This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V28", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
Among all the deadly poisons of nature, that of the Upas stands pre-eminent for its terrible virulence. Much of fiction has gathered around this subject, and wonderful stories have been told concerning this tree. About 1775, a Dutch surgeon, Foersch, who had traveled extensively in Java, published an account of the Upas poison valley. According to this author, such were the deadly exhalations from the Upas tree, that no living thing could exist nearer than fifteen miles of the tree. That the whole country within a radius of this distance of the locality where the trees grew, was a lifeless, barren waste, strewn with the bones of animals, birds and human beings that had inadvertently ventured within the deadly influence. The poison was obtained, we are told, in the following manner: Criminals, condemned to death, were given a chance for life and freedom, on condition of their procuring some of the Upas poison. An old priest lived on the confines of the "valley of death," whose duty it was to prepare the Upas hunters for their duties, and administer the consolations of religion to them before they started on their perilous journey.
Here they rested till a favorable wind blew towards the tree, when, furnished with a leathern mask or cowl, and a box to contain the poison, they set out on their dangerous mission. If a man possessed a robust constitution and vigorous health, he might return in safety; otherwise not. The priest stated, that in the thirty years he had officiated, only about one in ten who had gone forth on this errand, had returned alive. Nearly all of this has been proven to be pure fiction. No such poisonous exhalations taint the air for miles around, though the deadly character of the juice of the tree has not been, and cannot be, exaggerated.
According to Thunberg, the famous Swedish botanist, "the Upas tree, an evergreen, is easily recognized at a great distance. The ground around it is sterile, and looks as if it had been burned. The sap is of a dark brown color, and becomes liquid by heat, like other resins. Those who gather it, have to employ the greatest care; covering the head, the hands, the whole body, to protect themselves from the poisonous emanations of the tree, and especially from the drops which fall from it. They avoid even approaching too near, and they provide themselves with bamboos tipped with steel heads, having a groove in the middle. A score of these long spears are stuck into the tree, the sap runs down the grooves into the hollow bamboo, until it is stopped by the first joint of the wood. The spears are left sticking in the trunk for three or four hours, so that the sap may fill up the space prepared for it, and have time to harden, alter which they are drawn out. The part of the bamboo which contains the poison is then broken off, and covered up with great care".
Again, this author says: "Persons passing beneath the branches bare-headed lose their hair. A single drop falling on the skin produces inflammation. Birds can with difficulty fly over the tree, and if they by any chance alight on its branches, they fall dead. The soil around is perfectly sterile to the distance of a stone's throw." This poison is used to put on the arrow points, and also in the execution of criminals. When the point of a lance that has been dipped in this poison pierces the skin the individual is "instantly seized with violent trembling, then with convulsions," followed by death in a few minutes. The Upas is found in different parts of the East Indies, in Java, Borneo, Sumatra and in the Celebes. The leaves are figured in many books as those of Antiaris toxicaria. Rumph describes it under the name Arbor toxicaria. The tree grows with a rather thick trunk 60 to 80 feet high with extended spreading branches. The bark is rough and knotty and of a brown color. The wood, which is hard, has a pale yellow color, and is marked with black spots. This tree belongs to the same family with Strycnos Tiente, S. nux vomica, S. Ignatii, S. Colubrina, from which the alkaloid strychnine is obtained.
These two poisons - strychnine and the Upas poison - are the most virulent of all poisons known. From the S. tiente is obtained the Rajah Upas, or poison of princes. This is a climbing plant that rises spirally around the colossal trunks of trees, and over-tops them at a hundred feet from the ground where they spread their large, green, glossy leaves and hang their fragrant clusters of white flowers in the air and sun light. It is only in the root of this plant that the deadly strychnine, the only active principle it contains, is found, while that above ground is harmless; even the sap containing no dangerous properties. Canon City, Col.
[Our correspondent is mistaken in classing the Antiaris with the same family as Strychnos. The last is an apocynaceous plant - the same family as the common Periwinkle, and Oleander. Some of these are very poisonous.
The Antiaris or Upas belongs to the same family to which belongs the Mulberry and Osage orange - Urticaceae - and few of these are noxious. The Editor of this once had a plant of the Upas tree under his charge for a year. It was between 3 and 4 feet high, and growing in a 12-inch pot. He had to handle and care for it the same as other plants. His "skull and cross bones" are still in their proper places, nor does he know that he was ever in the slightest danger of having them misplaced by reason of any deadly emanations proceeding from the plant. - Ed. G. M].