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Depiction of a native being consumed by a ya-te-veo ("I see you") carnivorous tree found in both Africa and Central America, from Sea and Land by J. W. Buel, 1887
|Region||Africa and Central America|
|Habitat||African and Central-American forests|
Man-eating tree can refer to any of the various legendary carnivorous plants large enough to kill and consume a person or other large animal. The carnivorous plant with the largest known traps is probably Nepenthes rajah, which produces pitchers up to 41 cm (16 in) tall with a volume up to 3.5 litres (0.77 imp gal; 0.92 US gal). The pitcher of this species are designed to trap arthropods such as ants. However, the same bait may also attract rodents like the summit rat (Rattus baluensis) and the Mountain treeshrew (Tupaia montana). Only very rarely will the rodents fall into the large pitchers of this species. Other large carnivorous plants that have similar properties include Nepenthes robcantleyi and Nepenthes attenboroughi.
The Madagascar tree
The earliest well-known report of a man-eating tree originated as a literary fabrication written by Edmund Spencer for the New York World. Spencer's article first appeared in the daily edition of the New York World on 26 April 1874, and appeared again in the weekly edition of the newspaper two days later. In the article, a letter was published by a purported German explorer named "Karl Liche" (also spelled as Carl Liche in later accounts), who provided a report of encountering a sacrifice performed by the "Mkodo tribe" of Madagascar: This story was picked up by many other newspapers of the day, including the South Australian Register of 27 October 1874, where it gained even greater notoriety. Describing the tree, the account related:
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.
The tree was given further publicity by Madagascar, Land of the Man-eating Tree, a book by Chase Osborn, who had been a Governor of Michigan. Osborn claimed that both the tribes and missionaries on Madagascar knew about the hideous tree, and also repeated the above Liche account.
In his 1955 book, Salamanders and other Wonders, science author Willy Ley determined that the Mkodo tribe, Carl Liche, and the Madagascar man-eating tree all appeared to be fabrications.
The Nubian tree
Phil Robinson, writing in Under the Punkah (1881), related the tales of his "uncle's" travels throughout the world. He described a "man-eating tree" that was to be found in "Nubia". In the tale, Robinson's uncle describes the tree:
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.
The story continues in describing how the tree captured and ate one of the uncle's native companions, and how the uncle proceeded to shoot at the tree. When his ammunition was finally exhausted, the uncle continued his work using a knife to destroy the tree, as the tree fought back with its blood-sucking leaves, and entangling limbs.
In J. W. Buel's Sea and Land (1887), the ya-te-veo ("I-see-you") plant is described as being native to Africa and Central America, and having "stems" that resemble "many huge serpents in an angry discussion, occasionally darting from side to side as if striking at an imaginary foe," while attempting to consume humans.
The vampire vine
William Thomas Stead, editor of Review of Reviews, published a brief article that discussed a story purportedly found in Lucifer magazine, describing a plant in Nicaragua called by the natives the devil's snare. This plant had the capability "to drain the blood of any living thing which comes within its death-dealing touch." According to the article:
Mr. Dunstan, naturalist, who has recently returned from Central America, where he spent nearly two years in the study of the flora and the fauna of the country, relates the finding of a singular growth in one of the swamps which surround the great lakes of Nicaragua. He was engaged in hunting for botanical and entomological specimens, when he heard his dog cry out, as if in agony, from a distance. Running to the spot whence the animal's cries came. Mr. Dunstan found him enveloped in a perfect network of what seemed to be a fine rope-like tissue of roots and fibres... The native servants who accompanied Mr. Dunstan manifested the greatest horror of the vine, which they call "the devil's snare", and were full of stories of its death-dealing powers. He was able to discover very little about the nature of the plant, owing to the difficulty of handling it, for its grasp can only be torn away with the loss of skin and even of flesh; but, as near as Mr. Dunstan could ascertain, its power of suction is contained in a number of infinitesimal mouths or little suckers, which, ordinarily closed, open for the reception of food. If the substance is animal, the blood is drawn off and the carcass or refuse then dropped.
An investigation of Stead's "review" determined no article was published in Lucifer magazine about such a subject, and the story in Review of Reviews appeared to be a fabrication by the editor.
- "The Purple Terror" (1899) by Fred M. White is a man-eating tree and the story was collected with the relevant section of Phil Robinson's book, The Man-Eating Tree (1881), in Flora Curiosa: Cryptobotany, Mysterious Fungi, Sentient Trees, and Deadly Plants in Classic Science Fiction and Fantasy (2008, ISBN 193058556X). This anthology also includes H. G. Wells' "The Flowering of the Strange Orchid" (1894) about an orchid capable of consuming a human.
