We live in a world full of plants. Our’s is a green planet, one full of countless species of plant life that thrive in every corner of the world. From the hottest rain forests to deserts, to some of the most inhospitable places on Earth, plants have managed to adapt and take hold. Even in the coldest of Arctic tundra, one can find lichens clinging to the landscape. Indeed, plants are some of the most adaptable forms of life on the planet.
Surrounded by so much diverse flora, most of us probably think we have a good idea of what makes a plant a plant. They absorb water and sunlight, they utilize photosynthesis, they seed, pollinate and grow. They certainly don't move or attack things.
Yet, some forms of plant life defy expectations. These are the plants that feed on other animals, ingesting meat just as an animal would. Many people have heard of the Venus flytrap eating flies or the pitcher plant devouring insects or even small animals such as mice, but there have long been stories of mysterious and terrifying plants in the dark corners of the world for which that is not enough. From the far flung, remotest edges of the planet come accounts and stories of plants that feed off of dogs, deer, monkeys, and indeed even human beings. These are the plants that haunt the forests of the Earth and our nightmares as well, the ones no one wants in their backyard.
Let us take a tour of these carnivorous enigmas of nature that inhabit the dim forests and jungles of the world.
Madagascar is purportedly home to at least two distinct types of mysterious carnivorous flora. Perhaps the most well known comes from an old account brought back from the deepest jungles by the German explorer Carl Liche in 1878. The account describes in horrific detail the sacrifice of a village woman of the Mkodo tribe to a giant flesh eating tree. In a letter published in The South Australian Register in 1881, Liche described the unsettling scene that unfolded before him and his cohort, a man only known as Hendrick. Liche writes:
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 itself was described as being around 8 feet in height, and having an appearance reminiscent of a pineapple, with eight long, pointed leaves that hung down from its top to the ground. The trunk of the tree was topped with a sort of receptacle that contained a thick liquid said to have soporific qualities that drugged potential prey and was believed to be highly addictive. Surrounding this receptacle were long, hairy tendrils with six white palpi resembling tentacles. The tree possessed white, transparent leaves that reminded Liche of the quivering mouthparts of an insect.
This graphic account has inspired several expeditions to Madagascar in search of the tree. One such expedition was undertaken by Chase Salmon Osborne, the governor of Michigan from 1911 to 1913, who went to the jungles of Madagascar to search for the man-eating tree. Although he was unsuccessful in his efforts to locate it, he did find both natives and Western missionaries that claimed to have seen it and that it did in fact exist.
Another expedition was launched in 1998, this time by Czech explorer Ivan Mackerle. This expedition could not locate the elusive tree either, but during his travels Mackerle learned of yet another carnivorous tree on the island referred to as the Kumanga Killer Tree. Natives claimed that this particular tree was found on only one part of the island and was said to have flowers that exuded an extremely poisonous gas. The natives claimed to know where such a tree was and guided Mackerle to its location.
During the trek, the expedition members were so concerned about the poisonous nature of the plant that they actually wore gas masks. When they arrived at the alleged Kumanga Killer Tree, they found no gas spewing flowers, but did find several animal skeletons under the tree. The lack of flowers, the natives explained, was due to the tree not being in bloom.
Mackerle also uncovered a story of a former British army officer who allegedly took photographs of a tree on the island that had various animal skeletons strewn about its base. Whether this particular tree was either one of the aforementioned carnivorous trees or something new is uncertain. It is also unknown what became of these photographs, or if indeed they ever existed at all.
From the swamps of Nicaragua comes the rather bizarre account of the elusive and terrifying vampire vine. The vine is referred to by the natives as "The Devil's Snare," and is described as being rather like an octopus in appearance. The plant was described by one naturalist by the name of Mr. Dunstan, who came face to face with its horrifying nature while spending two years studying the plants and animals of the region.
