Cryptozoologists think they have it so rough, what with the skeptics mocking their search for hairy wild men, remnant plesiosaurs, and other relics of the Animalia kingdom, that is, monsters that you might actually one day need to run away from. The little known, and unsung heroes of cryptobotany are painfully aware of yet another mythological public safety menace, that through a subtle and patient stratagem, simply waits for you to make a fatal mistake, by which of course I mean, the man-eating plant. We tend to regard the entire Plantae kingdom as scenery or salad, without ever considering the possibility that certain plants rely on our mammalian arrogance as a precursor to serving us up as an entrée. A smart predator follows a philosophy akin to hockey icon Wayne Gretsky, who famously said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been”. One of the habits of a highly effective carnivorous plant is simply to grow where an unsuspecting dinner is likely to pass by. We are of course not concerned by adorable little herbs like the Malaysian Nepenthes rajah, the Pitcher Plants of North and South America, the sticky little Portuguese Drosera, or the much ballyhooed Venus Flytrap, since they are generally insectivorous (and even the largest, the Nepenthes rajah, only aspires to the occasional rodent), rather the rarely seen cryptobotanical carnivores such as the Man-Eating Trees of Nubia and Madagascar, or the Central and South American Ya-Te-Veo, leafy creatures that consider how you would taste with a nice balsamic vinegarette in the same way you regard the chef’s salad. The relative obscurity of this folkloric menace (as well as my latest abject failure in attempting to cultivate a tomato garden in the backyard) has inspired my call to arms against this quiet menace.
Now, I have the same epicurean aversion to vegetables as most folks raised in the American Midwest, but never associated my preference for meat with an adaptive evolutionary strategy. It turns out that I was actually greatly reducing my odds of being eaten by foliage in preferring hunting to gathering, although technically, I imagine a trip to the grocery falls purely within the realm of gathering, regardless of whether it involves steak or strawberries. I leave both the hunting and gathering to the professionals, who I assume can (1) avoid maiming and goring by barbecuable beasts, and (2) identify agricultural products which will not go gentle into that good night. We’re pretty savvy about our fruits and vegetables these days, and have wisely managed to selectively breed our standard fodder into defenselessness. This does not mean that angry and predatory plants have vanished from the face of the Earth, it simply means that they are biding their time in more hospitable environments.
British author Philip Robinson (1847-1902 A.D.), related a tale of his uncle’s encounter with a man eating plant in Nubia (the Victorian equivalent of “I had heard…”). Nubia, to those imperialist British types who liked to arbitrarily rename things would be roughly Southern Egypt or Northern Sudan. He does happen to mention that the plant ate one of his uncle’s native guides, and that Uncle Robinson had a bout of close combat, narrowly escaping with his life (stiff upper lip and all after nearly becoming plant food). Note that the evil plant makes itself extremely attractive to its prey.
This awful plant, that rears its splendid death-shade in the central solitude of a Nubian fern forest, sickens by its unwholesome humours all vegetation from its immediate vicinity, and feeds upon the wild beasts that, in the terror of the chase, or the heat of noon, seek the thick shelter of its boughs ; upon the birds that, flitting across the open space, come within the charmed circle of its power, or innocently refresh themselves from the cups of its great waxen flowers ; upon even man himself when, an infrequent prey, the savage seeks its asylum in the storm, or turns from the harsh foot-wounding sword-grass of the glade, to pluck the wondrous fruit that hang plumb down among the wondrous foliage. And such fruit! Glorious golden ovals, great honey drops, swelling by their own weight into pear-shaped translucencies. The foliage glistens with a strange dew, that all day long drips on to the ground below, nurturing a rank growth of grasses, which shoot up in places so high that their spikes of fierce blood-fed green show far up among the deep-tinted foliage of the terrible tree, and, like a jealous body-guard, keep concealed the fearful secret of the charnel-house within, and draw round the black roots of the murderous plant a decent screen of living green (Robinson, 1881, p2-3).
