October-ganza 3, day 19: A Pentad of Peculiar Plants

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October 19, 2016 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)

We’ve talked about strange animals in New England, unusual fish, even odd stones, but I don’t think we’ve given the kingdom of flora her due.  Today, let’s look at some of New England’s particular, sometimes most peculiar, plants.


fiddleheads_crosses_de_fougc3a8reAs mentioned in our article “Arkham’s Diners” (in the Arkham Gazette #1), come springtime, some New Englander’s partake in a regional specialty – cooked immature fronds from a variety of native fern species.  Referred to as ‘fiddleheads‘ because the curlicue shape of the front resembles the top of a violin, these greens have a similar flavor as asparagus (perhaps a bit more ‘earthy’ in flavor) and are rich vitamins, including potassium.

The native peoples of New England first harvested them and the practice was likely adopted by various colonists – one of the first shoots to rise up in the spring, they were one of the first fresh vegetables many early European settlers might have after a long New England winter.  Commercial production was uncommon until the later part of the 20th century, and even today many individuals and small farmers harvest this briefly-available wild crop.  The plants should definitely be washed, especially if you’re buying them from a farm stand out of someone’s trunk. (The last bit of advice comes from a native Mainer who tells a ghastly story of bad fiddleheads and their consequences…)

The ‘Glass Plants’ of Harvard’s Ware Collection

Lovely, but very much inedible, Harvard’s Ware collection of glass flowers is a unique collection of replica flowering plants, held as part of the collection of the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

The replicas were intended to be used by botany students, allowing them to study more than 700 species of flowering plants, even when wild, live specimens might be impossible to see or otherwise inaccessible due to geography, climate, or time of year.  The models were built by the father and son team of the glass-makers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka in their workshop outside of Dresden.  The project, which eventually aster-glass_-flowers-exhibit-16produced more than 4000 piece, took nearly five decades – beginning in 1887 and concluding in 1936.

The collection, named for Mrs. Elizabeth C. Ware and her daughter Mary who provided the funds to have the models built, at the suggestion of the botanist Prof. George Lincoln Goodale, who had seen the work the Blaschka’s in making models of marine invertebrates.  Goodale felt that the traditional method of using dried, pressed flowers failed to provide students a practical benefit, as the flowers were dried, which changed their structure and colors, and pressed, which further deformed them and prevented the study of fine structures within blossoms.

There were rumors that the Blashka family had some sort of secret technique for producing such fine and delicate glass models, but the father and son duo denied this, saying that, beyond making their own glass and enamel, they did nothing that no other glass-maker or blower might do.

Glass Flowers Exhibit Harvard Museum of Natural History

New England’s Notable Trees

Trees were a central element of life in New England from the earliest days of European settlement…