In the account, Dunstan claimed to have come across the plant while in a swamp region near Lake Nicaragua. Dunstan, who was collecting plant and insect specimens in the area, suddenly heard his dog let out a high pitched whine of terror, pain, or both. Dunstan allegedly hurried to the source of the cries and found his dog enveloped by a network of rope-like roots and fibers. These fibers were of a dark, nearly black hue, and were covered with a thick gum that seemed to exude from some sort of pores. This gum was reportedly extremely adhesive and had a foul, animal odor. The ensnared dog struggled within this fibrous network and was wailing as if in a great deal of pain.
Once the startled Dunstan was able to recover from this gruesome sight, he tried desperately to cut the dog free with his knife, but found the vines to be surprisingly difficult to cut and to his horror found that the plant's rope-like tendrils actively wrapped and curled themselves around his hands like sinuous fingers. Dunstan was able to extricate the animal only after an enormous amount of effort and he noticed that the grasping vines had left the skin of his hands red and blistered. He also noticed to his amazement that the dog was bloodstained and covered in spots that seemed puckered as if they had been sucked. The dog, though still alive, was extremely disoriented and had difficulty walking.
The naturalist told the natives of his encounter and they explained that the vine was well known and feared in the area, warning him to stay well away from it. Undaunted, Dunstan tried to collect more information on the bizarre vine, but found it to be very difficult to approach or handle. However, through his observations he deduced where the plant's remarkable suction abilities derived from and how it fed. He reported:
"The plant's power of suction is contained within 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. A lump of raw meat being thrown to it, in the short space of five minutes the blood will be thoroughly drunk off and the mass thrown aside. Its voracity is almost beyond belief."
Dunstan also described how the plant was extremely hard to get off once it latched on, and could only be pulled away with a great deal of effort and possibly lost skin. He eventually gave up his studies on the vampire vine and very little else is known about it.
Central America is purportedly home to a vicious man-eating tree known as the yate-veo tree. The tree is said to have long spikes which it uses to impale its victims, whereupon it absorbs the victim's blood. The spikes or spines have dagger-like thorns around their edges and hang down to the ground, where they lay hidden and still until prey comes along. When an unsuspecting victim steps among these barbed shoots, they spring to life and energetically impale them. The victim's blood is then drunk through the trunk of the tree.
Other carnivorous plants have been reported from Mexico. In the Sierra Madre area, a tree was reported that allegedly had branches with a slimy, snake-like appearance. One witness described seeing a bird land on one of the unusual branches and promptly be pulled down into a mass of other such branches. Indeed, the base of the tree was said to be littered with the bones and feathers of other unfortunate birds. When the branches were touched by one witness, they were found to snap down on the hand with enough force to tear skin away.
Another account from Mexico was described by the explorer Byron Khun de Prorok in the Chiapas region in southern Mexico. While trekking through the jungle, he came across a giant plant which had impaled a bird upon large thorns covering its leaves. Native guides referred to the plant as the "plante vampire."
The jungles of South America hide several types of mysterious carnivorous plant. From Brazil come accounts of what is called "The Brazilian Devil Tree," which is reportedly found in the Mato Grosso region. The tree is said to hide its branches in the leaves and undergrowth of the forest floor or sometimes even underground. When a victim passes, the branches reportedly wrap around and slowly constrict the victim to death.
Another plant reportedly found in the very same region is known to have sweet tasting berries in order to lure prey, said to consist of mostly birds. When a bird tries to eat the berries, branches snap around the unsuspecting prey and crush it against the trunk to kill it, after which the blood is sucked from the body at the plant's leisure and the body discarded.
Also from Brazil, near the border with Guyana, comes the story of the "Monkey Trap Tree," which was described by the explorer Mariano da Silva. This plant's preferred prey was said to be, as the name suggests, monkeys that were attracted by an irresistible scent exuded by the tree. The tree then enveloped the monkey with large leaves and digested the body over a period of several days, after which the bones were dropped to the forest floor.
