Antiaris toxicaria

Antiaris toxicaria (Upas or Ipoh) is an evergreen tree in the family Moraceae, native to southeastern Asia, from India and Sri Lanka east to southern China, the Philippines and Fiji; closely related species also occur in eastern Africa. It produces a highly poisonous latex, known in Java as "Upas", from the Javanese word for "poison".

It is a large tree, growing to 25-40 m tall, with a trunk up to 40 cm diameter, often buttressed at the base, with whitish bark. The leaves are elliptic to obovate, 7-19 cm long and 3-6 cm broad. The fruit is a red or purple drupe 2 cm in diameter. The latex, present in the bark and foliage, contains a cardiac glycoside named antiarin, which is used as an arrow poison.

The name of the upas tree became legendary from the mendacious account (professedly by one Foersch, who was a surgeon at Semarang in 1773) published in the London Magazine, December 1783, and popularized by Erasmus Darwin in Loves of the Plants (The Botanic Garden, pt. ii.). The tree was said to destroy all animal life within a radius of 15 miles or more. The poison was fetched by condemned malefactors as an alternative to immediate execution; the criminal had to wait till the wind was blowing from him toward the tree, get the poison and get back before the wind changed; scarcely two out of twenty returned. All this is pure fable, and in good part not even traditional fable, but mere invention.

Literary allusions

Literary allusions to the tree's poisonous nature abound.

Byron, in the fourth canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, uses the upas to describe the hereditary depravity of original sin:

Our life is a false nature – 'tis not in
The harmony of things, – this hard decree,
This uneradicable taint of sin,
This boundless upas, this all-blasting tree,
Whose root is earth, whose leaves and branches be
The skies which rain their plagues on men like dew –
Disease, death, bondage – all the woes we see –
And worse, the woes we see not – which throb thought
The immedicable soul, with heart-aches ever new.
(CHP IV, 1126-1134)

In Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester says of the attempt to hide Bertha Mason's existence from Jane:

Concealing the mad-woman's neighbourhood from you, however, was something like covering a child with a cloak and laying it down near an upas-tree: that demon's vicinage is poisoned, and always was.

In Charles Kingsley's Westward Ho! Kingsley likens the Jesuits to an Upas tree:

Had he been saved from them [the Jesuits], he might have lived and died as simple and honest a gentleman as his brothers, who turned out like true Englishmen (as did all the Romish laity) to face the great Armada, and one of whom was fighting at that very minute under [sir John] St. Leger [of Annery] in Ireland, and as brave and loyal a soldier as those Roman Catholics whose noble blood has stained every Crimean battle-field; but his fate was appointed otherwise; and the Upas-shadow which has blighted the whole Romish Church, blighted him also.

In Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit, Young John Chivery refers to Arthur Clennam's arrival at the Marshalsea:

‘When you first came upon me, sir, in the Lodge, this day, more as if an Upas tree had been made a capture of than a private defendant, such mingled streams of feelings broke loose again within me, that everything was for the first few minutes swept away before them, and I was going round and round in a vortex...'

Alexander Pushkin in his 1828 poem Anchar ('Upas Tree') (ru:Анчар) retells Foersch's story in poetic terms, writing about the upas tree, avoided by the birds and the beasts alike - but still used by human potentates as the source of poison to be used as weapon..

It is also used as an allegory of John Addington Symonds anxiety about his homosexuality in a peccant pamphlet of about 1870, and included under another title in his openly published poems of 1880.

In Dorothy L. Sayers' Unnatural Death (1927), Lord Peter Wimsey describes a hypothetical serial killer: ‘If you... go on killing everyone you meet till people begin to think you're first cousin to an upas tree, naturally you're found out in the end.'

María Amparo Ruiz de Burton's The Squatter and the Don states in chapter 32:

If conspicuousness and notoriety could mean greatness, we have our "great men" in California. But are they the Fire Pillars in our dark pilgrimage? Verily, no. They are upas trees, blighting life spreading desolation, ruin, death upon all they overshadow.

In Sri Aurobindo's epic poem Savitri, (Pg 222):

There Good, a faithless gardener of God,
Watered with virtue the world's upas-tree
And, careful of the outward word and act,
Engrafted his hypocrite blooms on native ill.

In Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop :

'"Jerry," said Roger, "You are a upas tree. Your shadow is poisonous!"'

In Catherynne M. Valente's The Orphan's Tales, In the Cities of Coin and Spice, the manticores are born of the Upas tree as helpless babies, and are frequently captured and caged.

Francis Danby's painting of the Upas tree was exhibited in London in 1820.


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