- In Francis Stevens' story "The Nightmare" (1917), the flora on the mysterious island includes man-eating plants.
- Edward Gorey's 1966 illustrated work The Evil Garden features hapless guests trapped in a garden, with some of its members attacked and eaten by, among other things, giant carnivorous plants.
- Piers Anthony's fantasy novels of Xanth (1977 onward) has stories of carnivorous "tangle trees" (or "tanglers"). The trees magically create easy, open paths leading to them; their tentacles then catch animals (and people) that approach too closely.
- In the fantasy novel Beyond the Deepwoods (1998), the first story in Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell's The Edge Chronicles series, the protagonist Twig encounters a man-eating tree called a bloodoak. A parasitic symbiotic plant, known as the tarryvine, snares victims and then drags them to the bloodoak, where they are devoured.
- In the fantasy adventure novel Life of Pi (2001), a shipwrecked boy lands on an island inhabited by meerkats, but notices that every night all the animals climb atop the trees. He later discovers that the entire island is carnivorous.
- In "The Sagebrush Kid", a short story in Annie Proulx's Fine Just the Way It Is (2008), a childless Wyoming couple transfers their affections first to a piglet, then a chicken, and finally to a sagebrush they fancy has the appearance of a child. They tend and protect it, and even feed it bones and stray scraps of meat from their dinner table. Even after the couples' deaths, the shrub - now grown to the height of a fair-sized tree - is accustomed to human attention, and meat. It consumes livestock, then soldiers, then a local medico, railroad men, surveyors, and most lately a botanist come to investigate its unusual height and luxuriance.
- In the dystopian novel Shades of Grey 1: The Road to High Saffron (2009), the first book in Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey series, carnivorous trees are mentioned.
- In the Star Trek novel Planet of Judgment by Joe Haldeman, the flora on a planet includes a carnivorous plant capable of engulfing and digesting an adult human. After a crewman (named Hevelin) is attacked, the rest of the away team tries to cut him out of the plant, but is too late. The description of the aftermath reads "Hevelin's body looked like a botched autopsy."
- In the 2005 film The Brothers Grimm, there are Man Eating Trees lurking in the Forest of Marbaden.
- Shuker, Karl (2003). The Beasts That Hide From Man. Paraview. ISBN 1-931044-64-3.
- McPherson, S.R. 2009. Pitcher Plants of the Old World. Redfern Natural History Productions Ltd., Poole.
- Phillipps, A. 1988. PDF (203 KB) Carnivorous Plant Newsletter 17(2): 55.
- Spencer, Edmund (August 1888). "Wonderful Stories, The Man-eating Tree". 1 (2). Current Literature. Retrieved 2013-07-01.
- Spencer, Edmund (April 26–28, 1874). "Crinoida Dajeeana, The Man-eating Tree of Madagascar" (PDF). New York World. Retrieved 2013-07-01.
- Ron Sullivan and Joe Eaton (October 27, 2007). "The Dirt: Myths about man-eating plants - something to chew on". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2007-10-26.
- Spencer, Edmund (October 27, 1874). "Man-eating Tree of Madagascar". South Australian Register. Retrieved 2013-07-01.
- Pollak, Michael (2014-08-15). "Answering a Question About a Tale of Human Sacrifice to a Tree". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-09-16.
- Tyson, Peter. "A Forest Full of Frights, part 2". The Wilds of Madagascar. Nova Online.
- Osborn, Chase Salmon (1925). Madagascar, Land of the Man-eating Tree.
- Ley, Willy (1955). Salamanders and other Wonders. Viking Press.
- Robinson, Phil (1881). Under the Punkah. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington.
- Richard Astro (1976). Literature and the Sea: Proceedings of a Conference Held at the Marine Science Center, Newport, Oregon, May 8, 1976. Oregon State University, Sea Grant College Program.
- Buel, James William (1887). Sea and Land: An illustrated history of the wonderful and curious things of nature existing before and since the deluge. (PDF). Toranto: J.S. Robertson & Brothers. pp. 475–477.
- Stead, William, ed. (October 1891). "The Vampire Vine". Review of Reviews. London: Mobray House. IV (22): 391. Retrieved 30 September 2013.
- "A Cannibal Plant". The Western Druggist. Chicago: G.P. Englehard & Co. XIV (3): 93. March 1892. Retrieved 30 September 2013.
- Coleman, Loren (6 September 2008). "Cryptobotany Fiction: Flora Curiosa". Cryptomundo. Retrieved 9 May 2014.
- Maunder, Patricia (21 January 2009). "Fine Just the Way It Is: Annie Proulx (review)". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 18 March 2010.
- Ron Carlson (7 September 2008). "True Grit". New York Times. Retrieved 18 March 2010.