  • endecott-9d

    The Endicott Pear, c. 1925

    Planted at some point between 1632 and 1649, the Endicott Pear Tree (in Danvers, Massachusetts) is the oldest surviving fruit tree planted by English colonists in the New World.  The tree, transported to the Massachusetts Bay colony aboard the ship Arbella in 1630, was originally planted in Salem by John Endecott, the early Massachusuetts governor and one of the founders of New England.  The tree was transplanted to its current nearby location at some point before the mid-19th century.  The little tree has survived hurricanes, nor’easters, blizzards, and vandals who, in 1964, sawed off most of its limbs.  The tree still bears fruit and, should you be willing to wait a while, you can get a cutting (of a cutting) from the historic tree itself.  For more information, see What a Pear: A Brief History of the Endicott Pear Tree by Richard B. Trask.
  • 310px-sunderland_buttonball_02The Buttonball Tree (of Sunderland, Massachusetts) and the Pinchot Sycamore (of Simsbury, Connecticut) are two exceptionally large and old sycamore trees.  The former, said to be over 110 feet tall and almost 25 feet around at the base, was probably planted around 1665.  The Pinchot tree is a little shorter, topping out at just over 100 feet, but is bigger around, with a trunk diameter of 28 feet; it is the younger of the two however, being only between 200 to 300 years old, so perhaps it will catch up.  Either tree, like the Endicott Pear above, also has the advantage of still being alive, unlike the other notable trees on the remainder of our list.
  • The Liberty Tree, which grew just outside of Boston, was the first to be lost.  An century-old elm tree standing at what is now the corner of Boston’s Essex and Washington Streets, was the site of a mass protests against the Stamp Act in 1765, most notably when an effigylibertytree_boston of the king’s agent was hanged.  In the build up to the American Revolution, both sides used the tree as part of their public displays until in 1775, during the Siege of Boston, when a group of Loyalists cut the tree down and used it as fire wood as an intentional affront to Patriot forces within the city.  In later years the stump was a historical site and point of reference in navigating Boston.  Eventually a permanent plaque was added to the site to commemorate the tree and its role in the city’s revolutionary history.
  • Surviving a century longer, the Great Elm on Boston Common was one of the city’s best-known landmarks.  One of the few trees on the Common, and certainly the largest – more than 72 feet high – and oldest, the tree was believed to have been planted at some point around 1620.  Apocryphal accounts from the 19th century claimed it commonwealth_2801pn36h_accessfullwas planted by the early colonist Hezekiah Henchman, an ancestor of John Hancock, but there is no evidence for this claim.  Other stories about the early history of the elm, especially that it was the site of executions on the Common are more plausible, but likely exaggerated – Quakers are more likely to have died on its branches rather than witches, for example.  As Boston grew and the Commons transformed from a place to graze cattle and drill the militia to a place of recreation and socializing, the elm became a symbol for both the Common and Boston itself. Unfortunately it proved so popular that visitors to the Commons damaged it by climbing it – a fence was installed to keep people out of the tree’s branches in 1854.  Age and weather proved even more damaging though, and despite the efforts of the city to protect the now-hollow tree, it was toppled by a powerful storm in February of 1876.  Today all that remains of the tree are photos, a chair at the Boston Public Library made from its wood, and a plaque on the Boston Commons that commemorates the spot where it stood.
  • charter_oak_in_hartford_ctConnecticut’s Charter Oak was no less iconic for the people of Connecticut.  Mentioned as already standing by the explorer Adrian Block in 1641, the enormous oak on Wyllys Hill in the future site of Hartford, was thought to have been three- or four-hundred years old (perhaps older) even then.  The tree gained it names from the tradition that the tree was the hiding place of the Connecticut’s Royal Charter (granted in 1662) from the agents of Governor Andros in 1687.  The giant oak remained a well-known Hartford landmark until it was felled by a storm in 1856.  The wood was turned into all sorts of artifacts, from furniture to a chess set, while many towns and villages retain their own oaks, grown up from acorns of the Charter Oak.
  • The Beaman Oak, standing 75 feet tall and with a trunk more than 30 feet in circumference, was the largest oak in the state of Massachusetts and, like beaman-oakConnecticut’s Charter Oak, was thought to be several hundred years old.  The enormous tree was situated in Lancaster in northern Worcester County, and was named for the early settler Gamaliel Beaman, who had been one of the founders of Lancaster in 1656, and owned the land where the tree stood.  Age eventually caused the tree’s demise, and it was chopped down in 1989, after the now-hollow tree was badly damaged in a major storm.
  • 75002c986b5782ea3b8355e9863615e2It should come as no surprise then that trees have often served as symbols of New England – the region’s merchantmen flew a red and white flag with a green pine tree in one corner and a similar flag may have been flown by some Patriot troops during the American revolution; British silver coinage minted in their North American colonies sometimes showed a large tree on the obverse side from the King.  More recently, Connecticut selected an image of the Charter Oak to represent the state for their entry in the 50-states Quarter series.


If you want even more information on New England’s notable trees, The Historical Trees of Massachusetts (1919), while nearly a century out of date, is a diverting read.

