The Man Eating Tree of Madagascar and Other Flesh Eating Flora

The recent discovery of the remarkable self-destructing palm tree of Madagascar (1) (Tahina spectabilis)
has highlighted the potential for large and distinctly unique plant species to lurk in the less densely populated parts of the world. Of all the crypto-botanical mysteries remaining to be resolved, perhaps the most intriguing is the possible existence of plants that are capable of trapping and consuming large animals. Reports have emerged from several remote regions of the world concerning large carnivorous plants that can capture and devour creatures as large as birds, dogs, monkeys and, perhaps, even humans.

            The idea of deadly vegetation waiting silently in dark jungles and forests to ensnare the unwary has been received with great scepticism by science. It is dismissed as a fantasy reminiscent of John Wyndham’s 1951 novel “The Day of the Triffids”. But nevertheless such stories do exist. Tales of these horrifying plants have been collected from all over the world. There are reports from such widely separated regions as Central and South America, India and the South Pacific. The interested reader is invited to consider the following accounts.

The Madagascan Tepe and Kumanga
The most extraordinary case, and one that is widely considered to be a hoax, is that of the man-eating tree of Madagascar. It is most graphically described in a letter written in 1878 by a German explorer called Carl Liche and published in several publications including the South Australian Register.(2) Whilst visiting Madagascar with a companion called Hendrick, he was allegedly invited to attend a sacrifice at this peculiar tree.

            The tree was described as eight feet in height and similar in appearance to a pineapple. Eight long, pointed and thorny leaves reached down from the top of the plant to the ground. The apex of the trunk was topped with a shallow receptacle that contained a thick, sweet liquid that supposedly possessed intoxicating and soporific properties. Encircling the receptacle was a series of long, green, hairy tendrils and above these were six white, reed-like palpi or tentacles growing skyward. The woman to be sacrificed climbed the plant and drank the liquid at its top. The palpi and the tendrils became suddenly animated and wrapped themselves around her “with the fury of starved serpents”. Finally the thorny leaves rose up and enclosed her leaving only a mixture of blood and the viscous fluid running down the trunk.(3)

            Inspired by the Liche account, Chase Salmon Osborne, governor of the state of Michigan from 1911 to 1913, travelled to Madagascar in search of the tree. He did not succeed in locating one but claimed that it was well known to natives of the island. He also alleged that Western Missionaries believed in its existence and that from the earliest times Madagascar had been known as “the land of the man-eating tree”.
However cryptozoologist Dr Roy P. Mackal, in his book Searching for Hidden Animals, was unable to uncover the existence of Liche, nor any background history concerning him. In addition he observed that the different specialised structures of the tree described seem to be drawn from several different groups of plants. The highly animated nature of the palpi are unlike any feature of any known plant species. Mackal concedes however, that it may be a highly embellished account of a less dramatic plant.

            More recently the Czech explorer Ivan Mackerle led an expedition to Madagascar in 1998 in search of the tree which he refers to as the Tepe. Whilst he was unable to uncover any direct evidence in support of Liche’s or Osborne’s claims, he uncovered something else just as intriguing. His expedition instead learnt about the “Kumanga Killer Tree” which only grows in one place on the island. This botanical mystery is supposedly extremely poisonous when it flowers. Indeed, the Mackerle expedition took gas masks to protect themselves but although the tree was not in blossom they observed the skeleton of a bird and a tortoise under it.(4)

            He also discovered that in 1935 a former British army officer called L. Hearst spent some time in Madagascar and, while there, took photographs of an unknown species of tree with the skeletons of various sizeable animals underneath it. Was this the Kumanga tree or could it have been the elusive Tepe? According to Mackerle these photographs were printed in an, as yet, unidentified publication.(5) If anyone reading this article has any relevant information please let me know.

            As a postscript to Madagascan mystery flora the Canadian researcher W. Ritchie Benedict has uncovered a newspaper account of the man-eating tree dating back to 1875 i.e. three years before the controversial Liche letter. This article indicates that the tale originates not from Madagascar but from New Guinea.(6) So maybe the Tepe exists after all, but on a completely different island. The importance of the Liche account, as we shall see, is that it contains within it the combined characteristics of all the other mystery carnivorous vegetation that have been described.

Central America – The Ya-Te-Veo and the Vampire tree
Similar to the Tepe is the Ya-Te-Veo tree hidden in parts of Central America.(7) This is described as having a short, thick trunk topped with spine-like shoots with dagger-like thorns along their edges. These barbed shoots hang down to the ground and become suddenly animated when an unsuspecting animal walks between them. The victim is then impaled and crushed against the trunk until it is drained of blood which is then absorbed by the plant (Figure 2). The broad similarity of the description and modus operandi of this tree to the Tepe is striking. Once again the energetic nature of its limbs do nothing to help its credibility.

