Friday, 13 January 2012

Headache Tree

In the beautiful Kyoto Garden - a Japanese garden in Holland Park - stands a tall evergreen tree labelled 'Headache Tree'. I noticed it today because it's just coming into flower and looking rather lovely. Why the Headache Tree? Apparently because getting too close to it can trigger a splitting headache in susceptible people (let's hope Health and Safety don't get wind of that). It has many English names, but is most commonly known as the Bay Laurel, and is a native of California and Oregon (not Japan). The leaves are like a spicier version of Mediterranean bay leaves, and its fruits can be roasted and eaten, but its most surprising use is as legal tender. In the depths of the Great Depression, the town of North Bend, Oregon, having run out of cash after its only bank closed, minted 'myrtlewood money' (the Bay Laurel is known there as Oregon Myrtle) to pay its workers. The 'coins' - myrtlewood discs printed on a newspaper press - could be redeemed for cents and dollars as soon as the town's cash-flow crisis was over. Except that most people chose to hang on to the their wooden money, despite repeated pleas to turn it in and convert it. As a result, myrtlewood money was declared legal tender in North Bend in perpetuity, and can theoretically still be used as payment. Now, however, the 'coins' are so scarce that their worth far exceeds their face value. I'm sure there's a lesson in this, but I can't quite see what it is. Apart from keeping at a respectful distance from the Headache Tree.