When the first English edition of The Ambonese Herbal
, a 17th
century masterwork in the study of botany, was published three years ago, the description of one intriguing plant caught Michael R. Dove
The plant was called “the poison tree from Macassar.” And as Georgius Rumphius, the German naturalist who produced the monumental Herbal
, wrote, he “had never heard of a more horrible or more villainous poison from plants.” A tree in the mulberry and fig family, it was the source of a deadly poison that native tribesmen would fire at Dutch soldiers through blow-pipe darts during their explorations of the West Indies.
The description of the tree is colorful and exaggerated, says Dove, a professor of anthropology and social ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Indeed, Dove says, it constitutes one part of the Herbal
in which “the observations of one of the greatest naturalists of his time seem most suspect.”
In a new article published in the journal Allertonia
, Dove asserts that Rumphius’s description of the so-called “poison tree” and a subsequent obsession with the plant in the western world — it was mentioned by Byron and Pushkin and was the subject of a 19th
century play in London — reflect the important role of imagination and exaggeration in western perceptions of the East that continues to this day.