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Mysterious Tales of Murderous Trees

On this verdant, fertile planet of ours trees are all around us, and for the most part they have been more or less considered by most to be merely a part of the scenery, a sea of tranquil green amongst which we live. No one usually gives much thought to trees, and they are certainly not typically considered to be particularly threatening, insidious, or deadly. Yet sprinkled throughout history there have been accounts of some trees that defy this trend, to lurch forth to not only instill fear, but to kill. These are the mysterious trees of the world that seem to refuse to be just part of the background, and which seem to have a thirst for blood. These are the trees which menace the world around them and hold the rather bizarre reputation of being sinister bearers of death that are so much more than just a collection of branches, leaves, and a trunk.

Stories of murderous trees can be found from all over the world and come in a variety of forms. One very peculiar account comes from 1885, when a German expedition to New Guinea, under the command of a Lieutenant von Immer Gassende and joined by a prestigious Dr. Kummel, came across a singularly strange and potentially deadly tree in the thick, mosquito infested jungles there. The expedition reportedly made anchor off the coast of Cape Della Torre and proceeded to push inland through dank, swampy jungle, tribes of hostile natives, and swarms of venomous creatures. After a grueling 12-day journey of slogging through nearly impenetrable vegetation, harrowing encounters, and numerous hazards to climb up to an elevation of around 5,000 above the surrounding sea of green they finally encountered open, almost park-like areas which made the trek much easier than it had previously been. Spookily, it was noticed that this new country brought with it its own set of problems, as the compass started to go haywire in a manner that Gassende described as “utterly drunk.” There were also eerily several skeletons of animals scattered about the clearings and the curious absence of the usual incessant drone of the jungle.

Throughout the whole journey Dr. Kummel had purportedly been tirelessly poking around in the wilderness looking for new animal and plant specimens, and during this respite from the claustrophobic walls of underbrush and trees which had been enveloping them the entire way he came across a rather large tree looming in a clearing the likes of which he had never seen before, which was ringed by a series of strange buttress-like outgrowths that protruded from the ground. It was certainly a new species of some sort, but of what type he could not ascertain. At one point, one of the men took a casual chop at one of these outgrowths with his machete and this is where things got odd indeed.

The haphazard chop broke off a chunk which proved to have a strange black core in its center. Dr. Kummel, who had never seen anything like it, excitedly ran over to pick up the specimen and as he did he suddenly cried out in pain and “rolled head over heels” to slump to the ground in a daze. When other expedition members asked him what had happened he groggily explained that as he had picked the piece up it had jolted him with a rather potent electric shock. Another of the men, perhaps skeptical of the claims, also tried to pick the piece up and experienced the same thing, being thrown roughly to the ground by a severe shock amidst gasps of surprise. By this time Gassende had approached and decided to try an experiment. He took a length of copper wire and placed one end on each side of the black core, which generated a violent reaction by powerfully deflecting the wires aside with a “considerable current.” Gassende would later say of the strange tree:

Every branch and every twig of the tree, which I can assure you we treated with much respect, presented similar ridges and cores, with the addition of a thicker central one, and I quickly proved that the current circulated through the entire system. How it is kept up, no one at present can tell; but there it is. I am not able to say what the intensity or the quantity of the current might have been, but it was enough to knock you down in a very unpleasant way. We made a lot more experiments on the tree, and would have cut it down but it seemed like a dangerous job to undertake. We saw a great many more of the same kind farther on, quite a forest, in fact.

Unfortunately, the expedition was forced to return to their ship when Gassende came down with a vicious, life-threatening fever, and no further investigation into the strange electric trees could be made. He did claim that he had taken back samples from the trees, including pieces of the wood, core, and some seeds, although it is unclear of what became of them. Dr. Kummel would later speculate that the strange trees had been the culprit behind the scattered skeletons and the clearing of the land, as they had with their electric shocks killed anything that came or grew too close, and he would christen the new species Elassia electrica. Considering that there is nothing quite like this in the known plant world it would be quite an amazing discovery indeed, yet we are left with nothing but these unverified accounts.

It is unclear if the alleged electric tree of New Guinea was actually carnivorous or just lashed out with its deadly powers for defensive purposes, but another supposed killer tree most certainly does actively hunt and kill its victims. Tucked within the remote wildernesses of Mexico is said to be a type of predatory tree known as the “Snake Tree.” This mysterious type of tree is said to grow to a height of around 20 feet tall and has a massive, gnarled and twisted trunk. The entirety of the tree is said to be completely devoid of any foliage, and it is supposedly decked out with slimy, snake-like branches that are covered in tiny suckers and which blindly writhe about in all directions and constantly coil and uncoil like restless, hungry serpents. When a bird or other small animal comes near the tree, it purportedly lashes out to surround the prey with a web of these tentacles and proceed to suck it dry of all its blood, after which it will cast off the desiccated remains to the ground to add to the piles of bones and skulls that are said to surround these horrific trees.