In Argentina and Bolivia, another such plant can be purportedly be found in the Chako forest region. In this case, masses of beautiful flowers are said to hang down from the canopy which exude a powerful sleeping agent. Prey is paralyzed by this poisonous perfume and subsequently drained of blood via suckers contained within the flowers themselves. The plant is said to feed on all manner of large animals, and supposedly even human beings.
While exploring in the Mindanao region of the Philippines, a planter from Mississippi reportedly came across a 35 foot tall tree with a dark gray color that was 80 to 100 feet in diameter, surrounded by bones and emitted a foul smelling odor like carrion. He noticed a human skull lying beneath the tree, and went to investigate it when his guide suddenly stopped him and pointed at the tree in a panic. That was when the horrified planter realized that the tree was reaching for him.
The account appeared titled as “Escaped From the Embrace of the Man-Eating Tree,” in the American Weekly, Jan. 4, 1925 where it was written thus:
The whole thing had changed shape and was horribly alive and alert. The dull, heavy leaves had sprung from their compact formation and were coming at him from all directions, advancing on the ends of long vine-like stems which stretched across like the necks of innumerable geese and, now that the old man had stopped his screaming, the air was full of hissing sounds. The leaves did not move straight at their target, but with a graceful, side-to-side sway, like a cobra about to strike. From the far side, the distant leaves were peeping and swaying on their journey around the trunk and even the tree top was bending down to join in the attack. The bending of the trunk was spasmodic and accompanied by sharp cracks.
The effect of this advancing and swaying mass of green objects was hypnotic, like the charm movements of a snake. Bryant could not move, though the nearest leaf was within an inch of his face. He could see that it was armed with sharp spines on which a liquid was forming. He saw the heavy leaf curve like a green-mittened hand, and as it brushed his eyebrows in passing he got the smell of it — the same animal smell that hung in the surrounding air. Another instant and the thing would have had his eyes in its sticky, prickly grasp, but either his weakness or the brown man’s strength threw them both on their backs. The charm was broken. They crawled out of the circle of death and lay panting in the grass while the malignant plant, cracking and hissing, yearned and stretched and thrashed to get at them.
When reached for comment at the time by naturalist Williard Clute, the author of this peculiar tale insisted that the story was true and that the tree did in fact exist.
A bizarre report comes from Padrame, India, where in 2007 a farmer's cow was reportedly attacked by a carnivorous tree. On 18th October 2007, villager Anand Gowda took his cowherd to graze in the forests near the village, when one of the cows was suddenly grabbed by branches and unbelievably pulled from the ground.
When Gowda shouted for help, other villagers allegedly converged on the scene armed with knives and axes and proceeded to hack at the tree until it let go of the cow. Apparently this sort of carnivorous tree is known to locals and is called the pili mara, or "tiger tree."
Somewhere in the South Pacific lies the forgotten islet of El Banoor, a place said to be home to a man-eating flower known only as "The Death Flower."
The flower's existence is mostly known of through the 1581 account of the explorer Captain Arkwright, who wrote of it in his journals of his travels. He described the plant as basically a huge, brightly colored flower with very large petals. The flower reportedly could release a soporific, sleep inducing aroma, whereupon the victim would lie down upon one of the petals. Once this happened, the flower would close and digest its sleeping prey alive.
It seems like a fascinating account, but since it is only one report and the location of El Banoor is not specifically explained, it seems unlikely we will ever know for sure just how much veracity the account holds.
The idea of such carnivorous plants as these is perhaps rightly and understandably met with a great deal of skepticism from the scientific community. These accounts describe some behaviors that no plant should be capable of exhibiting and the reliability of such reports is at times questionable. Yet nevertheless, the idea of aggressive, man-eating plants lying coiled in the dark jungles of the world, ready to ensnare their prey, holds a certain fascination.
We already know of carnivorous plants that do exist and although most prey on insects, some of these, such as some of the larger pitcher plants of the genus Nepenthes are on occasion known to ingest prey as large as rats or lizards. Could there be something larger and deadlier out there in the remote areas of the world? Perhaps time will tell. Until then, we can only imagine what this green planet of ours hides within its jungles and forests.