Popular Science Monthly/Volume 69/July 1906/Wooden Flowers
By ORVILLE PAUL PHILLIPS, Ph D.
OWING to the demand of the uneducated mind for any kind of a crude guess rather than an acknowledgment of ignorance, strange stories often spring up around natural phenomena, attributing, in most absurd ways, effects to causes which have no more connection than the barnacles and geese of Gerarde. Especially is this true of the savage who deifies everything beyond his knowledge and attributes to it influences for good or evil to himself, according to his first impressions of them. Such stories often find credence in the minds of more enlightened people upon the plea that 'the Indian lives so close to nature that he can not be far wrong in his estimate of natural phenomena.' These believers in the infallibility of the 'untutored races' fail to remember that the most superstitious person on earth is he who reads nature, as does the savage, only by the awe-inspiring phenomena that have forced themselves upon his attention most strongly by some accident, without any reference whatever to cause and effect. Cases in point might be cited from every stage in the life of native races, but the following will serve as an example, and at the same time may clear up in the minds of some as to what is the cause of the peculiar growths known as 'wooden roses' or 'wooden flowers,' they having frequently been described to the writer by different botanists as 'fungi,' 'galls,' 'knots,' 'disease swellings,' etc.
Volcanoes have ever been looked upon with fear by native races and the crater shunned as the doorway to the 'infernal regions.' Agua, in Guatemala, had, however, been inactive for so long that when peculiar forms of plant life, known nowhere else in the region, were found near its summit, they were supposed in some way to be connected through the extinct, though still feared crater, with the regions of fire beneath. They were, therefore, called by the euphonious title of 'roses of hell,' because they were believed to be the only flowers that grew in the 'lower world' and, having escaped through the crater from that region, were supposed to exist nowhere in the world except upon the upper portion of the sloping sides of this volcano.
Because of their supposed origin, these 'flowers' were feared as having great power for evil. They were supposed to be more poisonous than anything upon earth, and any person coming within the influence of their inodorous, though not unbeautiful, 'petals' was marked for sure destruction.
Though Agua had been quiescent for centuries and its rampages were known only by the dim recitation of Indian tradition, still that tradition was strong enough in the hearts of the natives to cause them to warn the Spaniards who came to that country in 1524 that unless they shunned the influences of this 'flower' they would surely be slain by the volcano, whose long quiescent throat had permitted the 'roses' to see the light of day as a warning to human beings that, though he slept, he was by no means dead, and if aroused the Indians would suffer as well as the white man. Despite this warning, the Spaniards called their council under the shade of one of the very trees which bore these 'flowers,' and there decided to found the city of Antigua which was to be the capitol of the new state of Guatemala. Everything flourished in the new city until 1541, when Agua suddenly burst forth in terrific defense of his invaded sovereignty, deluging the beautiful valley with fifty million cubic yards of water and mud, completely burying the city from view and warning the people to no longer trespass upon the evil ground. The warning was again unheeded, the city rebuilt upon the old site and apparent prosperity experienced until 1773, when it was shaken to ruins by the great earthquake. The capitol was then removed to the new town of Guatemala, beyond the influences of the fateful 'flower' and has therefore never been molested since. This
Fig. 1. A Branch of Citrus medica, showing the cup-like, delicately carved 'petals of the 'wooden flowers.'
Fig. 2. A Branch of Citrus medica, showing the parasitic Lorenthus Ladebeckii (Engl.) in situ, taken in front of a mirror so as to show both sides of the same specimen. The right-hand view also shows one of the cup-like 'flowers,' from which a plant of L. Ladebeckii has fallen. This photograph was kindly made for the writer by Dr. Voigt, of the Botanical Museum of Hamburg.
vindication and fulfilment of the natives' warning has fastened the tradition unalterably upon their beliefs, and no amount of enlightenment ever shakes their confidence in the direful results that will follow the too close inspection of these terrible 'roses of hell.'
This peculiar botanical formation, though strange in its gigantic size, is easily explained when the specimens are carefully examined. An examination of a number of them by the writer showed them to have a 'stem' of wood, upon the end of which was the enlargement or 'flower.' The outer or convex side of the enlargement is covered with a continuation of the bark of the 'stem,' the bark ending at the outer edge of the 'petals.' The concave or inside of the 'flower' is delicately creased like the veins of a petal, running from the center to the periphery, as shown by the photographs. Many of the flowers showed decided indentations in the periphery, as if divided roughly into four parted 'corollas,' and varying from eighteen to twenty inches in diameter down to minute growths. They might, therefore, easily be mistaken for flowers by those who can not reason from effect back to cause.
The real cause of these peculiar growths is found in the biological law that every organism will protect itself against outside intrusion if it can. Thus when any foreign substance, whether living or inert, enters the living organism, the intrusions are resented by the organism, which tries to protect itself by either assimilating the intruder, ejecting it, or by building up a barrier around it. Thus when the seeds of the parasitic order Lorentheaceæ adhere to the bark of a tree by the gelatinous coating which surrounds them and there germinate, sending their parasitic roots down through the sap wood of the host to procure their nourishment, the host, not being able to eject them entirety, forms a ball-like excrescence around the juncture of the two plants by the irritable hypertrophy of the tissues thus caused in the host. If the invading plant be pulled out of the growth thus formed, a delicately carved socket will be seen, very much like that of these 'wooden flowers,' but upon a smaller scale. Thus such a 'flower,' though small and usually upon a large limb, is formed whenever a mistletoe grows upon an oak.
These large 'wooden roses' are, therefore, nothing more than the protective hypertrophied tissue formed by the branches of some host tree when attacked by a parasite, which in this case is a gigantic species of mistletoe, Lorenthus Ladebeckii (Engl.), growing upon any one of several host trees, the principal ones being Citrus medica, and several species of conifers. The Ladebeckii flourishes in isolated zones throughout the western coast of the American continent from northern Mexico to Terra del Fuego, but has never been authentically reported from any other part of the globe.
The one remarkable thing which attracts attention to these growths and causes them to be mistaken for flowers is the great proportions attained by them. The 'stem,' which of course is a limb of the host plant, rarely exceeds an inch and a half in diameter, the parasite evidently not being able to attack other than the younger and more vigorously growing shoots. As long as these can supply the nourishment for the Ladebeckii, it grows, the excrescence upon the citrus becoming larger and larger until the distal portion of the branch dies, leaving the small inner portion of the branch supporting a large ball from which grows the parasite. At the end of a few years, say four to seven, sufficient nourishment can no longer reach the parasite, either because the small supporting branch can no longer carry it, or the protective excrescence has shut it off from the intruder, which therefore drops out, leaving the open, delicately carved formation, which so resembles 'wooden flowers' as to give rise to the remarkable legend above recounted.