Although the Snake Tree seems to mostly feed off of smaller animals, there is at least one account of one of the trees trying to attack a human being. In a report from 1890, a botanist rode out into the Mexican badlands to search for unique or unusual specimens. During his trek, he came across the tree and witnessed a bird land upon it to be violently entwined in the deadly, serpentine branches and pulled within the mass of tentacles to disappear from sight. The horrified but curious botanist then crept closer and would later report of the tree and its subsequent attack on him:

I approached as closely as I dared and examined the tree. It was low in size, not more than 20 feet, but covering a great area. Its trunk was of prodigious thickness, knotted and scaly. From the top of the trunk, a few feet from the ground, its slimy branches curved upward and downward, nearly touching the ground with their tapering tips. Its appearance was that of a gigantic tarantula awaiting its prey. On my venturing to lightly touch one of the limbs, it closed upon my hand with such force that when I tore it loose the skin came with it.

Another rather foul-tempered tree was reported from the wilderness of the state of Arizona, in the United States, where there was said to reside a tree that seems to have had a rather bad attitude. In 1894 there was a report from Arizona that spoke of a tree that reportedly seemed to be of a “coniferous species,” standing at a height of around 25 feet and with long, slender quills like those of a porcupine. When in a relaxed state, the quills lay close to the branches, and there was said to be a rather sweet, pleasant odor exuded from it. However, if the tree was agitated in any way its quills were said to rise up straight, and the attractive aroma was replaced with an odiferous stench. This was said to happen particularly often if a dog got anywhere near it, and other wildlife such as bears, mountain lions and wolves were said to steer well clear of it. If one were to get close even in the face of this intimidating display it was said to actually “rip and tear” at its enemies to maim or kill, and it is was also reported to be incredibly resistant to physical damage from machetes or guns. One Col. Brace Dion would say of the bizarre tree:

There are more queer things to the acre in Arizona than in any other part of this wide land, and according to my idea, and I know pretty near what queer things are, the queerest thing in all Arizona is the tree that has a temper worse than a blonde comic opera prima donna’s, and gets its dander up with just as small a provocation. Some folks out at Houck’s Tank call this tree the porcupine tree, and some say its right name is skunk tree. I call it the holy terror tree. But no matter what you call it, it is a queer job of nature, and Arizona claims it as her own.

A rather bizarre and vicious tree of some sort was also apparently discovered in the northern part of Hawaii in 1895. An English botanist was apparently exploring the region when he entered a ravine that his local guide showed a clear aversion to going into. Thinking this to be all superstitious nonsense, the botanist kept on into the unknown and came across a circular hole of sorts that was reported as being around 100 yards in diameter. Scattered around this depression was purportedly the macabre sight of a circle of bleached bones comprised of animals, birds, and even human beings, and it was noticed that no other vegetation grew anywhere within 50 feet of it. The center was occupied by a “well-like” opening in the ground, from which crept tendrils of some sort of smoke or gas.

With the coming of darkness and the guide’s desperate pleas that they leave at once, the botanist was forced to retreat and wait until the next day to explore this curiosity. When he left the next day, he did so as the guide performed some sort of ritual to protect him from harm, which he ignored before pushing out once more into the jungle towards that strange depression in the ground that he had seen. As the botanist trekked through the wilderness he reportedly came across a wall of lava, next to which loomed a 12-foot high mass of green that was described as looking like seaweed, with a ring of animal bones around it and which possessed “fine streamers” radiating from it. When the botanist moved he made the unsettling observation that all of the streamers perked up and aimed in his direction before seeming to creep closer.

Thinking that this was all rather threatening, the botanist began to back away from the bizarre tree, but as he did he slipped and fell backwards. As he did, he reported that something hissed loudly and struck him “so violently on the crown of his heavy felt hat that he lost consciousness.” When he came to, he reported that he saw a long, snake-like object twisting about on the rocks, and that a “low, angry hum filled the air.” He never did establish a connection between this incident and the sinister, bone ringed depression he had found, and he never did make it back to that place to find out, instead opting to get out of there as quickly as possible. It is certainly a weird tale, and one wonders just what he actually encountered out there in that jungle.

