When the Venus flytrap Dionaea muscipulawas first made known to botanists in the 1760s, they would not believe that it could actually catch and consume insects – until living specimens were observed in action. Moreover, reports have also emerged from several remote regions of the world concerning horrifying carnivorous plants that can ensnare and devour creatures as large as birds, dogs, and monkeys – and sometimes even humans!
Venus flytrap (Noah Elhardt/Wikipedia)
Once again, however, these accounts have been received with great scepticism by science – relegating them to the realms of fantasy alongside such fictitious flora as Audrey II, the bloodthirsty ‘Green Mean Mother’ star of the cult movie musical Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and its b/w non-musical predecessor from 1960. But could such botanical nightmares really exist?
A somewhat lurid illustration of an alleged man-eating plant from Strand Magazine, September 1899
Perhaps the most incredible case on file is one that first came to Western attention via an extraordinary letter allegedly received during the early 1870s (differing accounts give different dates) by Polish biologist Dr Omelius Fredlowski (sometimes spelt ‘Friedlowsky’). According to the letter’s contents, at least one Western explorer claimed to have witnessed an all-too-real, fatal encounter with a rapacious botanical monster (as portrayed vividly in the illustration opening this present ShukerNature article of mine) that would put even the worst excesses of Audrey II to shame!
The letter was from Carl Liche (also variously given as ‘Karl’ and as ‘Leche’ in a variety of combinations!), a German explorer who had been visiting a primitive tribe called the Mkodos on the island of Madagascar. While there, he and a fellow Westerner called Hendrick were shown a grotesque tree, which the Mkodos referred to as the tepe, and to which humans were sacrificed:
“If you can imagine 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, a dark dingy brown, and apparently as hard as iron. From the apex of this truncated cone eight leaves hung sheer to the ground. These leaves were about 11 or 12 ft long, tapering to a sharp point that looked like a cow’s horn, and with a concave face thickly set with strong thorny hooks. The apex of the cone was a round white concave figure like a smaller plate set within a larger one. This was not a flower but a receptacle, and there exuded into it a clear treacly liquid, honey sweet, and possessed of violent intoxicating and soporific properties. From underneath the rim of the undermost plate a series of long hairy green tendrils stretched out in every direction. These were 7 or 8 ft long. Above these, six white almost transparent palpi [tentacles] reared themselves toward the sky, twirling and twisting with a marvellous incessant motion. Thin as reeds, apparently they were yet 5 or 6 ft tall.”
Suddenly, after a shrieking session of prayers to this sinister tree, the natives encircled one of the women in their tribe, and forced her with their spears to climb its trunk, until at last she stood at its summit, surrounded by its tentacle-like palpi dancing like snakes on all sides. The natives told the doomed woman to drink, so she bent down and drank the treacle-like fluid filling the tree’s uppermost plate, and became wild with hysterical frenzy:
“But she did not jump down, as she seemed to intend to do. Oh no! 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 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. And now the great leaves slowly rose and stiffly 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.
“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 honeylike fluid mingled horribly with the blood and oozing viscera of the victim. At the 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 obtained enough of the liquor to send him mad and frantic. Then ensued a grotesque and indescribably hideous orgy. 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.”
Liche subsequently dubbed the tepe Crinoida dajeeana (after a fancied resemblance to the starfish-related crinoids or sea-lilies, and in honour of a noted Bombay physician, Dr Bhawoo Dajee), but he was not the only visitor to Madagascar to learn of this nightmarish species. Chase Salmon Osborn, Governor of Michigan from 1911-13, journeyed to Madagascar during the early 1920s in the hope of seeing for himself the terrible tree. Sadly for science (but perhaps fortunately for him!), he did not succeed in locating one, but he discovered that it was well-known to natives all over the island, and even some of the Western missionaries working there believed in its existence. He also claimed he had learnt that from the very earliest times Madagascar had been known as ‘the land of the man-eating tree’, which he used as the title of a book that he later wrote about his sojourn in Madagascar (though the tepe itself scarcely featured in it).
Artistic representation of the Madagascan man-eating tree or tepe (Tim Morris)
Nevertheless, there is much to doubt in Liche’s testimony regarding this herbaceous horror – not least of which is whether Liche himself ever existed! Eminent biochemist and cryptozoologist Dr Roy P. Mackal, now retired from the University of Chicago, devoted an entire chapter to the Madagascan man-eating tree in his book Searching For Hidden Animals (1980), but was unable to discover any background history concerning Liche, and even the original publication source of Liche’s letter remains a mystery.
No less controversial is the morphology of the man-eating tree, for Liche’s description brings together an extraordinary (and highly unlikely) collection of specialised structural features seemingly drawn from several wholly different, unrelated groups of plants. As Roy justifiably pointed out, such an amazing combination of characteristics could not reasonably be the outcome of effective evolutionary adaptation. Moreover, its ever-animate, writhing palpi are unlike any structure ever reported from any known species of plant.
Man-eating plant from the front cover of an issue of the fiction magazine Amazing Stories
Consequently, Roy dismissed the existence of Madagascar’s man-eating tree, at least in the form attributed to it by Liche. However, as he noted when concluding his chapter dealing with this lethal entity, Liche’s description may be a highly-embellished, exaggerated account of a real but smaller, less dramatic species of carnivorous plant native to Madagascar:
“It may well be that there existed or still exists an unknown relatively large carnivorous plant that has one or two of the adaptations described for trapping birds or other smaller arboreal creatures. There are still large forest areas, especially in the southeastern and south-central portions of Madagascar, that would be interesting to explore.”
