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Upas-tree

or Poison-tree of Macassar. Applied to anything baneful or of evil influence. The tradition is that a putrid stream rises from the tree which grows in the island of Java, and that whatever the vapour touches dies. This fable is chiefly due to Foersch, a Dutch physician, who published his narrative in 1783. “Not a tree,” he says, “nor blade of grass is to be found in the valley or surrounding mountains. Not a beast or bird, reptile or living thing, lives in the vicinity.” He adds that on “one occasion 1,600 refugees encamped within fourteen miles of it, and all but 300 died within two months.” This fable Darwin has perpetuated in his Loves of the Plants. Bennett has shown that the Dutchman's account is a mere traveller's tale, for the tree while growing is quite innocuous, though the juice may be used for poison; the whole neighbourhood is most richly covered with vegetation: men can fearlessly walk under the tree, and birds roost on its branches. A upas tree grows in Kew Gardens, and flourishes amidst other hot-house plants.

On the blasted heath
Fell Upas sits, the hydra-tree of death.

Darwin: Loves of the Plants, iii. 233.

Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894
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