A Successful Launch


A reading from The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes:

“Vincent Lunardi used a Union Jack design on all his later balloons, and attracted increasingly large crowds to his launches. In 1785 he took his displays as far north as Edinburgh. But he often had trouble with crowd control, and rowdy disturbances became an important element in the balloon craze. It was dangerous to delay departure beyond the promised hour, even if the balloon was not sufficiently inflated or the wind was adverse. When the newspapers reported a successful launch, it often simply meant that the balloon had lifted off on time and no one in the crowd had been killed.”

“Lunardi’s reputation was badly damaged the following year, when on 23 August at Newcastle a young man, Ralph Heron, was caught in one of the restraining ropes, lifted some hundred feet into the air, and then fell to his death. The impact drove his legs into a flowerbed as far as his knees, and ruptured his internal organs, which burst out onto the ground. He was due to be married the next day.”

Hortus Botanicus, Amsterdam

Established in 1638, the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam is one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world. Though it covers only 1.2 hectares, it holds about 4,000 plant species from across all continents, including many threatened plant species such as cycads. I recently visited Amsterdam in order to see the Hortus and its beautiful, unusual, and rare plants. These are just a few of the many photos I took during the day that I was able to spend there.

Philodendron bipinnatifidum



White-topped pitcher plant (Sarracenia leucophylla)


Lobelia cardinalis


Cannomois virgata


Bush lily (Clivia miniata)


Eastern Cape giant cycad (Encephalartos altensteinii)

This specimen of Encephalartos altensteinii or Eastern Cape Giant Cycad is one of the oldest potted plants in the Western world. This plant originates from the Eastern Cape Province in South Africa and was transported to the Netherlands about 300 years ago. In 1850 the Hortus bought the plant from the plant collection of the late Dutch King William the Second. Since that day this specimen has been the showpiece of the Hortus.



I’ll be collecting curiosities overseas for much of August, and so this site will be without any updates until the end of August/beginning of September. Thanks for visiting, and please check back then for new additions to this cabinet of curiosities, including the launch of new categories such as Famous explorers and Interesting books, and a wealth of new plant photos for the Natural curiosities category. –JA

Radio Drama: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus starring George Edwards – Part III (1938)

Frankenstein illustration by Lynd Ward.

Does the devil stalk abroad tonight?

In this suspenseful episode, Baron Victor Frankenstein tells Captain Walton of the night in which he unwrapped the bandages from the creature’s face, and how his fiancée and assistant persuaded him to destroy the creature—but too late.

Tune in next week for another exciting episode in the radio drama of… Frankenstein!

Of the Hippotame, or River-Horse from A description of the Nature of Four-Footed Beasts, With their Figures Engraven in Brass by Joannes Jonstonus (Amsterdam, 1678)


Following Aristotle, hether I refer the River-Horse; though others, and perhaps more properly, to another head. Hee is called an Horse, not from his shape, but his greatnesse. Hee is stiled the Horse of Nile, and the Sea-ox, and the Sea-hog, that afore resembles an ox, in the rest of the body, a swine; called a Sea-Elephant, from his vastnesse, and the whiteness, and hardnesse of his teeth; and the Elephant of Egpt, the Rosmarus, the Rohart, the Gomarus, in Pretebans country.

Writers differ in describing him. Some say that hee is five cubites high, and hath ox-hoofs, three teeth sticking out each side of his mouth, greater out then any other beasts, eared, tayled, and neighing like the horse, in the rest like the Elephant; he hath a mane, a snout turning up, in his inwards not unlike a horse, or asse, without hair; taken by boats.