There is a certain feel of high adventure and mystery to many of these tales, with explorers to strange, faraway exotic lands encountering these bizarre killer plants hiding within the dim recesses of uncharted forests lost to civilization. Another such tale concerns a deadly tree that supposedly existed on the island of Java, in the East Indies, which was known as the Bohon Upas, with “upas” being the Javanese for “poison,” or more ominously and spectacularly known to the West as “The Hydra Tree of Death.” One of the first mentions of this tree in the West comes from an account by the French Catholic traveller Friar Jordanus, who in the 14th century wrote of trees in Java that produced flowers that exuded a noxious, poisonous cloud that would kill anything that came near them. Sporadic reports of such malevolent trees came from travelers over the centuries and considering the exotic, remote location of these reports the idea of mysterious murderous trees in the jungles of Java took hold in the imagination of Westerners, for whom many Java was still a wild, untamed land.

The tale of the Bohon Upas really took off and gained popularity in the 18th century, when a German doctor named J.N. Foersch claimed in a 1783 article of The London Magazine that he had collected several first-hand accounts of these killer trees when he had been stationed in the Dutch East Indies as a surgeon, and that he had decided to mount a daring expedition to find them for himself. In his account Foersch claimed that there was only one of these trees known to exist, and that he had found it out in the jungles tucked away within a secluded area surrounded by high hills. According to him, the tree lived up rather quite well to its deadly reputation. The land around it for up to 12 miles was apparently completely devoid of all vegetation, not even a single blade of grass, and every animal that entered was purportedly quickly overcome and smothered by a noxious gas “like the putrid steam of a marshy cavern,” with birds that flew into the bleak, poisonous zone spontaneously dropping dead in midair.

The Bohon Upas

Foersch claimed that he had circumnavigated this deathly desert and come across an old hermit who lived on the fringes of this wasteland, who claimed that he was stationed there in order to provide equipment and last rites to the criminals he said were sent to the tree in order to attempt to gather its potent resin. The old hermit explained that these criminals accepted the task in lieu of a direct death sentence, and that before they entered the barren ring of death surrounding the tree they would dress in protective gear consisting of “a long leather cap, with two glasses before their eyes, which comes down as far as their breast,” as well as sturdy gloves, after which they would venture forth towards the lone tree, which was the only splash of green in a sea of brown and dead, bloated  carcasses. According to the hermit, only one in ten of these poor souls made it back alive, the rest doomed to drop and rot away on that deathly tundra to wait for others to join them. According to Foersch, the toxic resin was collected from the tree to be used for the purpose of executing criminals, and he even claimed to have witnessed the poison used in this way on at least one occasion, saying that the victims died writhing and contorting in great agony.

As incredible as this account is, there were doubts that this tree ever existed, with some botanists at the time claiming that such a tree was impossible, and although the general public ate up this tale of adventure and exotic danger, serious scientists at the time largely scoffed at Froesch’s report, although not all. Even today Foersch’s account is often blamed for perhaps being an exaggerated tale that embellished certain grains of truth. For instance, there is indeed a tree the locals call the upas, which does indeed produce deadly poison that they use for poison tipped arrows, but the tree does not produce deadly airborne clouds that kill anything near it, with its odor actually being quite harmless. It has also been pointed out the barren circle of death surrounding the tree and the rumors of fatal fumes could have been the result of the area being plagued with toxic gasses generated by an extinct volcano called Guava Upas, which had a crater that spewed carbonic gas and sulphur that indeed snuffed the life out of any creatures that ventured too close, littering the valley with skeletons. The idea of men going into this wasteland to gather the tree’s resin may also have originated from the locals who risked their lives to gather sulphur from the volcanic crater. It is unknown whether the Bohon Upas tree ever really existed or not, but it is an intriguing tale nevertheless.

Another poisonous killer tree similar in some respects to the Bohon Upas was alleged to exist in the uncharted wildernesses of Zululand, South Africa in the 19th century. Called the Umdhlebi or also Umdhlebe, as well as the more straightforward “Tree of Death,” this tree was said to look similar to an aspen, and to use potent poisonous gas in order to kill animals, supposedly for the purpose of using their rotting carcasses to fertilize the soil around it. According to reports, the trees were usually found to have piles of skeletons and animal carcasses in various stages of decomposition scattered about the trunk, and while in a calm state the trees would be safe to approach, they could deal out a sudden lethal cloud that could drop any animal within seconds if triggered or provoked. Explorers who got too close to the Umdhlebi trees reported a wide range of unpleasant symptoms from this poison, such as chills, headaches, bloodshot eyes, severe pain, rashes, abdominal swelling, diarrhea, fever, delirium, and of course, death. Additionally, it was said that if the characteristic thick, double layered bark was cut it would release an aggressively caustic liquid akin to acid that could burn skin and melt objects. Its wood was also said to be quite toxic, and that if it was accidentally used as firewood it would produce overpowering, often fatal fumes. Some accounts claim that these trees could actually uproot themselves and move from place to place when the prey of an area got scarce.

