Today, we will have a closer look at plant C1. It’s on the badly faded bottom of the page, but this particular plant remained visible enough, including its label.

When I started studying this foldout, I was convinced that all plants referred to valuable trading goods, mostly spices. Lately, I’ve had to adjust that view though. Some of the plants are clearly included because of their immediate usefulness to the sailors. They provide fruits for immediate consumption and all kinds of materials for ship repair: timber, fibres, glue… One example I discussed before is teak, a wood suited for all kinds of repair on a ship. Plant C1 is another such example.

plant

Let’s see if we can make some guesses at first glance. The plant is drawn like a rather standard tree with a number of bare branches. One branch carries a green object. We know that this is not a leaf, but a fruit, since it’s colored in a rare shade of green, the same one used in the mango plant. It looks like it’s covered in hairs or spikes. Finally, the roots don’t look very realistic, as usual.

There appear to be two practical mnemonics in this plant: hints about its usefulness. First of all, the tree is drawn in a way that emphasizes the straightness of the trunk and branches. This might be an indication that its wood can be used as timber. Secondly, the roots are drawn in a way that suggests ropes or strips of plant material.

Next, there is the pronunciation hint. In this case, we are most likely dealing with an emblematic mnemonic: the focus is on a recognizable pose and the fruit is probably a typical attribute carried by the depicted person. The roots seem to indicate a long garment, which cleverly gives them both a practical and an emblematic mnemonic function.

Ignoring the initial “o-“ as an article, the label reads “Tarap” or “Talap”.

In summary, we are looking for the following items:

Plant: edible fruit, useful wood, possibly other uses like rope making.
Mnemonic: probably a female person with a long garment, typically depicted holding out a round, hairy or spiky object to one side.
Name: talap, tarap, tarep, terap…

We got lucky on this one: there are various trees and fruits that are still called tarap (alternatively talap, terap…). They are all members of Artocarpus. After having considered several species that didn’t fully match our requirements, I came across Artocarpus elasticus, a plant native to Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. As we will see, it exceeds expectations. The website I linked earlier provides the following information:

  • The sweet white pulp of the fruit is eaten. The fruits are of an unpleasant smell, but are sweet with a savoury taste
  • Ripe seeds – roasted and eaten
  • The fibrous bark is tough and strips readily into big sheets. It is used for making clothing, lining baskets and bins, for house walls and for string. The bark is sometimes used to make tapa cloth – strips of the prepared bark are beaten with wooden mallets on a smooth, wooden surface – as they are beaten, they gradually spread out and become thinner until a good quality cloth is formed.
  • The oil obtained from the seeds is used to make a hair oil
  • The light-yellow to brown wood […] is used for boards, posts of houses, boats and general carpentry.
  • The latex is used as bird glue. (source)
 So we have a match for all of our expected uses, and more: in addition to fruit, it provides edible seeds. In addition to timber and fibres, it is a source of oil and glue. A nice bonus is that its wood is specifically mentioned as suitable for boat building. The image below shows an example of how the bark is processed and used, in this case, as a strap for a bucket. The bark on the top right bears many scars, a result of latex tapping.
bark
When we compare the tree and its fruit to the corresponding parts of the Voynich drawing, we find a surprising amount of similarities:
plantcomp

The way the tree’s branches are positioned is remarkably true to nature. Even what remains of the color in the manuscript is not unlike that of the tree. The fruit grows at the end of a thick stalk and is hairy, like almost all Artocarpus fruits.


EDIT 11 April 2016

I found out that D.N. O’Donovan has written about the Artocarpus group in a 2012 blog post. She identifies a plant in the “large plants section”, on f3v, as representing a number of Artocarpus species, not in the least our Artocarpus elasticus. The plant drawing she discusses looks totally different though:

Still, I agree with her analysis. The large plant drawing has been modified by practical mnemonics (What can I do with this plant? What is its economic value?). That is why it’s been drawn to evoke the shape of a traditional Dragonboat that was built using Artocarpus wood. Our plant, on the other hand, has been drawn and manipulated for a different mnemonic purpose: to help the reader memorize the foreign name of the plant. That is why both images look so different: botanical accuracy is subordinate to the drawing’s purpose

Luckily for me, Diane has been able to dig up much more relevant historical information. Some quotes from her post (bold highlighting is mine):

In certain members of the Artocarpus genus, the milk (as latex) was employed in the eastern world as a commonly-known adhesive used for woodwork and carpentry. The latex from A. elasticus was particularly employed in that way,  and was better known in that use than the one we know better today, Ficus elastica (the rubber plant).

Preservation of breadfruits was achieved by pulping, drying and then storing that pulp in a pit underground.

In  that dried, condensed form it has been reported as remaining viable for up to seven years, and was one of the most widely-used of all ships’ provisions, both before and after the arrival of Europeans.


 

So we’ve got a tree that matches the practical mnemonics (useful fruit, fibres and timber) and looks exceptionally similar to the plant drawing. The name is a total match for our label reading. Can we get a fourth confirmation from the mythological pronunciation mnemonic?

We’re looking for someone whose name sounds a bit like Talap and is typically seen holding a hairy object in one hand. Additionally, she’s probably female, wearing a long garment.

Luckily, such a figure exists: Thalia, the Greek muse of comedy.

thaliaa

This is a very clear example of an emblematic mnemonic: the viewer is familiar with the pose and attributes of the figure. Thalia is depicted with a comedy mask – her telling attribute – at her side, either holding it or sitting next to it. Note how the mask in the middle picture provides an especially clear parallel for our fruit (inset): round and smooth on one side, hairy on the other. Her long, stately dress matches the plant’s roots.

Of course, Thalia isn’t the same word as talap. Tropical fruits aren’t named after Greek deities. But if we assume a /th/ – /t/ – merger (a frequent occurrence in the evolution of language), we get TALiA – TALAp, which is a more than decent hint to remember the name of this plant.

Putting it all together:

The foreign word for this tree is TALAP. To remember this word, think of it drawn as THALIA with her mask.

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