Burning Bush

Most everyone is familiar with the biblical passage where Moses comes across a burning bush which, while clearly alit, doesn’t seem to be consumed by the flame.  It’s supernatural.

Except, it’s not supernatural — well, part of it isn’t.  There’s a bush called Dictamnus albus, a flowering plant native to parts of Europe and Asia (but not North Africa or the Middle East, and it doesn’t come with the voice of a higher being).   For most of the year it acts as a normal plant, but over the summer months, it develops a sticky, flammable oily substance which sometimes spontaneously sparks in the heat.  The excretion, when lit, burns rapidly — so rapidly, in fact, that the plant itself is typically unscathed.  Watch it in action:

The oil’s smell is citrus-like, but the plant’s leaves are bitter and inedible.  (Why one would want to eat a flammable plant is anyone’s guess — well, anyone other than Homer Simpson.)  It has some archaic medical uses but today is mostly cultivated for its novelty factor — in case you wanted to grow one yourself.

And no, it does not come with the voice of the Almighty.

Bonus fact:  Magicians use something called flash paper — paper made from a highly flammable compound called nitrocellulose — in order to create flames which occur seemingly out of thin air, leaving no residue behind.   Over the course of the century-and-a-half since the invention of nitrocellulose, there have been a number of uses for it, but one particular attempt proved to be a failure.  One specific failure?  In 1869, the billiards industry needed to find a replacement for ivory billiards balls, as elephants were being poached to near extinction.  They offered a $10,000 prize to whomever came up with the best replacement.  That purse was won by inventor John Wesley Hyatt who created a billiard ball coated in nitrocellulose, but, as Wikipedia explains, “the Hyatt balls were extremely flammable, and sometimes portions of the outer shell would explode upon impact.”  Use of the ball was, understandably, discontinued.

From the Archives: Ignution: Pistachios + nothing = fire.

Related: Flash paper.

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