It is well-known that carnivorous plants exist. Most familiar is the Venus flytrap, a toothy-leaved plant native to subtropical wetlands on the East Coast of the United States, which catches insects and spiders. Whilst strange for its flesh-eating inclination, there are rumoured to exist plant life even stranger and more bloodthirsty.
Throughout history there have been numerous reports of man-eating trees. However, it is the case of the monstrous Madagascar Tree which is most fantastical.
This case of bizarre botany began on 28th April 1874, when the New York newspaper, The World published a strange story. It related a discovery made by a German scientist, Karl Leche, and his companion Hendrick, whilst exploring the island of Madagascar. Most of the article consisted of a letter written by Leche in Zanzibar, which was sent to a colleague.
In his letter, the German botanist described how, after encountering a party of Mkodo tribespeople, he and Hendrick were invited to observe a sacred ceremony involving a tree.
Leche stated that the plant was “the most singular of trees”, describing it as being like a “pineapple”, around eight-foot-tall, thick at the base and with eight, large leaves. Each leaf was studded with hook-like thorns, which protected an oozing pool of thick, sweet liquid. Out the top of the grotesque-looking tree were long, writhing tendrils, which were “constantly and vigorously in motion, with […] a subtle, sinuous, silent throbbing against the air.” 1
The letter claimed that, upon reaching the tree, the tribespeople singled out one of their women, and forced her at javelin-point to climb the trunk of the tree up to one of the leaves. Visibly distressed, the woman reached one of the liquid pools, at which point she was commanded to “drink!” by those on the ground.2
On the ground below, the two men watched on in horror as the tribespeople chanted and cheered. According to Leche, it was after the woman drank the viscous liquid that,
“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 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.” 3
The article claimed that with astonishing speed the woman was consumed and entombed by the writhing tree.
“The great leaves slowly rose and stiffly, like the arms of a derrick, 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 thumbscrew.” 4
At the base of the tree, the tribespeople celebrated by drinking the mixture of “honey-like fluid”, and blood which oozed down the leaves and trunk. Those who consumed the hideous concoction were said to have turned “mad and frantic”, sending the entire gathering into “delirium”. Horrified, Hendrick pulled his companion away, and the two men fled.
Ten days later Leche supposedly returned to the monstrous plant to find that the leaves had opened, and that “nothing but a white skull” remained, all other traces of the victim erased.5
This story left many astonished. Over the next few months other newspapers around the world wrote about Leche’s discovery. Before too long the man-eating tree of Madagascar was notorious, with many wishing to prove – and indeed disprove – the existence of the alleged hideous plant.
In the years since, no one has been able to corroborate Leche’s story. In 1955, a science author condemned the entire case as a fabrication, which in turn has convinced others searching for an explanation. 6
Whilst the absolute truth of this ghastly tale may never be known, the existence of carnivorous plants is a certainty. Venus flytraps consume insects, pitcher plants have been known to consume birds and rodents, so – as weird as it may first seem – is a man-eating plant truly absurd?
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