This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
I WAs glad to see in that article, fertile of thought and facts, the visit to Kew Gardens that you had a favorable word for the Upas tree (Antiaris toxicaria). It has had fearful qualities attached to it by some travellers, but these exaggerations have been proved to exist wholly in fancy, and in the love of the marvellous with which travellers were wont to excite the curiosity of their readers. The juice of the Upas is a virulent poison, and, when mixed with the blood, is speedily fatal to animal life. It is a native of Java, where also there is a tract of country, which, owing to a constant emission of carbonic acid gas from its surface, is totally uninhabitable by animals, and even destructive to vegetation. These two independent facts have been united and worked up into a tale of mystery and awe. In trie midst of a desert, caused by its own exhalations, and surrounded on all sides by barren hills, a tree was said to grow, stretching wide its branches, and reigning in awful majesty over the devastation it had occasioned. Not only were animals deprived of life by its poisonous effluvia, but for miles around vegetation was destroyed, and the ground covered with the skeletons of its victims.
The juice of the tree was gathered for envenoming arrow-heads, and the task of collecting it was assigned to criminals under sentence of death, who were pardoned if they succeeded. By the registers that were kept, it was said that not one in six returned. Two young trees were said to be the only plants of the same kind existing in the locality. This was a fit subject for romance and poetry, consequently we find .the following in allusion to those fabulous tales:
"Where seas of glass, with gay reflections smile, Bound the green coast of Java's palmy isle, A spacious plain extends its upland scene, Bocks rise on rooks, and fountains gosh between; Soft sephyrs blow, eternal Bummers reign, And showers prolific bless the soil - in vain 1 ' Fierce, in dread silence, on the blasted heath Fell Upas sits - the hydra-tree of death. Lo! from one root, the envenomed soil below, A thousand vegetative serpents grow; In shining rays the scaly monster spreads O'er ten square leagues, Mb far diverging heads; Or, in one trunk entwists his tangled form, Looks o'er the clouds, and hisses in the storm. Steeped in fell poison, as his sharp teeth part, A thousand tongues in quick vibration dart; Snatch the proud eagle, tow'ring o'er the heath. Or pounce the lion as he stalks beneath; Or strew - as marshalled hosts contend in vain - With human skeletons the whitened plain. Chained at his root two scion-demons dwell; Breathe the faint hiss or try the shriller yell; Rise fluttering in the air on callow wings, And aim at insect prey their little stings.
So Time's strong arms, with sweeping scythe, erase Art's cumbrous works and empires from their base; While each young hour its sickle fine employs, And crops the sweet buds of domestic joys,"
Of course these poetical fancies have no other foundation than the tales above noticed. The Upas cannot exist in the poisoned valley any more than other plants, but flourishes in the woods among other trees. The fact of its growing harmlessly among other plants in botanical collections under cultivation, is sufficient to dispel all these idle fames of fancy.
With what horror did I use to read that dreadful story of the Bohon Upas in the American Preceptor at school, when a boy 1 Any man of observation ought to have known that the story was a downright Munchausen, bat with that sagacity common to most school-book compilers, into the book the story went, and so we, young noodles, believed it then, as half of the older ones believe it now.