            Also from the jungles of Central America comes an alarming tale published in the Illustrated London News August 27, 1892. A botanist known only as Mr Dunstan was looking for specimens in the swamps surrounding Nicaragua lake. Whilst engaged in this activity he heard his dog cry out as if in agony from some distance away. Racing to the scene Mr Dunstan found him enveloped in a web of black root-like vines resembling willow branches. These vines were covered with a “thick, viscid gum that exuded from the pores”. Freeing the dog from the plant he observed that the animals body “was bloodstained, while the skin appeared to be actually sucked or puckered in spots, and the animal staggered as if from exhaustion”. The cut twigs then “curled like living, sinuous figures” around Dunstan’s hand requiring him to force it free, leaving his flesh “red and blistered”.

            The same newspaper also published a report of a similar plant a month later on September 24, 1892. This time the report emerged from the Sierra Madre area of Mexico and described a tree with sensitive branches of a “slimy, snaky appearance”. A bird which had the misfortune to land on one of these was pulled down into the mass of branches. Its flattened, lifeless body was to later re-emerge, falling onto the bones and feathers that littered the ground beneath the tree. One of the observers touched one of the branches which “closed upon his hand with such force as to tear the skin when he wrenched it away”.

            The zoologist Karl Shuker has uncovered an additional reference to a similar sounding plant. In the August 1934 issue of Wide World Magazine the explorer Byron Khun de Prorok recounted how he led an expedition to the Chiapas region in southern Mexico.(8) Soon after entering the humid jungle the guide leader called Prorok’s attention to an enormous plant. Approaching it, Prorok could see that the plant had captured a bird that had landed on one of the leaves “which had promptly closed, its thorns penetrating the body of the little victim”. The guide leader explained this was called “plante vampire”.  The morphology of this last example is perhaps the most believable, a large Venus flytrap-type plant (Figure 3) with thorn covered leaves has more in common with known botanical species than the sucker bearing tentacles described above. Nonetheless, as we now turn our attention to South America, that same description turns up again.

South America – The Octopod and the Monkey trap tree
In Secret Cities of Old South America, Harold T. Wilkins describes three more plants of prey. The first is the “Brazilian Devil Tree” or “Octopod” tree that is apparently native to the Mato Grosso region. It is the size of a willow but conceals its branches in the soil or surrounding undergrowth. When a creature ventures too close the plant its branches spring into action and ensnare the victim in an ever tightening grip.(9)

            The second mystery plant from this region also possesses tentacle-like branches but unlike the “Octopod” tree this species emits a smell of rotting flesh and produces sweet tasting berries. Once again when a bird lands on the plant to get at the berries the branches crush it against the tree’s trunk whilst suckers absorb the blood before the carcass is discarded onto the ground.

            The third plant that Wilkins reports is a slumber-inducing plant located in the Chaco forest between Argentina and Bolivia and known to the natives of that area as el juy-juy. The plant emits “a soporific perfume” that renders large animals, including humans, unconscious. A familiar fate awaits the drugged victim “the floral canopy [...] sends down masses of lovely blossoms, each flower of which is armed with a powerful sucker, which draws from the body all its blood and juices”. This description is suspiciously close to the plant in H.G. Wells' 1894 short story The Flowering of the Strange Orchid which also stupefied its victims with perfume and sucked their blood with its tendrils.

            The final report from South America comes once again from Brazil. Randall Schwartz in his book Carnivorous Plants recounts the story of explorer Mariano da Silva who, near the border with Guyana, encountered the “Monkey-trap tree”. The plant described has a mechanism similar to that of the aforementioned Venus flytrap. It emits a scent that attracts monkeys to it who are then induced to climb its trunk. The large leaves then close over the victim from which nothing more is seen or heard. Some days later the leaves open and drop the bones onto the ground beneath.

