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.


  1. Anonymous3:23 PM

    According to page 57 of Chris Kohler's Power Up, the text from the SMB instruction manual that mentions fire flowers is an exact translation of what ran in the Japanese version of the manual, so you're so-called creative liberties might actually just be the result of a mistranslation.

  2. Shaun4:06 PM

    Where I'm from, the species Equisetum hyemale is sometimes referred to has a horsehair rush. But it doesn't much look like anything from the game that I remember.

  3. Consistency alert! In Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, there is an area where if you hit a green mound with your hammer three times, you get a "horsetail", which looks like a brown piece of plant-life. Perhaps it is related to the horse-hair plant? In the cooking function of the game it seems to be treated like a vegetable of some sort.

  4. Anonymous7:36 PM

    The horsehair plants do appear in the game, though not as active items like the bricks. They're simply background images. Occasionally, in the outdoor levels-- I can attest that they specifically appear in 2-1, though I know this isn't the only place --one would spy a round-tufted plant-thing in the background. Sometimes the tuft is circular, sometimes it's more oval-shaped, all of them atop bamboo-esque stalks. ( )

    As I recall, though my memory of this may be flawed by long years, the manual's picture depicting Bowser transforming Mushroom Kingdom citizens into the various items-- bricks, et cetera --also includes the image of one of these background tuft-things. This leads me to believe that the tufted bamboo objects are, in fact, the 8-bit Mushroom Kingdom equivalent of real-world horsehair fungus.

    I can't explain the Mushroom King, nor the smashing of blocks. I seem to recall some game guide or other describing the rescue of The Princess as reviving all the transformed Mushrooms, presumably the return transformation would reincorporate the smashed-brick Mushrooms on a molecular level. Hopefully, because otherwise, ew. I can't back this up with a specific citation, however.

  5. As argentthunder said, the things in the background of level 2-1 could be the Horsehair plants.

    I however believe that the giant plant-looking things in level 1-3
    or the more mushroom like platforms in level 4-3
    are the transformed citizens. That way all of the transformed citizens would be seen helping Mario throughout the game as platforms, power-ups and debris (not really sure why they would want to be smashed).

  6. Anonymous7:24 PM

    An excellent point, Roger.

    I think perhaps that the answer is a combination of our responses.

    For instance, on further reflection, I've noticed that the background plants of 2-1 do in fact very much resemble the images and pictures described by Shaun. Not so much the horsehair fungus, then, but Shaun's horsehair plants, these look like the background images and like the image I remember from that page of the instruction manual.

    However! The similarities between these and the 1-3 platform-pod things are visually significant. Like these are a Giant World equivalent of the background plants, massive in size and capable of supporting much weight on their flattened tops and expanded stalks.

    Don't forget that Sonic freed his animal brethren from Eggman/Robotnik's mechanical shells by bashing their heads in. Maybe Mario accomplishes the same with punching through brickwork? (Doubtful, of course, but it's difficult for me to think of Mario as a mass-murderer of innocent citizenry.)

  7. I was always under the impression that the "transformed resdidents" were the mushrooms, fireflowers and starmen. IIRC, the transformed inhabitants are said to use magic to give Mario the power to defeat Koopa. Well, the only magic in the game are the items. And where to those items come from? ? Blocks (stones) and bricks! So Mario's hitting them turns them back into their original form. When Mario rescues them (by touching them), they give him their power.

    AS for the horsehair plants, I like the idea that they are the 1-3 platforms.

    (and the coins could just be the rescued people giving him life energy, as every 100 gave him an extra life, just like the green mushrooms)

  8. Anonymous9:04 PM

    All that is being discussed here, specifically that the bricks throughout the game were the Toads and that they were supposedly freed once Peach was rescued, is the basis of what I dislike about the Mushroomy Kingdom levels of SSBBrawl. Here we are to believe that the locales of the original Super Mario adventure have grown desolate and derelict since the time Mario strode across them. With all of the bricks still floating where they always had been and the landscape arid and forgotten, it would appear that nothing was gained by freeing her from her kidnapper.

    Per Smash Bros. Dojo: "The kingdom you once knew has turned to ruins over the long years, and it is now your battlefield."

  9. @dpsycho: To say nothing of their continued presence in every Mario game since (barring SMB2, of course).

  10. Anonymous9:26 AM

    BTW those horsehair mummycaps mushrooms since they are not prone to rotting at all. May be they contain an antibiotic compounds (or a several). I am going to pick up a bunch of them, dry, and try to isolate it.

  11. Anonymous7:33 PM

    Ya, i've always been under the assumption that the Shroomheads were trapped inside bricks, boxes & stones, etc, and that once they were freed then they would occasionally give Mario a power-up like the Super Mushroom, Fire Flower, Star, etc; so you're not "killing" the 'Shroomies by smashing the bricks to pieces, simply releasing them from their magical captivity...even if that release is not visible.

    Given the technological limitations of the day, it can be reasoned why a more visual display was not used, but even beyond that isn't it possible that the "mushroom people" were reduced to spores *before* they were imprisoned or "transformed" into bricks & blocks, etc?

    This would go a long way towards explaining why Mario would smash the bricks to free the Mushroomers...and also why he gets points for doing so(could that point total not be some kind of counter for how many spores he's releasing, and thus how many Toads, Toadstools, Toadettes, Toadsworths, etc, he's freeing?).

    PS: As far as the decrepit Mushroom Kingdom goes...I would think that since it's been nothing but fight after fight, with attempt after attempt made by Bowswer(if not some other bad guys) for the past 20-30 years *at least*(if not more, going by the time-traveling Yoshi's Island/Baby Mario/Bowser Jr. etc) upon the Mushroom Kingdom, that they simply have not had the *time* to sit down and focus on rebuilding anything.

    A war-torn country is a horrible thing, even in the cartoony world of Super Mario Bros :(

  12. Anonymous1:40 PM

    This looks much like the background plants in Stage 2-1, but are called "horse tail" instead of "horse hair":
    (especially of note are the segmented stalks)