13 April 2009

A pine or fir tree did NOT grow in a Russian man's lung

I can offer proof from the medical literature of the 1960s.

I first saw the story at Reddit, referencing mosnews.com, which claimed that a 5 cm fir tree was removed from the lung of a man who had complained of chest pain and hemoptysis. Xrays suggested a "tumor," but the resected specimen showed GREEN pine needles (photo above).
It is obvious that a five-centimeter branch is too large to be inhaled or swallowed, doctors say. They suggest that the patient might have inhaled a small bud, which then started to grow inside his body.
First of all, it is NOT too large to have been inhaled. Much larger items (railroad spikes!) have reached the bronchial tree. Secondly, a 5-cm fir tree sprout does not have a full inflorescence of needles like the specimen depicted. Thirdly, nothing growing in the darkness of the lungs would produce the green pigment of activated chlorophyll.

Finally, a phenomenon like this has been reported previously - with grass heads. See these references:

Jackson, C. Grasses as foreign bodies in the bronchus and lung. Laryngoscope 62: 897, 1952.

Merriam, J.C. et al. Lung disease caused by aspirated timothy-grass heads. Am. Rev. Respir. Dis. 90:947, 1964.

In the latter case what happened was that children were playing a game of "chicken" by placing grass heads on their tongue and saying "cheep." The mouth movement caused the spikes of the grass head to push the object backward. The last one to pull the grass head out won. In the case described, the grass head was aspirated. Once in the airways, the spikes of the grass prevented it being coughed out, and with each cough it was compressed and moved more distally, eventually presenting as a mass on the chest wall, where an incision was made and the grass head pulled out - quite intact, undigested, and ready for another game.

This claim of a tree growing in the lung is just a case of an aspirated tip from a fir or pine tree branch. It could have been aspirated during intoxication months previously and the incident not remembered.

The story has now been picked up by FOX News and by the Huffington Post.

But now you know how it really happened.

ARRD, 1964
J Pediatrics, 1949
NEJM, 1948

Addendum: There's now a video report on the BBC, which includes photos of the CT scan, confirming the peripheral, subpleural location of the pseudotumor created by the aspirated pine inflorescence:

Second addendum: After the above story filtered through the web, some additional cases were reported from Sweden. In both cases the needle bunch had been conventionally aspirated:

18 years ago Pierre Akerblom was on a survival course in he forest, during which participants ate fresh spruce shoots because they are rich in vitamin C. He aspirated a shoot and was recurrently ill with pneumonias until 2004 when the material was retrieved via bronchoscopy.

Ingegerd Svahn Karlssons was 5 years old in 1958 and was playing when she choked on the pine needles. It remained there, causing illness x12, until removed by thoracotomy ten years later - at which time it was still green.


  1. well debunked. i hate it when people ignore common sense and jump to crazy conclusions.

    my immediate thought was 'where are the roots?'. if a plant is truely growing somewhere then there would be roots.

  2. People are fooled so easily... Anyhow, if it had been true, it would have been very romantic. It reminds me of this french Novel by Boris Vian, l'Écume des jours (Froth on the Daydream)? Beautiful and poetic novel. The protagonist, Colin, is a wealthy young man who falls in love with Chloe. But she falls ill upon their honeymoon with a lily in the lung, a painful and rare condition that can only be treated by surrounding her with flowers. Beautiful.

  3. I'm kind of surprised by the other blogs that picked this one up and posted it as though it were a medical mystery.

    Props to you for being at least reasonably skeptical, and you made some very good points as to why it couldn't be true.

  4. Awesome post Stan. I read about this and thought it a little off, but didn't have time to do research. I guess I just figured that you would go after it and I could save myself the trouble and read your blog.

    Just kidding, but thanks for the great debunk.

    Ever thought about being a Mythbuster?

  5. I tend to agree with you debunk, I think that you are most probably right although I am not 100% certain.

    First of all there is another case of growth in a person's lung http://www.azfamily.com/news/health/Inhaled-pea-sprouts-in-mans-lung-100713089.html

    Second, I am a physician not a plant biologist, so I don't know for fact that it is only the sun that triggers the generation of chlorophyll. In the open air, it is probably the case, but who is to say that growth hormones in the lung or even the surfactants cannot initiate chlorophyll growth. Furthermore a plant might probably have all the nutrients it needs by taping into the blood of the patient. I have seen plants survive in the most atypical conditions.

    I am not saying that these stories are for real, I am just saying that it is not impossible that they could be.

  6. @karl Fern
    re the pea. The story says the man was eating peas and inhale one....we tend not to eat mature peas capable of sprouting, but to pick and eat the young immature seeds when they are tender, sweet and not starchy. I doubt he inhaled a pea he was eating, although I have no other explanation as to how a mature, sproutable seed would end up in his lung. Maybe he pushed one up his nose as a child...or doesn't want to admit he did as an adult...

  7. Yeah the pea guy. And don't forget guava tooth guy. That was interesting.

  8. I used to wear caps and bridges in my mouth having suffered with Sjogren's over the years. Sjogren's (www.sjogrens.com) is an auto-immune disease which reduces the body's abiltity to make salivary and digestive enzymes, cuases dry eye, salivary stones, etc., as it affects the exocrine glands (moisture producing glands) I had so many cavities as a child despite taking great care of my teeth brushing flossing etc, no soda, not much candy etc. At age 16 I had 52 cavities in 26 teeth, in my thirties, two three part bridges (I STILL have these in a jewerly box becuase I felt if I PAID FOR white gold caps/bridges I should get them back when they removed them, so the dentist gave them back to me.) Anyhow, once a seed either poppy, sesame or rye, whatever from a sandwich got lodged into the back cap where it started to GROW! The mouth with what little misture I DID manage to produce, the dark atmosphere of the mouth, allowed this to start growing and when using a WaterPik, I was able to loosen this then use a Proxibrush to pull the rest of this out and YES it remained green despite the darkness of the mouth and it had roots on it, If I had thought at the time I shpuld have placed it into some dirt to see what would have grown. I ahve NO IDEA how long this seed had been lodged in that back tooth/cap. Many seeds can be started in a moist paper towel, we do it with tomato and flower seeds all the time. SO this is NOT an urban myth, it happened to me. I NOW wear a full denture because if my own jaw could not hold my OWN natural teeth, how could an artificially derived root (post from Implant) hold an implant in my jaw, why waste thousand$ of $$?!!! I have pictures of the caps if anyone doesn't beieve this (two three parts bridges) Cathy

  9. I think nowadays we can give many examples of medical literature from 60's that cannot even be taken seriously anymore, so I really cannot full-heartedly agree with the presented arguments, although they do make sense in a way. If we always rely on past knowledge and are not open to think that things may in fact be different than how we thought they were, we will not be going anywhere and still make sacrifices to the gods for rain. I really hope we are past that stage.


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