Bellonius saw a small one at Byzantium, cow-headed, beardard, short, and roundish, wider jaw’d then a lion, wilde nostrills, broad lips turning up, sharp teeth as a horse, the eyes and tong very great, his neck short, tayled like a hog, swag-bellied like a sow; his feet so short, that they are scant foure fingers high from the ground. But Fabius Columna describes him most accurately from the carcasse of one, preserved in salt, brought by a Chirurgion called Nicholas Zerenghus from Damiata into Italy; hee saith, that he was liker an ox then a horse, and about that size, leg’d like a bear, thirteen foot long from head to tayl, foure foot and an half broad, three foot & an half high, squat-bellied, his legs three foot and an half long, and three foot round; his foot a foot broad, the hoofs each three inches, groutheaded, two foot and an half broad, three foot long, seven foot about in compasse, his mouth a foot wide, snout-fleshy and turning up, litle-eyed, each an inch wide, and two long, the ears about three, the bulke thick, the foot broad, parted into foure toes, the ankle hard of flesh, tayled like a tortoys: skin thick, tough, black. The nostrils like an S, snouted as a lion, or cat, with some stragling hairs, nor are any more in the whole body, in the under-chap, thwart half a foot long, &c. like a boar-tusks, not sticking out, but plainly seene, the mouth opening, &c. On each side seven cheek-teeth, thick, broad, and very short.

In the upper-chap, which he moves like a crocodile, wherewith hee chews, stand six fore-teeth, aptly answering those beneath, &c.

The teeth are hard as a flint, and will strike fire, so that by night rubbing his teeth, he seems to vomit fire. His proper place is said to be Saiticæ in Egypt. There are of them also in the River Niger, and in the Sea that washes Petzora.

Barbosa hath seen many in Gofala.

He observed many there comming forth of the Sea into the pasture-grounds, and returning again: They feed also on ripe corn, and yellow-ears.

When he is grown up, he begins to try his strength with his Sire, if he can master him, hee then proves his masteries with the Dam, and leaves his Sire; if he offer to resist, he kills him.

They bring forth young on the dry land, and there brings them up: They are so fruitful, that they teeme every year. He comes out of Nilus into the fields, and having filled his belly with corn, he returns backwards, that the husbandmen may not surprize him, or by his averse footing to amuse the hunts-men; since he is as harmful as the Crocodile. He being overburdened with his own grosse bulk, he rubs himself against the canes, till he hath opened a vein, and having bled enough, he stops the vein with mud: whether he neigh, or no, is disputed.

The Ethiops eat him. About the promontory Cabo Lopez in Guinee a Schipper of the Hage and his mates saw it; and in the town Ulibet they saw many of their heads, wherein were teeth of a wonderfull bignesse. One Firmius Seleucius eat an Hippotame. They are also medicinable; the Egyptians use the teeth against emrods, shut or open, tying them on, or wearing a ring made thereof. The Blackmoors use it also as a preservative against a certain disease. Pliny extolls those teeth for a speciall remedy for toot-ache; and the fat against a raging Fever.

The ashes of the skin with water smeared, dissolves waxen-kernels.

The skin of the forehead slakes lust: the stones dryed, is good against the bite of a Serpent: the parts as otherwise also useful.

Pausanius saith, that the face of his mother Dindymena was formed of the Hippotames teeth. Pliny saith, that the Painters use the blood dissolv’d in gum-water instead of red-lead. They that are be-smeared with the fat, may safely go among Crocodiles. Some say, that they who are covered with the skin, are thunder free.

Pliny saith, that the hide, especially about the back is so thick, that therewith strong spears may be shaped, and shaved by the turner.


Aloe pillansii (Bastard quiver tree)

An Aloe pillansii on Cornell’s Kop in Richtersveld National Park. Image from http://www.u4ba.nl.

It is an unlikely place to be found within a biodiversity hotspot: a dry, desolate wilderness where temperatures can reach upwards of 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) and flora and fauna must survive on the moisture of the fog that sweeps in early each morning from the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Nonetheless, the Richtersveld National Park region of Namaqualand in southern Namibia and the Northern Cape province of South Africa is part of the Succulent Karoo, the most biologically diverse arid region in the world, and the home of approximately one-third of the planet’s 10,000 succulent plant species.

