Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Tall tales!

The tall tales spun by returning travelers and explorers spawned many a fanciful plant with magical properties. Because of the expense & danger of travel, premodern men rarley ventured far from thier homelands, and the few brave soals that did see the world could inflate thier experiences with little fear of being found out. To impress the stay at homers, these voyagers populated the world with monsters and marvels, including exotic plants that had fantastic attributes.

One of the most durable of these stories was that of the gooseberry barnacle tree. This extravagantly imaginary bit of flora was a seaside tree that bore shells, or barnacles, containing live geese as its fruit. It may have grown out of sailor's quite factual descriptions of the long necked barnacles that are found attached to ships' hulls. Accepted as fact for centuries, the goose barnacle tree provoked a theologicale debate. Technically its geese were fruit, not fowl. Therfore some Christians decided that these geese could be eaten on fast days when flesh was forbidden.

Sometimes such tall tales required careful sifting from fact from fiction. From the indian subcontinent, Europeans brought back stories of a plant now known to science as Datura metel, wich is related to the nightshades. They discribed the metel flowers as so powerful that its fragrance alone would fell passersby. This story has a basis in truth. Though the metel's unsavory perfume is not intrinsically fatal, the aroma can stupefy those who breathe it. Like other members of the nightshade family, metel contains scopolamine. This alkaloid acts as a powerful sedative and soporific.

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