There have long been tales of mysterious monsters and entities prowling the wilds of our world, and these have become fixtures in the world of cryptozoology, or the search for hidden and undiscovered animals. Yet, there are often strange things just as unusual that lie within the realm of trees and plants, which are every bit as bizarre and inexplicable. At times these can include trees and plants that seem to be very dangerous indeed, and here we will take a detour off into the brush and deep forests of the remote areas of our world, in order to come face to face with deadly cryptid plants.
With many of the deadly mystery plants supposedly encountered by explorers throughout history, we have something with which it is difficult to separate fact from pure myth. This is surely the case with a type of legendary grass common in Irish lore that is known as féar gortach, or literally “Hungry Grass.” Often said to be cursed or under the influence of some sort of entity such as fairies, Hungry Grass was said to cause an insatiable hunger, possibly even starvation, and profound weakness in anyone who walked across it, with the only way to pass safely being to carry some food. In some versions of the tale this grass is somewhat snake-like, and will actively wrap itself around unwary passersby. The grass was also said to corrupt and eat other crops, and was so persistent in lore that it was blamed in part for the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s. In some areas, such as a place called Hungry Hill, the grass was supposedly so plentiful that it was considered to be a death sentence to venture there, with those who entered never returning.
There are numerous other mythical supposed man-eating plants that are similarly within the shadows of legend, any reality they have uncertain. One of these is the so-called “Man-Eating Lotus of Nubia," which was an enormous lotus tree renowned for its gorgeous flowers and also known to lure in prey with sweet, succulent fruit, only to lash out to kill and consume them. In an 1881 travelogue called Under the Punkah, explorer Phil Robinson told of how one of these man-eating plants had attacked his uncle. The uncle was reported as having emptied his firearm into the blood-thirsty tree, after which he had hacked away at it with a knife as it grabbed and stabbed at him with vines and branches. He was finally able to barely escape with his life, but one of his native guides had not been so lucky, and was devoured. Robinson described the Man-Eating Lotus:
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.
As similarly deadly flowering tree was known as the “Kumanga Killer Tree,” of Madagascar, which was first heard about by outsiders by the Czech explorer Ivan Mackerle in 1998. Natives claimed that this particular tree was found on only one part of the island and was said to have colorful 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.
Interestingly, Mackerle only chanced upon this supposed discovery because he was in the region looking for yet another legendary man-eating tree, originally known 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 one account created great interest in the possibility that such a tree existed, prompting several expeditions to the region looking for it, of which Mackerle’s was one of them. Unfortunately, he was never able to find it, and the Man-Eating Tree of Madagascar is largely confined to folklore.
Yet another supposed killer tree was first described in 1870 by the missionary Reverend Henry Callaway in his book The Religious System of the Amazulu. In the remote wilds of South Africa was said to lurk a tree or bush that the natives called the Umdhlebe, which was said to constantly be surrounded by the skeletons of the animals it consumed. It supposedly killed its prey through an extremely potent toxin, which could kill small animals such as birds instantly, and which had profound effects on humans as well. It was said that anyone approaching the tree would develop bloodshot eyes, fevers, and delirium, and if one were to get too close they would be stricken by a condition in which they would be unable to sleep or even sit down, and would pace relentlessly until they wasted away and died. Interestingly, the only way to cure this mystery sickness was supposedly to use the fruit of the tree to concoct a antidote, a feat which only a few could pull off.
Besides deadly trees, there have also been accounts of other types of predatory legendary plants, and one of the most frightening of these must be a vampiric, blood-drinking vine said to dwell in the deepest swamps of Nicaragua. 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. Another supposed predatory vine was also reported in 1852 from the impenetrable, uncharted rain forests of interior Africa. According to Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog, one newspaper report of the era described the bizarre plant as follows:
According to some Italian journals, a new organised being has been discovered in the interior of Africa, which seems to form an immediate link between vegetable and animal life. This singular production of nature has the shape of a spotted serpent. It drags itself along on the ground; instead of a head, it has a flower, shaped like a bell, which contains a viscous liquid. Flies and other insects, attracted by the smell of the juice, enter into the flower, and are caught by the adhesive matter. The flower then closes, and, remains shut until the prisoners are bruised and transformed into chyle. The indigestible portions, such as the head and the wings, are thrown out by two aspiral openings. The vegetable serpent has a skin resembling leaves, a white and soft flesh, and, instead, of a bony skeleton, a cartilaginous frame filled with yellow marrow. The natives consider it a delicious food.
Finally, we have the strange story of an apparent giant, man-eating flower supposedly native to the forgotten South Pacific 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. Indeed, is there any truth to any of these, or are they tall tales told by travelers and explorers? We may never know for sure, and such accounts will perhaps always instill bafflement and a sense of wonder at what lies out there in the wild places of our world.