The Succulent Karoo of the west and the Nama Karoo of the east.

“The flora of Southern Africa is extremely remarkable, not merely for the number of its species and their generally very restricted range, but also for the frequent singularity of their aspect and manner of growth. In each of these particulars the genus Aloe is no exception to the general rule,” wrote Sir William Turner Thiselton-Dyer, future director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in “The Tree-Aloes of South Africa” in the journal Nature in 1874.

A more contemporary description of the landscape and its tree aloes is given in Wild Flowers of South Africa by Colin Paterson-Jones and John Manning. “A lunar landscape of forbidding mountains and arid plains blasted by both sun and wind marks the northern limits of Namaqualand. Here, the austere beauty is barely softened by a sparse covering of plants adapted to survive in this harsh land of searing summers and scant winter rain. Yet this forbidding country harbours the richest diversity of succulents in the world, dominated by the gaunt silhouettes of giant tree aloes.”

Despite the visual prominence of these gaunt silhouettes, there are actually very few trees endemic to the Succulent Karoo region—three, to be precise, and one of them isn’t really a tree.

Pachypodium namaquanum Halfmens
The Pachypodium namaquanum, or Halfmens. Photo © Martin Heigan (http://www.flickr.com/photos/martin_heigan)

The half-tree is a half-man, or so its name and local Khoisan legend would have it. The Pachypodium namaquanum, or Halfmens (Afrikaans for human-like or half-human), is a tree-like stem succulent whose vaguely human form is said to be the consequence of the Khoisan people’s yearning for their homeland. Driven from the Kalahari by invading tribes, some of them turned for a final glance at their birthplace and were transformed into the northward-leaning halfmens.

The two succulent species endemic to the Karoo that are actually trees are the Aloe dichotoma (Common quiver tree) and the Aloe pillansii (Bastard quiver tree). Though they’re found within the same area, they were “discovered” more than 150 years apart—a sign of how difficult the Karoo could be to botanize.

A. dichotoma and A. pillansii are visually similar, but A. pillansii can be distinguished by its drooping yellow flower spikes (A. dichotoma’s grow upwards) and white thorns (A. dichotoma’s thorns are yellow). A. pillansii also has larger leaves and fewer, thicker, and more erect branches.

In her book The Plant Hunters, Alice M. Coats states that A. dichotoma was discovered in November 1774 by Francis Masson (the Kew Gardens’ first plant hunter) and Carl Peter Thunberg (one of Carolus Linnaeus’ collectors, and an important figure in the history of Japanese botany). Unfortunately, the pair missed the main flowering season by two months. While in the Karoo, Coats writes, “they found [a] ‘great treasure’ of new succulents, but dared not stop to botanize; to save the lives of their oxen they were obliged to press on to the next water, nearly three days’ journey away.”

A. pillansii was not collected until over 150 years later, when the South African botanist Neville Stuart Pillans found it on Cornell’s Kop in Richtersveld in Little Namaqualand, the southern/South African portion of Namaqualand, in October 1926. Pillans’ name was given to the tree aloe two years later by Louise Guthrie, but unfortunately for Pillans’ memory this taxonomic name is joined to a common name that is a real attention-getter.

An Aloe pillansii in the Richtersveld. Photo by Alberto Ballerio (http://www.pbase.com/philharmostes).

The name “bastard quiver tree” suggests all kinds of colorful etymological possibilities, but its definition is actually a sort of portmanteau referring to the tree’s location and usage. The tree aloes of the Succulent Karoo are also commonly known as Kokerboom trees. Kokerboom is Afrikaans for quiver (as in arrow quivers, not shaking and trembling). The Khoisan Bushmen would hollow out the interior of the tree’s soft branches, seal one end, attach a strap, and use them to carry their arrows.

