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Countdown Day 6: Outlandish Plants from Foreign Parts (II)

For Day Six of the Heritage Open Day Countdown, we're taking a deeper look into the 'outlandish' plants that Parkinson names in his "Paradisi in Sole Paradisus".

Madeleine Cox

Today we turn our thoughts to ‘outlandish’, yet slightly more familiar plants than those featured in yesterday’s blog. Yesterday we saw the ‘fruity lamb tree’ - featured in Parkinson’s Paradisi in Sole Paradisus - and today we will look at plants that Parkinson himself classed as ‘outlandish’. His other categories (tribes) include headings such as “Venemous, sleepy and hurtfull plants” - a necessary means of organising the flood of plants being discovered around the world.

Theatrum Botanicum: The Theater of Plants
Theatrum Botanicum: The Theater of Plants Or, An herball of a large extent: …Distributed into sundry classes or tribes, for the more easie knowledge of the many herbes of one nature and property, with the chiefe notes of Dr. Lobel, Dr. Bonham, and others inserted therein. Collected by the many yeares travaile, industry, and experience in this subject, by Iohn Parkinson apothecary of London, and the Kings herbarist. And published by the Kings Majestyes especiall priviledge. London: printed by Tho. Cotes, 1640. Frontispiece.

John Parkinson (1567-1650) was apothecary to James I and botanist to Charles I. His great book, Theatrum Botanicum was published in 1640, when he was 73 years old and was intended as a reliable guide for apothecaries. The table of ‘vertues’ at the back of the book allows the reader to search by ailment. He recorded 33 native plants, as well as many from the foreign parts! This was the last great herbal with woodcuts and features over 3800 plants through 1688 pages of text.

Here are some of them:

1.  Arbor aquam fundeus. The fountaine tree of water. CHAP. CXX p .1645

The Fountain Tree
The Fountain Tree

  • 'The leaves whereof and branches doe perpetually droppe water (in the whole Iland there being no other water to be had) a thicke mist as it were or cloud encompassing it continually, expect twhen the Sunne shineth bright thereon’
  • -‘which water being kept as it were in a fountain made for the purpose to retaine it, serveth the whole Iland for their ure [ewer].’
Interestingly he dispels the myth of the barnacle geese (featured yesterday).

2.  Duriones – The prickly fruitfull Melon (Durian fruit). CHAP.CXI p. 1640

  • ‘the fruite growth to the bignesse of a Muske Melon, with a thicke greenish rinde set full of shorte and thicke but sharpe prickles
  • The flesh is like ‘the Mangar blanco of the Spaniards, but not so soft’ and the ‘taske like unto Creame, smelling somewhat sweet also’
  • ‘These fruits are to be lightly troden on to breake them because of the prickes, which to them that never did smell them or eate them before, may seeme to smell like rotten onions, but having tasted of them wil thinke them both to taste and smell better than other meats: for among the natives they are held in so good account that they thinke they can never be satisfied with them’
To anyone who has tried durian fruit on their travels, this is somewhat surprising! I tried a small piece once in Malaysia and would never eat it again. That rotten onion flavour contaminates everything you eat or drink for the next few hours, leaving you to suspect there is something wrong with all subsequent food and drinks!

3.  Anana seu Pina. The West Indian delitious Pines. (Pineapples!) CHAP LXXXV p. 1626

  • ‘so much esteemed for the most excellent and pleasant sweete fruite in all the West Indies’
  • ‘the fruite of a kinde of Thistle’
  • ‘shewing as it were scaly like an Artichoke at the first view, but more like to a Cone of the Pine tree, which we call a Pine Apple for the forme’
  • ‘so sweete in smell that they may be perceived where they be afarre off, of a farre more pleasant sweete taste and substance than it, tasting like as if Wine, Rosewater, and Sugar, were mixed together’
  • ‘the fruite beareth a bush of leaves at the toppe’
  • ‘In Brassill is said that they have sundry sorts hereof, one...which is longer and pleasanter than any other’
  • ‘The chiefest time of their ripenesse is in the Lent, when they are sweetest’
  • ‘many eate them abundantly, and thinke they cannot sufficiently be satisfied with them’
  • ‘Some admirable things are reported thereof, one is that if one of these fruits be cut through the middle with a knife and they joined together againe, the peeces will joyne and sticke so fast together as if it had not beene cut at all’
  • ‘if one cut the fruit with a knife and leave the knife sticking therein until the next day, so much of the blade thereof as stucke within the fruit will be found wholly consumed and wasted, or as it were eaten away’

4.  Mad Indian Plums or Nuts. CHAP CXXIX p. 1649

Mad Indian Plums
Mad Indian Plums

This gives an interesting account of how some Dutch seafarers had an unusual experience when they boiled and ate both the stones and kernels of this fruit. This caused them to fall into ‘divers distemperatures, according to each man’s severall humour’ - in other words, they all started hallucinating. One man thought he was in a ‘brewhouse’ and asked them to take away the woman that was there, another asked friends if they would buy his fish, and another cried out loudly that a large ship was being built in his cabin. One man told the Master that the devil was sitting fishing on the stern while another told his father little men were running on his nose!

Many of the plants listed are very familiar to us today (e.g. coconuts). Others sound more exotic such as:

  • Guanabanus Oviedi. The Indian Scaly Muske Melon
  • Totecka Americana Pervana. The Indian fruitfull Gourd bearing Almond, or the Indian Almonds of Clusius.
  • Lignum Molucense. The Moluccas tree against venome and poyson.
  • Guanabanus Scaligeri. The Ethiopian sowre Gourde.
  • Ahovai Theveti. The stincking tree with his poysonous fruite.
  • Fenoabson. The Apple bearing poysonous Almond tree.

Some new plants are becoming familiar enough themselves to feature in such descriptions:

It is interesting how frequently exotic locations crop up in the names of these plants and fruits and the extent to which the world was becoming known – plants from India, Africa and the Americas feature in this book. There are frequent attempts to find parallels between the unknown and the known, as a means of allowing the reader to envisage these new and outlandish plants – for example:

  • Carlo Sancto. The Indian Hoppe-like purger
  • Anisumexoticum Phillipinarum Insularum. A strange Anisseede like seede of the Indies.
  • Iacea alia pumilae Narbonensis. The Pineapple headed Thistle or Knapweede.

This book shows the great excitement of this period of discoveries and the thirst for new knowledge. It also gives a sense of nationalism (also seen in the map-making that was going on) and the beginnings of the fervour of Empire.


Come along to Heritage Open Days to learn more and see what else is in the tribe of outlandish plants!

Thanks to Alex Mills for research and Andrew Thomas for photography.