Chase Salmon Osborn (1860-1949), the 27th Governor of Michigan, quoted a widely disseminated letter of German Explorer Karl Liche, who claimed to have seen a woman sacrificed to a man-eating tree in Madagascar. The main problem with the account is that neither Karl Liche (described as an eminent botanist), nor the Mdoko tribe of Madagascar seem to have existed, despite numerous articles published quoting his letter, including accounts in the 1881 South Australian Register, and the 1874 New York World. Leche purportedly said the man-eating plant was like “a pineapple eight feet high and thick in proportion resting upon its base and denuded of leaves, you will have a good idea of the trunk of the tree, which, however, was not the color of an anana, but a dark, dingy brown, and apparently hard as iron. From the apex of this truncated cone (at least two feet in diameter) eight leaves hung sheer to the ground, like doors swung back on their hinges. These leaves, which were joined to the top of the tree at regular intervals, were about eleven or twelve feet long and shaped very much like the leaves of the American aguave, or century plant. They were two feet through in their thickest part and three feet wide, tapering to a sharp point that looked like a cow’s horn, very convex on the outer (but now under) surface, and on the inner (now upper) surface slightly concave. This concave face was thickly set with very strong thorny hooks, like those upon the head of the teazle. These leaves, hanging thus limp and lifeless, dead green in color, had in appearance the massive strength of oak fibre” (April 28, 1874, New York World). Numerous other publications later identified the story as a hoax concocted for the New York World by a gentleman named Edmund Spencer. Unfortunately, no one has been able to prove that Edmund Spencer existed either. The only thing we’re certain about is that the Mdoko tribe was not real, or horribly translated. Anthropologist Ralph Linton, who spent a fair amount of time in Madagascar during the 1920’s reported that local chiefs frequently confirmed that such a fearsome plant did indeed exist. Very confusing. Nonetheless, Governor Osborn not only decided that it was worthy of note, but named his book on Madagascar after it (“Madagascar: Land of the Man-eating Tree”), ostensibly quoting directly from the mysterious Leche’s original letter.
The slender delicate palpi, with the fury of starved serpents, quivered a moment over her head, then as if instinct with demoniac intelligence fastened upon her in sudden coils round and round her neck and arms; then while her awful screams and yet more awful laughter rose wildly to be instantly strangled down again into a gurgling moan, the tendrils one after another, like green serpents, with brutal energy and infernal rapidity, rose, retracted themselves, and wrapped her about in fold after fold, ever tightening with cruel swiftness and the savage tenacity of anacondas fastening upon their prey. It was the barbarity of the Laocoon without its beauty—this strange horrible murder. And now the great leaves slowly rose and stiffly, like the arms of a derrick, erected themselves in the air, approached one another and closed about the dead and hampered victim with the silent force of a hydraulic press and the ruthless purpose of a thumb screw. A moment more, and while I could see the bases of these great levers pressing more tightly towards each other, from their interstices there trickled down the stalk of the tree great streams of the viscid honey-like fluid mingled horribly with the blood and oozing viscera of the victim. At sight of this the savage hordes around me, yelling madly, bounded forward, crowded to the tree, clasped it, and with cups, leaves, hands and tongues each one obtained enough of the liquor to send him mad and frantic. Then ensued a grotesque and indescribably hideous orgy, from which even while its convulsive madness was turning rapidly into delirium and insensibility, Hendrick dragged me hurriedly away into the recesses of the forest, hiding me from the dangerous brutes. May I never see such a sight again. The retracted leaves of the great tree kept their upright position during ten days, then when I came one morning they were prone again, the tendrils stretched, the palpi floating, and nothing but a white skull at the foot of the tree to remind me of the sacrifice that had taken place there. I climbed into a neighboring tree, and saw that all trace of the victim had disappeared and the cup was again supplied with the viscid fluid (Osborn, 1924, p8-9).
Luckily, our sources for reports of carnivorous plants are not reserved to international men of mystery or Governors (who can trust them anyway). The Ya-Te-Veo (“I see you”) was a carnivorous tree believed to inhabit Central and South America, noted by J.W. Buel in his 1887 Land and Sea, and described as undoubtedly carnivorous, but not particularly good at capturing humans, relying more on large insects. Ultimately, fear (and thus monsters) are frequently related to our fight or flight response. Avoiding a carnivorous plant requires the capacity to recognize it, and stay outside its effective radius, thereby obviating the necessity of fighting or flighting. Thus, it is unsurprising that vegetable monsters are rare. This and our hominid hubris (mostly about having feet) has led to a certain complacency regarding the nascent threat posed by sedentary man-eating plant monsters. That is, until your idyllic stroll through the jungle is rudely interrupted by vegetative homicide. We must not let the possession of a brain stem and opposable thumbs dull us into a sense of security. It’s the monster that you didn’t expect that will be your ultimate demise, which is why I advocate what I’m referring to as “preventative vegetarianism”. This may be a straightforward way to get children to eat more vegetables. Eat them, before they eat you, or as comedian A. Whitney Brown once remarked, “I am not a vegetarian because I love animals; I am a vegetarian because I hate plants”.
Osborn, Chase S. 1860-. Madagascar: Land of the Man-eating Tree. New York: Republic Pub., 1924.
Robinson, Phil, 1847-1902. Under the Punkah. New and cheaper edition. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1881.