The “bastard” portion of the name is likely a remnant of Southern Africa’s legacy of racism. A. pillansii could be found in the Richtersveld region that was one of the Baster states of South Africa, lands that were populated by the biracial descendants of white colonists and indigenous Khoi. There are still some 35,000 Basters remaining in South Africa today. The website http://rehobothbasters.org is dedicated to their history and current legal status.

Succulents are uniquely suited to surviving in the hostile environment of the Richtersveld. For example, the waxy surface of their leaves helps them to retain water, and they’re more efficient photosynthesizers than other plants. Yet the challenges to survival that A. pillansii faces are formidable, and its place in the region has become highly precarious. It’s one of the world’s most endangered plants, and is protected by law in South Africa and included in Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). It’s also on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

A young Aloe pillansii. Photo by Alberto Ballerio (http://www.pbase.com/philharmostes).

In 1997, the journal Biodiversity and Conservation published an article entitled “Population ecology of tree succulents (Aloe and Pachypodium) in the arid western Cape: decline of keystone species” by J.J. Midgley, R.M. Cowling, H. Hendricks, P.G. Desmet, K. Esler, and P. Rundel. In it, Midgley et al. examined the ongoing population decline of A. dichotoma, A. pillansii, and P. namaquanum (aka halfmens).

“In the Richtersveld,” Midgley et al. wrote, “all three species have very few [seed] recruits and both Aloe species have a high incidence of mortality especially of large individuals… This is especially serious for A. pillansii because it is endemic to a small area…” In fact, A. pillansii is “near endemic” to the Richtersveld Community Conservancy, particularly Cornell’s Kop, according to the Conservancy’s website (http://www.richtersveld-conservancy.org).

Midgley et al. cited “excessive, but localized, herbivory by baboons and porcupines,” who gnaw the stems of the trees, as a leading cause of their endangerment. Theft by plant collectors was also cited by a 2006 Vegetatio article as a probable cause for the loss of seedlings.

Were Aloe pillansii or its fellow tree succulents to disappear from the Richtersveld, it wouldn’t merely be the loss of an aesthetically interesting plant, Midgley et al. added.

“Besides their human intrigue which encourages visitors to the area, they appear to be a moderate form of keystone species. They are often the only tall plants in an area and thus they are vantage points for raptors and are safe sites for birds which nest amongst the leaves or which bore into the stem.”

Little has changed since the article’s publication, despite above-average rainfall and favorable seed recruitment conditions in recent years. The likely fate of A. pillansii within the Succulent Karoo is summed up best by the description of its population on the 2009 IUCN Red List: “A serious decline in the population has reduced the numbers to less than 200 individuals. There is no recruitment and the older plants are dying.”

Radio Drama: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus starring George Edwards – Part II (1938)

Another Arctic scene from Automata LA‘s “Frankenstein (Mortal Toys)”, their puppet version of the classic tale.

In this episode, after a night in which the crew of the Voyager stood guard against the appearance of the monster, Baron Victor Frankenstein confesses to Captain Walton how he proceeded with his experiment despite warnings from his fiancée, best friend, and assistant.

Tune in next week for another exciting episode in the radio drama of… Frankenstein! And coming soon: the first Strange Plants entry in this cabinet of curiosities.

Some Engravings from Christoph Jamnitzer’s Neuw Grottessken Buch (A New Book of Grotesques) (Nürnberg, 1610)



Images from http://www.spamula.net

Radio Drama: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus starring George Edwards – Part I (1938)

A scene from “Frankenstein (Mortal Toys),” a puppet version of the story that was produced in Los Angeles by Automata in 2006 and 2008.

In this episode, Captain Walton and the crew of the Voyager encounter Baron Victor Frankenstein in the white wastes of the North. Tune in next week for another exciting episode in the radio drama of… Frankenstein!

Excerpt from Princely Toys: One Man’s Private Kingdom (1976)

“To be an automaton is to exist for the sole purpose of performing a predetermined repertoire: endless, unchanging, without ambition, but without care.”