatic panthers. Though the pieces were limited-edition, they’re still easier to track down than an actual cryptid.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Balloon/Poe, iStock
When Edgar Allan Poe Pranked New York City—And Inspired Jules Verne
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Balloon/Poe, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Balloon/Poe, iStock

On April 13, 1844, a special extra of the New York Sun announced: “ASTOUNDING NEWS! … THE ATLANTIC CROSSED IN THREE DAYS! SIGNAL TRIUMPH OF MR. MONCK MASON’S FLYING MACHINE!!!” According to the article, a balloon heading from England toward Paris had been blown off-course and landed safely near Charleston, South Carolina. The “report” was submitted by a journalist who was also a well-known short-story writer: Edgar Allan Poe.

There was just one problem. He had made the whole thing up.

“The Balloon Hoax,” as it later became known, was Poe’s idea of a calling card. He had just moved to Manhattan, looking for work as a journalist. What better way to announce you’ve arrived than to prank an entire city?

The possibility of balloon travel had ignited the popular imagination since the 1780s, when the Montgolfier brothers built the first balloon to carry a man into the air. By the 1830s, balloonists had successfully crossed the British Channel, and they had begun talking about attempts to cross the Atlantic in earnest.

Newspapers were often full of the exploits of daring aeronauts, and the interest in ballooning apparently led to some fictional takes on the pursuit. Poe’s story in The Sun wasn’t the first: In 1835, Richard Adams Locke published a widely credited account of a balloon reaching the moon. The success infuriated Poe, who had just two months earlier published a story about a man returning from the moon in a balloon, “Hans Pfaall—A Tale.” Poe was certain Locke had plagiarized him, but Locke received all the glory for his “Moon Hoax.” (Ironically, Poe’s own hoax included long sections from the aeronaut Thomas Monck Mason’s 1836 account of his balloon voyage from England to Germany.) Poe decided he would do a little self-promotion while outdoing his old enemy: He submitted the hoax to the same paper that had published Locke’s. The paper published the account with glee, completely unaware that it was fake.

According to Poe's report, a balloon called the Victoria held eight people and made the crossing in 75 hours. At the time, it took two weeks to cross the Atlantic by boat, so the potential for a voyage in which “the broad Atlantic becomes a mere lake,” as one of the passengers supposedly remarked, created quite a stir. Poe later claimed that when the Sun first announced the special Extra with details of the fantastic voyage, “the whole square surrounding the Sun building was literally besieged … I never witnessed more intense excitement to get possession of a newspaper. As soon as copies made their way into the streets, they were bought up, at almost any price, from the newsboys.”

Poe included an abundance of scientific detail to give the article an air of authority, from precise measurements of key components, down to the screws and steel wires, to the combined weight of the fictional passengers (1200 pounds). His main characters were also based on real people: Poe named the pilot after Monck Mason, the famed aeronaut whose accounts he had liberally borrowed from.

The report was picked up in the next day's New York Sunday Times (no connection to The New York Times, which had yet to be founded) and Baltimore Sun. Other papers were less convinced of the report's veracity, and seemed to realize that further news should have come up from Charleston. (One contemporary account suggests that Poe himself revealed the hoax by drunkenly boasting about it in front of the crowd at the newspaper’s headquarters.)

Two days after the hoax first appeared, the New York Sun published a retraction. "The mails from the South last Saturday night not having brought a confirmation of the arrival of the Balloon from England ... we are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous," the paper said. However, they added, "We by no means think such a project impossible." Astoundingly, balloonists would not truly accomplish a trans-Atlantic flight until 1978.

Poe believed his little trick would demonstrate his mastery of scientific description and artful writing. He was so assured of his skill, he didn’t seem to realize that publishing known misinformation would hurt his chances of finding work as a journalist—which is exactly what happened.

But the hoax did inspire someone else: Jules Verne later read it and began working on the adventure that would first bring him fame, Five Weeks in a Balloon, published in 1863. That tale was an immediate success, earning him the financial independence that would allow him to go on to write blockbusters such as A Journey to the Center of the Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days. Whether Poe would have appreciated Verne’s achievements, so heavily influenced by his own work, is another matter.

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