Three Peculiar Plants

05 Aug

Medlars, fore, and persimmons, aft

I want to talk about three plants, two of which are strongly related to the supernatural landscape and one which is just weird. All of them are well known within certain circles but virtually unknown elsewhere, so they occupy a funny spot in our groupmind. I don’t see any reason why someone should group all three together, but I’m not going to let that stop me. I think they are interesting.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

If you only heard the title and never heard all the lyrics, you could be forgiven for thinking that Billie Holiday’s song Strange Fruit was about medlars. Instead, it is about black corpses hanging from trees in the South, but medlars are right up there for strangeness, all right.

Medlars really are pretty odd. The trees, while pretty, have a comparatively short life, so they don’t produce as much fruit over their lives as many other fruit trees, and the fruit they do produce is…well, like I said, strange. Medlars are a fruit that you don’t eat right away; they have to blet, which is tantamount to saying they have to rot. After they are picked green, they are left to sit while they decompose from the inside out, their flesh turning from a whitish, solid texture to a brown, pulpy substance that looks and tastes something like grainy apple butter. They are about the same size as small figs, or ping-pong balls. Oh, and there are giant hard inedible seeds in the fruit, so you don’t get much you can actually eat out of a medlar, and I haven’t yet told you that it’s covered with a skin that resembles (and is about as tasty as) wrinkled gray paper that cannot be peeled off without taking huge chunks of the “flesh” with it. To me, the inside of a ripe medlar has always seemed like what a spider must expect after its digestive juices have finished softening up something it snared a few weeks ago. All and all, medlars are not preposessing. Unlike the fruit in the song, they are not particularly bitter although they are not especially sweet, either.

They are a fruit you eat in the winter, which probably helped their appeal. They must have been a food for desperate folk; the tree goes back a long time but it’s hard to imagine anybody, even in the Middle Ages, dreaming of a medlar-filled paradise up above where they might retire when they die. No, these are fruits for the hard luck people, the scrabblers, the ones with no other good options.

As a result, while medlars are not going to be anybody’s favorite fruit, they make for a great metaphor. In fact, it’s hard for a cynical person to look around and not see them everywhere. Whether you think the glass is either half full or half empty, a half a glass of medlars…let’s not even go there.

As far as I know, medlars don’t have any ties to the occult, but I have a couple of other plants for you that most definitely do. Mandrake and John the Conqueror roots have a very strong presence in supernatural lore; the former, in tales from Europe and the Dark and Middle ages and the latter, in the black culture of the American South.

Neither mandrake nor conqueror root, but still creepy

Neither mandrake nor conqueror root, but still creepy

The list of roots with “magical” properties would probably be enough for several posts, but I picked those two because of their popularity in culture and media throughout the ages – and if you thought the mandrake root was something JK Rowling invented for Harry Potter, boy were you wrong! Like many of the extraordinary items in her series of books, the mandrake is something she got from the real world (just like Nicholas Flamel, for instance) and it’s a good reason why the Potter books can work well for teaching children about a variety of things you would not expect at first glance.

The mandrake root appears in folklore much the way JK Rowling describes it. But its appearances go back to the time of the Bible and continue up through today’s pop music. Lookie here:

And Jacob came out of the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said, Thou must come in unto me; for surely I have hired thee with my son’s mandrakes. And he lay with her that night.
The Bible, King James Version, Genesis 30:14–16

Or what about Shakespeare?

Shrieks like mandrakes’ torn out of the earth.
Romeo and Juliet IV.iii

Would curses kill, as doth the mandrake’s groan
Henry VI part II III.ii

Or John Steinbeck?

We even had a mandrake root – a perfect little man, sprouted from the death-ejected sperm of a hanged man.
The Winter of Our Discontent

More recently, Deep Purple had a tune about them:

I’ve got a mandrake root, and it’s a fever in my heart
-Deep Purple, Mandrake Root (on Shades of Deep Purple, 1968)

Other than Harry Potter, the most recent appearance that I am aware of is in Guillermo Del Toro’s fascinating movie Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, 2006), which is set in the Spanish Civil War:

Mandrake, Pan's Labyrinth

Mandrake, Pan’s Labyrinth

From the strange fruit in Billie Holiday’s song to American slavery is not a big jump, given its subject matter. And that’s where most of the references to the third plant originate; finally, the big kahuna of American Rhythm & Blues culture, the John the Conqueror Root. Here is a short summary of the background on this root and its users:

Hoodoo originates from the magical practices of the Congolese slaves that were abducted and brought to America. While the original tribal religious practices were subjugated by the slave masters and the slaves were forced to convert to Christianity, the original magical practices were preserved and adjusted for the flora and fauna of the new world.