Interestingly, one of the only known antidotes to the tree’s poison was said to be its own fruit, which were a sinister glossy red and black in color, and which on appearance looked to be just as deadly as anything else about the trees. Also of interest is that several explorers and botanists, such as the missionary Henry Callaway and botanist William Turner Thiselton-Dyer, made a direct comparison between the Umdhlebi and the Bohon Upas, even going so far as to suggest they may be related species. Unfortunately, other than anecdotal accounts from missionaries and explorers there is no other evidence to prove the existence of these mysterious trees, and no specimen has ever been found to be scientifically studied or verified.

One murderous tree that is quite likely rooted in pure myth, yet curious nonetheless, is a vampiric tree long said to haunt the wilds of Japan. It was said that in places where there had been bloodshed a strange tree would sprout up in the blood-soaked ground to feed, especially where dead bodies were left to lie, such in battlefields or places of execution. Called the Jubokko, this vampiric tree was said to be disguised as a normal tree, with only its telltale finger-like leaves and piles of bones surrounding it to identify it as something more sinister. Far from completely satisfied with just lapping up the blood of the slain or executed, it would supposedly reach out to grab and entangled those who got too close, and any victim which was ensnared by the Jubokko was said to have their skin pierced by the tube-like branches and their blood completely drained from their bodies to leave a withered, lifeless husk. Displaying a sort of ruthless cunning, the tree was believed to intentionally grow amongst other normal trees in order to lie in wait for unwary passersby.

The Jubokko

Other stories surrounding the Jubokko say that when they are cut or a branch is broken off of them they will bleed red blood, and that if one is lucky enough to escape its clutches this blood has powerful medicinal qualities. It was also believed that the Jubokko healed remarkably quickly from any damage inflicted upon it, with gashes and gouges quickly fading. Other powers sometimes attributed to the menacing trees are the ability to cloud and confuse the mind, as well as the ability to speak with other plants. There are also traditions that say that the Jubokko started out as normal trees, but were warped and twisted by the blood saturated ground and the terror and agony of the dead permeating where they grew. While mostly regulated to the realm of pure folklore, here we have another mysterious tree which might have at least a partial basis in fact, for instance it could have originated with a red-sapped species that happened to be found growing near places where bloodshed had occurred. Did anything like this ever really exist? Real or not, the Jubokko has certainly made a dark place for itself in the spooky lore of Japan.

It may not ever be clear if any of the killer trees we have looked at here ever really existed or not. None of them has ever been collected or brought to the scrutiny of mainstream science, so we are left to merely speculate and wonder. However, what we can be sure of is that the idea of trees lurking within the dark wildernesses of the remote regions of our world that harbor the means to lash out and kill have a powerful place in tradition and the human psyche. There is something alluring, some macabre curiosity, in the notion that these organisms, which are mostly thought of as just peaceful background scenery, can strike out to deal death to those who would approach them. The idea of predatory trees is an unsettling and eerie one, and whether they really exist or not it certainly makes one wonder what sorts of wonders and horrors lie out there undiscovered in the wilder parts of our green planet.

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  • mph23

    Great article. Interesting that the accounts are all from the 18th and 19th centuries…Well after the 1st wave of European exploration/conquest, but also well before the modern era of the 20th-21st centuries.

    Plant toxins are extremely dangerous, as are out gassings from volcanic vents. Also, there are carnivorous plants. But they are tiny, and eat bugs. I have seen red sap too. Can’t remember what the tree is called, but it does look like blood when you cut into the living wood. Some species grow so fast they could be said to “move” too. Look at bamboo in an ideal setting. Speaking of bamboo, I’ve read (and seen on Mythbusters, lol) that growing bamboo was used to torture people. You’d tie your victim down over a few sprouts, and in a few days, it’d grow through them, impaling them most painfully.

  • Michael Ishida

    Fear the Widowmaker. Thanks again for another entertaining article Brent. I especially enjoy the illustrations.