India – The Mouse Eating Plant & The Cow Eating Tree
Perhaps on a more credible scale is the large pitcher plant-type organism that has the capacity to ingest much smaller mammals. Following his account of the Madagascan Man-eating tree, Chase Salmon Osborne described a mouse eating plant that was supposedly exhibited in London during the early part of the 20th Century. The flower surrounded a central mouth or tube which emitted a strong smell that attracted the mouse. The prey then crawled inside whereupon “bristle-like antennae” unfurled and held the creature fast until death. Digestive fluids were then excreted by the plant enabling it to consume its tiny victim. He goes on to state that “this extraordinary carnivorous plant is a native of tropical India”.(10)

As the case of the Madagascan Man-eating tree has demonstrated, Osborne is not a reliable witness. However the above report may be a slightly distorted description of a plant belonging to the genus Nepenthes. These are large carnivorous pitcher-plants that exist throughout the Indian Ocean tropics, including India. Known species can grow quite large, for example Nepenthes rajah is a native of Borneo that holds up to 3.5 litres (7.4 pints) of water and 2.5 litres (5.3 pints) of digestive fluid (Figure 4). It has been observed to occasionally trap rats as well as frogs, lizards and even birds although insects are its main prey.(11) Interestingly only one species of Nepenthes is known in India (Nepenthes khasiana) and this is far too small to prey on anything larger than a fly. Therefore it is extremely possible that a large species of Nepenthes exists undiscovered in the jungles of India.

More remarkable still is the 2007 press report from Southern India regarding the "
Cow-eating trees of Padrame".(12) On 18th October 2007 a cow owned by villager Anand Gowda was taken by a cowherd to graze in the forests near the village. Unexpectedly "the cow was suddenly grabbed by the branches and pulled from the ground." Assistance was sort and a band of villagers, including the cow's owner, attacked the tree with knives and axes until it released the animal. The local forest ranger, Subramanya Rao said the tree was "described as ‘pili mara’ (tiger tree) in native lingo". Indian television news reports of this bizarre incident can be viewed on YouTube (13).that include footage of what remains of the supposed tree in question.

The South Pacific Death Flower
In 1581 the explorer Captain Arkwright learnt of another herbaceous horror that inhabited an islet known as El Banoor (Island of Death) somewhere in the South Pacific.(14) The plant was described as huge with large brightly coloured petals and a sleep-inducing fragrance. This would encourage the victim to rest upon the large petals whereupon the flower would close and the victim digested. The description is somewhat similar to the Bolivian el juy-juy and the Madagascan Kumanga described above, but its true identity as well as its actual existence remains unknown.

So where does all that lead us? Well I think we have three possibilities.
1.       These are honest reports of genuinely undiscovered carnivorous plants.
2.       These are inaccurate or exaggerated accounts of known species.
3.       They are all hoaxes.

My own view is that the truth lies somewhere between the first and second possibilities. Undoubtedly there are hoaxes but I don't feel that this can account for every single case.

The difficulty in interpreting these reports is that very few of these are demonstrably first hand accounts. Most are second, third or forth-hand and therefore their value as eyewitness accounts decreases accordingly. The notable exception to this is the ‘pili mara’ or "Cow-Eating" tree from India. Incredibly, this lends credence to the more outlandish aspects of the other, earlier, reports of tentacles with high motility and strength, and until better information is obtained this will remain a mystery.

Known carnivorous plants already possess remarkable structures for capturing their prey such as the large pitcher plants that trap, drown and digest quite large animals; the Sundews with their sticky tentacles that ensnare struggling insects (Figure 6); and the Venus Flytrap with its hinged, closing leaves. Any combination of these structures would produce something approaching the monsters described above. Furthermore, one can also imagine seeing an animal slipping and struggling to free itself from a giant variation of these and in doing so causing the surrounding vines to shake which might very well create the illusion of animated tendrils.

It is certainly noteworthy that these reports persist into the current century and, along with the recent discovery of the Madagascan self-destructing palm, may hint at the myriad flora awaiting discovery in some of the more remote parts of the world. The reports uncovered so far suggest that there may yet be a few surprises out there for botanists.

[1] 17th January 2008
[2]Sullivan, Ron & Eaton, Joe (2007). The Dirt: Myths about man-eating plants - something to chew on; San Francisco Chronicle, 27 October
[3] Childress, David H. (1988). Lost Cities of Ancient Lemuria & the Pacific. Adventures Unlimited Press
[4] Shuker, Karl. (2003). The Beasts that Hide from Man. Paraview Press.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Mitchell, J & Rickard, B. (2007). The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena. Rough Guides Ltd
[8] Shuker, Karl. (2003). Op.cit.
[9] Wilkins, Harold T. (1952). Secret Cities of Old South America. Adventures Unlimited Press (reprint).
[10] Osborn, Chase S. (1924). Madagascar, Land of the Man-Eating Tree. Republic Publishing Company (New York).
[14] Sinner, Charles M. (1911). Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants. J.B. Lippincott (Philadelphia)

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Graham Salisbury