Certainly, any region of the world that has offered up for scientific scrutiny as many truly unique, endemic species as this veritable island continent has already done must surely retain the potential for concealing some major biological surprises even today.
Another artistic depiction of the man-eating tree (artist unknown to me)
Indeed, there may even be some photographic evidence for the existence of such a plant. Czech explorer Ivan Mackerle is probably best-known in cryptozoological circles as the most famous modern-day seeker of the Mongolian death worm (click here for my ShukerNature article on this cryptid). However, he also has a longstanding interest in stories of mysterious flesh-eating flora, and in 1998 he led a month-long expedition to Madagascar, in order to investigate reports of the man-eating tree. Moreover, in a letter to me concerning this, Ivan included a truly tantalising snippet of information of which I was not previously aware.
Ivan Mackerle seeking the tepe in Madagascar (Ivan Mackerle)
In 1935, a former British army officer called L. Hearst apparently spent four months in Madagascar, and while there he took photographs of some unknown species of tree under which lay the skeletons of various sizeable animals. According to Ivan, these photos were later published somewhere, but he has been unable to find out where. Some scientists who saw the photos claimed that they were fakes, so Hearst returned to Madagascar to obtain more convincing proof, but died in mysterious circumstances.
This, at least, is the story that Ivan has pieced together, but he has been unable as yet to provide conclusive corroboration for it. So if anyone reading this ShukerNature article has any relevant information, or knows where the tree photos were published, I’d be very interested to receive details. As for Ivan’s own Madagascar expedition, he was unable to uncover any evidence in support of Liche’s claims. In a letter to me of 21 September 1998, Ivan wrote:
“We had taken a Malagasy guide and interpreter with us, who lives in Prague and knows Czech. And so we could speak with the natives about mysteries. We had travelled all over the country, mainly in the south region. It is interesting, but no-one had known anything about the man-eating tree. Neither people in town (botanists, journalists, etc) nor natives. They had heard only about pitcher plants. Natives know killer trees but no man-eating ones. The story of Karl [sic] Liche is unknown there. We spoke with many botanists. I could not believe it, because I had supposed that it was a widespread legend there. But killer trees are also very interesting. Many of them are little-known or unknown to science. We found the killer tree ‘kumanga’, which is poisonous when it has flowers. We took gas-masks for protecting ourselves, but the tree did not blossom at that time. We had seen a skeleton of a dead bird and a dead turtle [tortoise] under the tree. The tree grows only in one place in Madagascar and it is rare today. It was difficult to find it.”
So it would appear that even though the man-eating tree is seemingly non-existent, Madagascar can still tantalise mainstream botany, courtesy of the kumanga killer tree. As Ivan’s team encountered it, this mystifying species clearly exists – but what can it be, and is it truly capable of achieving the lethal effects claimed by the local people? Mindful that a number of harmless plants on Madagascar have been accredited with all manner of sinister talents in Malagasy folklore, it would hardly be surprising or unprecedented if the kumanga’s deadly tendencies owe more to imaginative fiction than biological fact. Conversely, I have so far been unable to determine the kumanga’s taxonomic identity – could it therefore be unknown to science, echoing Ivan’s above-quoted words? There are evidently some notable mysteries of the cryptobotanical kind still awaiting resolution on the exotic island of Madagascar.
It’s behind you!! Me standing bravely in front of a truly gargantuan pitcher plant statue in a park in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Dr Karl Shuker)
Of particular interest in relation to the Madagascan man-eating tree is a claim published in 1888 within the second issue of the magazine Current Literature by its founder, Frederick Maxwell Somers. Namely, that the entire tale of the tepe was nothing more than an inventive work of fiction penned several years earlier by journalist Edmund Spencer, who wrote for the New York World, which just so happened to have been the first media publication to report Liche’s man-eating tree account in an exclusive article published on 28 April 1874. And certainly, it is true that no evidence for the ertswhile existence of any of the story’s protagonists – Liche, Fredlowski, the Mkodos – has ever been unearthed by investigators of the Madagascan man-eating tree. Unfortunately for the credibility of Somers’s claim, however, the same is also true regarding Edmund Spencer! So do we have a genuine hoax here, or do we have a hoaxed hoax?
Moreover, in a further and highly unexpected twist to the long-running saga of Madagascar’s missing man-eating tree, Canadian researcher W. Ritchie Benedict revealed in 1995 that he had uncovered a published but hitherto-unpublicised Canadian newspaper account (The Watchman, New Brunswick, 29 May) regarding this cryptobotanical wonder dating back to 1875, and which indicates an origin for it not in Madagascar but in New Guinea!
How ironic it would be if the reason why the greatest mystery plant of all time has never been scientifically exposed is that everyone has been looking for it on the wrong island!
1887 illustration of the reputed ya-te-veo from Central America
For many more mystery plants of prey – including a reputed Central American equivalent of the Madagascan man-eating plant, called the ya-te-veo – check out my book The Beasts That Hide From Man (Paraview, 2003), which contains the most comprehensive coverage of such plants ever published.
Official poster featuring Audrey II for the 1986 film musical Little Shop of Horrors (Warner Bros)