Saturday, December 13, 2008

Horsehair Plants (Are Not Actually Plants)

The instruction manual for the original Super Mario Bros. sets up the story that so famously pitted an Italian-American plumber from Brooklyn against a anthropomorphic turtle-dragon. (No mean feat, when you consider the implications of that sentence.) It reads as follows:
One day, the kingdom of the peaceful Mushroom Kingdom people was invaded by the Koopa, a tribe of turtles famous for their black magic. The quiet, peace-loving Mushroom People were turned into mere stones, bricks, and even field horsehair plants, and the Mushroom Kingdom fell into ruin.
I have had neither the opportunity nor the ability to read the Japanese version of this document, but I have to assume whatever Nintendo of America employee wrote took some creative liberties. After all, the text goes on to identify Princess Toadstool as the daughter of someone named the Mushroom King. Because this mushroom monarch never appeared in any Mario game, I have to assume he was written into the story as the result of some misogynist impulse to prevent a lady from being in charge of a whole kingdom. (If I were to be technical, she should rule a princessdom. And if I were to be especially technical, I would point out that the very same writer of this instruction manual might have been the one to switch Princess Peach’s name to the fungally appropriate but altogether unseemly “Princess Toadstool” — a name she would shed about ten years later.) In any case, I bring this up because the line about the fate of the Mushroom People struck me as especially strange. The game features plenty of bricks and stones, but I never saw anything that resembled “field horsehair plants,” whatever those are.

I first had this thought — this question about field horsehair plants — back when I first played the game in 1986. Twenty-two years later, I finally decided to look into the matter and simply look up “horsehair plants” on Google. The number one hit: This blog, specifically a post I put up just last month. Regular Google was really no help, so I had a look at Google image search. Here’s what I found:

In short, not a plant, but a mushroom — the Horsehair Mummy-cap, which reminded me of something that did actually appear in the Mario games:

“pseuderanthemum incendia,” from flickr user manischewitzbacon

It’s the Fire Flower, that item in so many games that, when touched, grants Mario the power to toss fireballs from his hand in complete defiance of the laws of thermodynamics.

It’s nothing, I know. The mushrooms clearly got the name “horsehair” as a result of their thin stems. But there’s a slight resemblance, what with the stem and the round, white shape at the top and the color in the middle, particularly in this photo. The fact that it looks like something I remembered — and that thing was a mushroom, of all things — seemed worth the five minutes it would take to write about.

I guess the horsehair plants are nothing, as fictional as that misogynistic Mushroom King — who, in this case, is only slightly more fictional than everything else I’m talking about. I suppose it’s for the best: If the horsehair plants really were the Fire Flowers, then Mario would be consuming the innocent mushroom folk for the purposes of his own benefit. It’s an idea that’s been put forth previously: Those bricks mentioned in the prologue are the very ones that Mario bashes throughout Super Mario Bros.. Does this mean he’s killing the very people he’s trying to save?

One way or the other, those Horsehair Mummy-caps look just a little bit like Fire Flowers, you have to admit.

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