Posted by: Loren Coleman on October 28th, 2007
You saw the posting here entitled “India’s Cow-Eating Trees”, and then might have seen it was picked up by Boing Boing. As David Pescovitz wrote, “Loren Coleman detours into ‘cryptobotany.’” Ah, the path less traveled.
Map: The entire distribution range of the Venus Flytrap. Did they come down in a meteorite impact?
Since then, there’s been several blogs around the internet snapping at a chance to mention man-eating trees. Now the news articles are appearing.
One of the most detailed appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, which tips its cap to cryptozoologists, and points Bay Area residents in the direction of seeing some carnivorous plants at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park:
It’s 1878. Somewhere in the backlands of Madagascar, German explorer Carl Liche, his companion Hendrick and a party of cave-dwelling Mkodo tribespeople are hacking their way through the jungle. At a bend in a sluggish creek, they come upon a remarkable plant, something like an 8-foot-tall pineapple. Eight agave-like leaves, each 11 or 12 feet long and studded with hooklike thorns, surround a depression filled with honey-sweet liquid. From the top of the tree sprout long hairy green tendrils and a set of tentacles, “constantly and vigorously in motion, with … a subtle, sinuous, silent throbbing against the air.”
Chanting, the Mkodo single out one of their women and force her at javelin-point to climb the trunk. With obvious loathing, she drinks the treacle-like fluid. Then … let’s give Liche the floor: “The atrocious cannibal tree, that had been so inert and dead, came to sudden savage life. 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 great 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 savage tenacity of anacondas fastening upon their prey.”
Liche and Hendrick do nothing heroic. They watch as “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 thumbscrew.” Hendrick drags Liche from the scene as the Mkodo celebrate.
Three years later, Liche wrote up the grisly experience for the South Australian Register. Some readers took it seriously. Travelers had been returning from the jungles of the world with astonishing stories: ferocious manlike apes, vine-shrouded lost cities. The gorillas and the Mayan ruins turned out to be real. Why not the man-eating tree?
Liche’s story got more mileage in 1924, when Chase Osborn, former governor of Michigan turned travel writer, published “Madagascar, Land of the Man-Eating Tree.” Osborn said missionaries had vouched for the tree’s existence.
The tale has been well and truly debunked, of course. Willy Ley, writing in the 1950s, established that Liche had invented the man-eating tree, the Mkodo tribe and apparently himself as well.
But on the Internet, no legend ever truly dies. You’ve heard of cryptozoologists, people who devote their lives to tracking down Bigfoot or Nessie? There are cryptobotanists too. And they won’t be convinced that it’s all a myth.
Plants that eat animals seem like an ultimate reversal of the natural order. The bigger the prey, “the more we feel the weirdness,” wrote Stephen Jay Gould. “We yawn when a Venus flytrap ensnares a mosquito, but shiver with substantial discomfort when a large pitcher plant devours a bird or rodent.” For serious shivers, try a human victim.
The man-eating tree of Madagascar seems to have been the progenitor of a whole literary dynasty of sinister plants: H.G. Wells’ Strange Orchid (it stupefied its victims with perfume and sucked their blood with its tendrils); John Wyndham’s peripatetic Triffids; the Widow’s Weed in Gus Arriola’s “Gordo” comic strip; and, not least, Audrey II of “Little Shop of Horrors.”
There’s probably some good reason why man-eating plants never evolved, in Madagascar or anywhere else. Madagascar does have a species of carnivorous plant, though: Nepenthes madagascariensis, one of the tropical pitcher plants that occur from there to Indonesia and Australia. It was first described by Etienne de Flacourt, the island’s French governor, in 1658. He, and botanists after him, thought the bulbous pitchers – modified leaves – were water-storage receptacles.
A couple of centuries later, Darwin’s colleague Joseph Hooker proved that the pitchers were pitfall traps. Insects and other creatures, enticed by nectar glands, topple in and are digested by enzymes the plant secretes. Mostly insects. Peter D’Amato, founder of California Carnivores, says N. rajah, which grows on Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, is “the only pitcher plant truly documented as having caught rats.”
Although the “Chomp” exhibition at the Conservatory of Flowers closes Nov. 4, you can still visit the resident Nepenthes in the water-lily gallery. We think they’re elegant, in their own grotesque way. But there’s one species that gives even D’Amato the willies. N. hamata, also from Borneo, has the mouth of the pitcher surrounded by long, curved, knife-sharp hooks. “One can only guess what this plant may be evolving into,” D’Amato writes in his classic, “The Savage Garden.” “Pray that it doesn’t start walking.”
Plants that bite
Chomp!: Exhibition of natural-born killers in the plant world, like bladderworts, butterworts and the alluring Asian pitcher plant, runs through Nov. 4 at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. There are investigation stations for families looking for ghoulish fun at Halloween. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Tickets $1.50-$5; information: www.conservatoryofflowers.org, (415) 666-7001.
California Carnivores: 2833 Old Gravenstein Highway South, Petaluma. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursday through Monday. Information: www.californiacarnivores.com, (707) 824-0433.“The Dirt: Myths about man-eating plants – something to chew on,” by Ron Sullivan and Joe Eaton, Special to The San Francisco Chronicle, October 27, 2007