Roger Williams Root

Moving from famous trees, we turn to a rather infamous tree, or rather, a tree root…

It’s important to note that Providence, unlike other centers of colonial New England, did not have a central burying place until decades after the city was founded.  Families buried their dead on individual family plots, often on the grounds of the family farm or homestead – recall the plot of “The Shunned House” for an overview of how burials in Rhode Island differed from the rest of New England’s more centralized systems.  In the 19th century, when the city of Providence wished to create a permanent memorial to the their founder, they went looking for the William’s family’s burying ground – one of several that had not been relocated to North Burying Ground – they discovered after much research (and here are some shades of Charles Dexter Ward’s search for the grave of Joseph Curwen) a likely location for William’s burial site.  When the spot was excavated however, all that was discovered were some fragments of wood, teeth, and bone and a very large apple tree root.  Perhaps due more to optimism and a wish to find some connection to their famed founded, the excavators imagined that the root, while drawing off nutrients from the esteemed minister had, in some way, taken on his shape. While the human fragments were interred in the Roger Williams National Monument (eventually, since it was almost seventy years between this excavation and the monument’s construction), the root was kept as a curiosity.


Looks just like him, doesn’t it?

The National Park service, which cares for the Roger William’s National Monument has an informative page about the curious root.  If you want to see the “William’s root” in person, however, you need to go to the John Brown House, which is in another part of the city entirely.

The Witches’ Pharmacopia

Staying with the more notorious aspects of our leafy friends, “The Witches’ Pharmacopia“, an essay read before the Historical Club of Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1896 and published soon after.  The author, Robert Fletcher, presented an analysis of the materials popularly believed to have been employed by witches in their rites.  He defines pharmacopoeia thusly:


phramcoverYes, I know I am cheating somewhat since he talks about things beyond the plant world, but I think the following entries might pique enough interest to by a little latitude…

The yew-tree, from its sombre foliage and its constant presence in churchyards, had an evil repute. Shakespeare calls it “the double fatal yew,” from the poisonous qualities of its leaves and from its wood being employed to furnish bows, the instruments of death. It was famous for the latter purpose.

Much has been written about the herb Moly, which is the last named in this passage [from The Lancashire Witches]. It was first mentioned by Homer as the remedy given by Hermes to Ulysses to enable the latter to withstand the enchantments of Circe. It has been thought to be a species of Allium or garlic. It is worth noting that most of the preservatives against evil influences were strong aromatics.

Of all plants possessing necromantic endowments, the mandrake is the most famous… 

mandrake_15619_lgJoannes Wierus, in his De presagiis dsemonum, Basel, 1563, states that Josephus describes a root called in the Hebrew, Baaras, which in the evening emits sparks of light. Like the mandrake, its extraction from the earth is attended with swift death to the person attempting it. To avoid this danger, a young dog which was kept without food for twenty-four hours was fastened to the root with a string, and upon meat being placed in advance of him he naturally rushed towards it, drawing out the root thereby. If the sun shone on the root the dog died suddenly, and was buried with secret ceremonies.

A favorite habitat for the mandrake was the earth at the foot of a gibbet, the fat which dropped from the murderer’s body encouraging its growth ; when drawn from the ground it emitted shrieks like the cries of a human being, and death or madness fell upon the rash experimenter. It was partly a plant and partly an evil spirit, and it may be well supposed that with all these qualities it was a choice ingredient for the witches’ potions.

The Dummerston ‘Vampire’ Vine

Our final stop on our tour of New England’s notable plants is perhaps the most disturbing (albeit factually suspect) – the so-called Dummerston ‘Vampire’ Vine…

Although the children of Lt. Spaulding. especially the sons, became large, muscular persons, all but one or two, died under 40 years of age of consumption, and their sickness was brief.

It is related by those who remember the circumstance ; after six or seven of the family had died of consumption, another daughter was taken, it was supposed, with the same disease. It was thought she would die, and much was said in regard to so many of the family’s dying of consumption when they all seemed to have the appearance of good health and long life. Among the superstitions of those days, we find it was said that a vine or root of some kind grew from coffin to coffin, of those of one family, who died of consumption, and were buried side by side; and when the growing vine had reached the coffin of the last one buried, another one of the family would die; the only  (

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