Back in Africa, the rootworkers and conjurers there used one root that conferred upon its bearer strength, prowess, luck and fertility. This root was even edible, and often used in magical talismans and workings. This root doesn’t grow in the temperate climate of the United States, so they sought out the magical knowledge and wisdom of the local Native Americans for similar local herbs.

Note that this site also sells the root, and apparently the root is useful just by reason of its presence, as nobody eats it or makes tea from it. In other words, it is magic. Or placebo, if you believe in western medicinal explanations for things.

John the Conqueror supposedly was an American slave who never submitted to his white masters, and who went on to become part of the cultural landscape in the black world of the time, his reputation growing over the years until now he is regarded as a legendary figure with magical attributes and, as is often the case with such figures, whimsical and/or arbitrary actions to those who rely on him. He seems to serve the same function in that society as Iktomi, the Lakota Trickster. All of the American Indians recognize the Trickster, although he is not aways a coyote; he might be a spider or even a rock. In any case, the Trickster is a figure to watch out for, because you might just get what you ask for, but with a sting in it. Or maybe just the sting. This also has a great deal in common with the old European tales of fairies, brownies, and such – and I am explicitly not including Walt Disney in this comment. His influence has done so much to pollute the waters when it comes to these creatures that it’s a real shame. Anyway, back to the Conqueror root.

There are innumerable references to the root, which is often pronounced John the Conqueroot, in literature (notably, James Lee Burke’s novels set in Louisiana), blues music, R&B, and of course, Cajun music. One of the best known is the Willie Dixon song recorded by Muddy Waters and everybody’s brother:

Oh, I can get in a game, don’t have a dime,
All I have to do is rub my root, I win every time
When I rub my root, my John the Conquer root
Aww, you know there ain’t nothin’ she can do, Lord,
I rub my John the Conquer root
-Muddy Waters, My John the Conqueror Root (written by Willie Dixon)

My own personal favorite mention of the root is from Mason Ruffner’s vastly underrated and largely forgotten album from the 80s, Gypsy Blood, which was produced by Jimmy Page.

In the bridge of the song Under Your Spell (starting at 1:47 in) Ruffner sings

I’m goin’ down to the station,
Ride that train to New Orleans.
I ain’t gonna be your fool no more
Goin’ back to New Orleans,
Gonna see a voodoo queen and a hoodoo man,
Get a mojo hand, have a John the Conqueror root
Danglin’ from my boot
And a gris-gris charm, just like Doctor John.

Doctor John, of course, is the Cajun/R&B roots guy who sings about all the Louisiana hoodoo tropes, so Ruffner is referring to a referral here. I always like that.

So there you have three plants, two of them with purported magic qualities and one which really seems like it should have them, given its multiple foibles. But at least you can eat medlars without getting sick even if you won’t get a lot of nutrition from them. All three are interesting, though for different reasons and sometimes you just have to learn a new thing, right? I’ll bet for most people here, medlars are a new thing.

Stay young and monstrous.

Also…Välkommen till alla mina nya besökare från Sverige! Mina farföräldrar kom från Sverige i slutet av 1800-talet, men tyvärr talar jag inte svenska. Jag hoppas att du tycker om min webbplats. (Thanks to Risto of Rikstone Amps for translating that for me.)


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2 responses to “Three Peculiar Plants

  1. Jack Flacco

    August 5, 2014 at 7:06 pm

    The mentions of mandrake in history is fascinating. I had forgotten that line in Romeo & Juliet, which goes to show I need to read through the play once more to gain a greater appreciation of when I read that line again.

    BTW, your photos are simply amazing. How do you process them? Do you use a Photoshop filter or is it an adjustment in the way you use saturation? Just curious…

  2. Tyrannocaster

    August 5, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    Thanks, Jack. I was a professional photographer for 25 years, specializing in theater and music, which means shooting live with available light and also doing advance PR, sometimes with available light, sometimes with more control possible, so I also have a fair amount of studio time under my belt. What I’m getting at with this is that my eye is reasonably well developed and that I usually have at least an idea of what I want to do; beyond that, when I use Photoshop (which you pretty much have to when getting images ready for the web if for no other reason than that you have to crop, resize and/or color balance them) I often resort to what Photoshop calls “actions” that I have developed over the years. Actions are just scripts which are incredibly powerful once you get the hang of them and they are a huge time saver because they automate chains of behavior that might involve several steps of sizing, color balancing or even plugin usage. But while I have a lot of actions available I still have to treat most images individually as no one approach works all the time.

    And unfortunately for the open-source crowd (whose aims I totally sympathize with), there is no open-source alternative to Photoshop that is any good for my purposes. A lot of that is due to the lack of support for the proprietary plugin formats that Photoshop has established, which is a real shame. Gimp just won’t do it for a lot of us, no matter how much we want to like it and linux.


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