Sandy’s Garden ... The Upas Tree

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I enjoy crosswords.

But I have an increasing suspicion that crosswords are targeted at people of my generation, for the answers often seem to require a knowledge of the things of yesteryear. What chance is there, I wondered recently, of someone under 50 immediately understanding what the compiler has in mind as an answer to, “The tree costs an extra shilling (4 letters)”? If you are my age, you remember the long-lost days of pounds, shillings and pence, when twelve pence was equal to one shilling and twenty shillings made up one pound. I can even remember that the Latin words for pounds, shillings and pence were librae, solidi and denarii, usually shortened to a stylised ‘L’ … £ … ‘s’ and ‘d’, which explains why pounds, shillings and pence were usually written £.s.d. rather than P.s.p.

Thus, people of my generation understand that the ‘extra shilling’ will probably be the letters ‘as’; and with only four letters in the entire answer, ‘the extra’ must be ‘up’, giving ‘upas’ as the answer. Upas … a tree? And yes, I did not know this before, there is a upas tree … or should that be an upas tree, for I am also old enough to remember when grammar was taught and the indefinite article ‘an’ was preferred to ‘a’ in front of nouns beginning with a vowel. (Ask your grandparents if you don’t know what an indefinite article or a noun is.)

This is a verbatim quotation from Wikipedia: “Antiaris toxicaria is a tree in the mulberry and fig family, Moracaea. It has a remarkably wide distribution in tropical regions, occurring in Australia, tropical Asia, tropical Africa, Indonesia, Philippines, Tonga, and various other tropical islands. Its seeds are spread by various birds and bats and it is not clear how many of the populations are essentially invasive. The species is of interest as a source of wood, bark cloth, and pharmacological or toxic substances.” Antiaris toxicaria is, of course, the pukka botanical name for the upas tree … the poisonous (toxicaria) member of a family of trees called ‘ancar’ by the Javanese in whose country it was first found by Europeans; and its common name … if it can be called that … comes from the Javanese word for ‘poison’. Early European travellers to Malaysia returned with almost unbelievable tales of a tree so poisonous that anyone who fell asleep in its shade would never waken, a tree to which convicts condemned to death were tied to be killed by the poison oozing from its bark, a tree which exuded poisonous fumes that killed every animal which sought to live within several miles of even a single tree. The great early-nineteenth Russian poet Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin included these lines in his poem, ‘The Upas Tree.’ “Dissolving in the midday sun / The poison oozes through its bark, / And freezing when the day is done / Gleams thick and gem-like in the dark. / No bird flies near, no tiger creeps; / Alone the whirlwind, wild and black, / Assails the tree of death and sweeps / Away with death upon its back.”

Certainly Antiaris toxicaria is a large tree, growing to a height of between 25 and 40m … say, 80 to 135 feet in old money … with a trunk up to 40cm diameter with pale grey bark. The leaves are from 7 to19 cm long (roughly 3 to 8 inches) and 3 to 6 cm broad (a little more than between 1 and 2 inches). The wood peels very easily and is commonly used as a veneer, while the bark is traditionally used to make dyes and paints. The leaves and roots were used to treat mental illnesses in Malaysian traditional medicine and, although the sap was indeed used as a source of poison for poisonous darts, its fearsome reputation among early travellers really is not justified. Indeed, upas trees are often grown nowadays around houses for the shade offered by their dense canopies; and the leaf litter is an excellent compost material. That, then, is the upas, the tree that “costs an extra shilling.”

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society