Saturday, 19 May 2012

ON DIGITALIS

Diwan Sahib said it reminded him of a curious, very old man at the Nawab of Surajgarh’s court, who had been there since the Nawab’s father’s time, and who wore brown clothes and a green pugree and had a face as cavernous as a starving man’s. He walked long hours in the forest and came back with cloth bags full of plants that he disappeared with into his laboratory, which was a quack’s den filled with glass flasks and Bunsen burners and test tubes and vernier callipers, and where, in the instant when the door opened a crack as he slid in, the smells that trickled out were of a kind that existed only in hallucinations and nightmares, so that when he shut the door you wondered if you had imagined them. It was rumoured that he manufactured poisons in that
den, and the rumour was strengthened by the inexplicable decline or death from time to time of people at the court who had fallen foul of the Nawab. The Nawab had claimed that the man made medicine, Diwan Sahib said, but the line between medicines and poisons is finely drawn, and this very foxglove, so poisonous and so beautiful, in the correct quantity, produced digitalis, which was medicine for troubles of the heart. “Not devastated hearts,” he had said laughing, “like yours
or mine, Maya, for that there is no medicine but death, which too the
foxglove can provide.”

From The Folded Earth

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE SINISTER

Have been looking around the hillside and am struck by the number of sinister plants there are, some of them also beautiful. The other day I spotted a strange phallic object that had snaked out of bare earth. Took photographs, looked it up, and found it is called the Voodoo Lily, apparently a favoured house plant in some parts of the world because the corm flowers minus any soil -- put it on your window sill and there's the flower, in a few days. I wouldn't allow it anywhere near my house though. It's single petal falls in a revolting leathery fold on to the ground and is spotted, like snakeskin. The mile-long stamen looks like a sting. To attract flies, which are its main pollinators, the lily gives off a foul stink, like that of carrion. And after the flower falls off it develops a red corn like seed -- I know of a child in the neighbourhood who almost died because she ate a tiny bit of that cob, attracted by its pretty colour.

After the flower falls off, the plant develops a pretty necklace of leaves. But grazing animals, being wiser than humans in some things, know it's not a salad plant and give it a wide berth.