A picture in J.W. Buel’s Land and Sea (1887) shows a person in the toils of a Ya-te-veo (“I can see you”), a carnivorous plant said to grow in parts of Central and South America, with cousins in Africa and on the shores of the Indian Ocean. It illustrates a description given to the author by “a gentleman of my acquaintance, who, for a long time, resided in Central America.” The following is his account:
“Travelers have told us of a plant, which they assert grows in Central Africa and also in South America, that is not contented with the myriad of larger insects which it catches and consumes, but its voracity extends to making even humans its prey. This marvelous vegetable Minotaur is represented as having a large, thick trunk, from the top of which radiate giant spines, narrow and flexible, but of extraordinary tenaciousness, the edges of which are armed with barbs, or dagger-like teeth. Instead of growing upright, or at an inclined angle from the trunk, these spines lay their outer ends upon the ground, and so gracefully are they distributed that the trunk resembles an easy couch with green drapery around it. The unfortunate traveler, ignorant of the monstrous creation, which lies in his way, and curious to examine the strange plant, or to rest himself upon its inviting stalk approaches without a suspicion of his certain doom. The moment his feet are set within the circle of the horrid spines, they rise up, like gigantic serpents, and entwine themselves about him until he is drawn upon the stump, when they speedily drive their daggers into his body and thus complete the massacre. The body is crushed until every drop of blood is squeezed out of it and becomes absorbed by the gore-loving plant, when the dry carcass is thrown out and the horrid trap set again.”
A type of vine in the swamps of Nicaragua, which devours small animals and will even try to capture men, was described in the Illustrated London News (27 August 1892). Dr Andrew Wilson, in a later column, reported on a carnivorous tree discovered on the edge of the Sierra Madre in Mexico. It had slimy serpentine branches which it wrapped round its prey. It seemed to live mostly on birds, for the ground beneath it was covered with little bones and feathers, and it accepted gifts of live chickens, ingesting their blood through suckers on its tentacle-like branches. But it did not refuse larger game, for when Dr Wilson’s informant touched it, one of the branches grabbed his hand, and it was only with painful loss of skin that he was able to break free.
In 1924 a former Governor of Michigan, Chase Salmon Osborn, published a book called Madagascar, Land of the Man-eating Tree. He dealt with the tree in Chapter 1, the rest of the book being a general account of the topography, history, and folklore of this huge East African island. The best evidence he found of the tree’s existence was a letter, written in 1878 by Carle Liche, a German traveler, to a Polish friend, Dr Fredlowski. The letter was published over the next few years in a number of journals and newspapers, but nothing more was ever heard of Liche, nor his companion, one Hendrick. Osborn printed the letter in full, in all its flowery, gory detail. the following is a summary.
Liche and Hendrick had made friends with a reclusive tribe of cave-dwelling pygmies called the Mkodos, and were invited by them to attend a sacrifice. They went deep into a forest and stopped at a clearing by a bend of a steam, where grew the dreaded tree. Its trunk was bout 8 feet tall, brown, iron-hard an shaped like a pineapple. From its top grew eight leaves, each of up to 12 feet in length, which dropped limply to the ground. Their exposed inner sides were covered with spikes like the hooks of a teasel. a bowl-like growth on the apex of the tree held some sticky intoxicating liquid, and from below the bowl a number of green, hairy tendrils, about 7 or 8 feet long, stuck out stiffly in all directions. Also from the top grew six tall, thin palpi, whitish or transparent looking, which waved about in the air in a sinister way, like serpents.
The victim about to be sacrificed to the tree was a young woman. With shrieks and chantings the Mkodos forced her to climb its trunk and stand on top of it. They then urged her to drink of the treacly liquid in the bowl. No sooner had she done so than the sinuous, waving palpi began to coil themselves round her limbs and body. The tendrils quickly jerked upwards to hold her in a firmer grip, and then the great leaves gradually rose up, enclosing over the body of the wretched girl and pressing tightly together so that her blood mingled with the sweet, intoxicating fluid from the tree, flowed down the trunk.
On seeing the liquid, the Mkodos rushed up to the tree and began drining the grisly flow, gathering up in cups, leaves and bare hands or lapping it with their tongues from the trunk. they became at once frantically intoxicated and began a “grotesque and indescribably hideous orgy” – at which point Liche and Hendrick made excuses and left. In the days that followed they kept the tree under regular observation. For ten days after its meal the leaves remained upright, after which its various members returned to their previous positions. At the foot of the tree was a new, white skull.
Despite its weakness as evidence and its lack of information on where exactly in Madagascar the tree was supposed to grow, Governor Osborn was impressed by this report. He traveled the thousand-mile length of the island and went across it many times, and everywhere he went he heard stories about the terrible man-eating tree. But he never managed to see it. All the tribes knew about it, and some of the local missionaries found reason to believe in it too, but no one would show him a specimen. He returned to America empty-handed, but not disillusioned about the possible existence of Madagascar’s man-eating tree. of the pygmy Mkodos there has since been neither trace nor record.
In defense of his notion Osborn pointed out that Madagascar has been known from ancient times as the Land of the Man-eating Tree. Much of the island was then still unexplored, and the only imporbability about the man-eater was its size, which as Osborn observed, “is not always a safe measuring standard of values.” He described a similar plant, but on a smaller scale, which he had seen in London.
“At the London Horticultural Hall in England there is a plant that eats large insects and mice. Its principal prey are the latter. The mouse is attracted to it by a pungent odor that emanates from the blossom which encloses a perfect hole just big enough for the mouse to crawl into. After the mouse is in the trap bristle-like antennae infold it. Its struggles appear to render the Gorgonish things more active. Soon the mouse is dead. Then digestive fluids much like those of animal stomachs exude and the mouse is macerated, liquefied and appropriated. This extraordinary carnivorous plant is a native of tropical India. It has not been classified as belonging to any known botanical species.”
The closest any currently existing carnivorous plants get to fitting the above descriptions are those belonging to the, increasingly rare, genus Nepenthes. These are large and vine-like, and grow in Malaysia, northern Australia and Madagascar. It is not unusual for them to capture frogs, and less commonly, they consume birds and rodents – although these are almost certainly sick animals unable to put up much of a struggle. If there are such things as man-eating plants, the natives of the places where they grow might have good reason for not revealing them to outsiders, and botanists who came across specimens, and examined them too closely, might find themselves in no position to report on them. Whether or not this plant will ever become available for scientific study, we feel that its legend will continue to flourish. We knew in childhood the terror of dark woods, from which claw-like branches seem to reach out to grab the passer-by, and we have often seen this illustrated – notably by Arthur Rackham. It is that image of universal imagination which ensures the survival of the man-eating tree.