The Botany of Middle Earth – Part II

This is the second in a two part series on the plant life featured in The Lord of The Rings trilogy, read the first installment here.

Pipeweed – Hobbit Tobacco or Wizard Weed?

Over the years, many people have speculated that the pipeweed the hobbits are smoking is actually Cannabis sativa. Proponents of this theory point to the tendency for hobbits to become drowsy or giddy after smoking it, and suggest that this may help explain their voracious appetite.

Your love for the Halflings’ leaf has clearly slowed your mind.
Saruman

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This is almost certainly not the plant Tolkien originally intended. Recreational cannabis use was almost unheard of when he first wrote the books and in one passage Tolkien mentions that pipeweed was most likely a type of Nicotiana – the Tobacco genus. Tolkien also frequently described himself as a hobbit, as he loved smoking a tobacco pipe and staying indoors.

In the 1960’s however, The Lord of the Rings became key reading material for the counter-culture movement. “Frodo Lives” was a hippie meme printed on buttons and t-shirts and The One Ring and Mordor were even referenced in the songs of Led Zeppelin. Once this connection was made, there has been an enduring belief that it was Cannabis that Gandalf and the hobbits were smoking and this may even have influenced Peter Jackson’s depiction of the plant in the film.

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In real life middle earth, New Zealand was one of the few British colonies where hemp production was not encouraged, as there was already an extensive fibre industry based on the native harakeke. Cannabis use in New Zealand was rare until around 1967 where its use among musicians and university students exploded, and today – although possession is still illegal – New Zealand has the 9th highest consumption of Cannabis in the world.

Mordor – A Botanical Wonderland

“One does not simply walk into Mordor….It is a barren wasteland, riddled with fire, ash and dust. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume….”
Boromir

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A mountain buttercup (Ranunculus nivicola) emerging from the barren waste of Mordor, New Zealand. (CCBY, P. Sallet)

On the contrary, many people walk into Mordor – It is one of the most popular and highly regarded day walks in the world. The setting for Mordor is the Tongariro National Park, and while the volcanic slopes appear barren they are actually home to a diverse array of delicate and beautiful flowering plants – from buttercups and orchids to gentians, mistletoes, and sundews.

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On the outskirts of Mordor are The Dead Marshes another important plant habitat, containing a wide diversity of mosses, lichens and wetland species. The dead marshes were modelled on the the Kepler Mire – located near the famous Kepler Track in Te Anau. Filming was set to take place in the Mire itself, but stories from local farmers losing their livestock in the bog meant that for health and safety reasons the crew had to recreate the marshes in a Wellington carpark. Moss and other vegetation was translocated from the  Mire into the flooded carpark, while the art department dressed the set with fake vegetation based on real plants.

Return of the Kingsfoil

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Kingsfoil is one of the most powerful medicinal plants in Middle Earth – the plant used to heal Frodo when stabbed by a Morgul blade on Weathertop – but to the hobbits it is simply a nuisance garden weed. While it is easy to mock the simplicity of the hobbits, many of our most common garden weeds are also surprisingly valuable. Some are among the most nutritionally dense vegetables ever studied and many have a long history of medicinal use.

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The flowerheads of Plantain are used by children as toys, fired off at one another. But they also have important medicinal uses. (CCBY, Colin)

A number of suggestions have been put forth as the inspiration for the fictional Kingsfoil and one compelling theory is Plantain (Plantago spp). This common weed is generally found in parks, lawns and between the cracks of pavement and but it has been used around the world as a powerful medicinal remedy. It is said that Alexander the Great used plantain to cure his headaches, and that Roman physicians used it to treat soldiers wounds. It was listed as one of the sacred herbs of the Anglo Saxons and its healing properties are even mentioned in the plays of William Shakespeare.

While most common plantains were introduced by European settlers, New Zealand also has a number of native species of Plantain which were used by Maori to heal sores and ulcers. The Rongoā superstar Koromiko (Veronica spp.) occurs in the same family as Plantain – the Plantaganaceae – and  is one of the most well known and important medicinal plants in the New Zealand flora.

Simbelmynë or The Mt. Cook Buttercup

In arguably the most poignant scene in the whole trilogy, as King Theoden mourns the loss of his only son, he speaks of a flower that grows only in the remote fields of Rohan.

Simbelmynë. Ever has it grown on the tombs of my forbears….now it shall cover the grave of my son…
Theoden

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The Simbelmynë flowers used in the film were however made in Weta Workshop and were most likely inspired by a European plant the Wood Anemone. The plant does however bear a passing resemblance to one that grows in real life Rohan – on the Canterbury plains and the slopes of the Southern Alps. The white-flowered Mt. Cook Buttercup (Ranunculus lyallii) is the world’s largest buttercup growing over a metre tall. with some of its leaves reaching up to 40cm in length. These large leaves form a cup where rain water collects, and trampers have been known to take a drink from these pools of water as they hike through the Southern Alps.

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The real Simbelmynë – the Mt. Cook Buttercup (Ranunculus lyallii) (CCBY, B. Spragg)

 

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