A man-eating tree is a carnivorous tree (or plant) that allegedly captures, ingests, and digests humans (or large animals) for its nutritional needs.
Botanists have documented more than 600 carnivorous plant species that can capture and digest animal tissues, but no plant species ingest humans or large animals.
However, folklore, legends, and myth from many parts of the world claim that carnivorous plants that capture or swallow humans for food exist.
A man-eating plant could be a tree, a giant shrub, a flowering plant, or a plant with a climbing stem, such as a vine.
The man-eating tree of Madagascar
People have shared horror stories of man-eating trees for generations.
However, one of the earliest documented references to a man-eating tree or plant was a made-up story by Edmund Spencer published in the New York World on April 26, 1874 (Dr. David Galbraith, Royal Botanical Gardens, 2020).
Spencer’s account was in the form of a letter from the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar by Karl Leche, a fictitious German explorer.
Leche wrote that he and his companion, Hendrick, encountered a fictitious tribe in Madagascar known as the Mkodo, who sacrificed people to a carnivorous tree.
According to Leche, the man-eating tree of Madagascar, nicknamed Crinoida Dajeeana, is about 8 feet tall and resembles a giant pineapple plant (Ron Sullivan and Joe Eaton, SFGATE, 2007).
It has gigantic leaves resembling the leaves of an agave plant (Agave americana).
The leaves are about 11-12 feet long. They have edges lined with hooked thorns. The upper part of the tree bears tendril-like structures and tentacles. The tentacles move continuously in sinuous undulations and capture victims by coiling around them.
Leche: The Mkodo sacrificed a woman to the man-eating tree
The fictitious Leche then narrates how the Mkodo selected a woman and forced her to climb to the top of the man-eating tree.
Before the sacrificial ritual started, she drank a sweet-tasting liquid derived from the plant’s leaves.
While the Mkodo chanted, the tree’s anaconda-like tentacles grabbed the screaming woman by winding tentacles around her. It strangled the woman and then proceeded to ingest her.
19th-century newspapers spread rumors of a man-eating tree
Several other new outlets, including the South Australian Register, reprinted the man-eating tree of Madagascar story. The newspapers did not make clear to readers that it was fiction, so many believed it was true.
In the 1890s, the American explorer Frank Vincent traveled to Madagascar to find the species.
According to David Galbraith in an article published in the Royal Botanical Garden, people continued believing the story was true even after investigators had debunked it. As late as the 1930s, people were considering organizing expeditions to find the fictitious man-eating plant.
Chase Osborn, a former Michigan governor and author of Madagascar: Land of the Man-eating Tree (1924), also believed the story. He cited Spencer’s account in his book.
The legend of yateveo
The yateveo plant is a carnivorous tree allegedly native to South America and Africa.
In Sea and Land (1889), James W. Buel describes the yateveo as a predatory plant with a sturdy trunk. It captures prey with poisonous tentacles resembling giant serpents.
The plant makes hissing sounds and stretches out to grab prey when they come within reach. It sucks the blood out of the victim before disgorging the bloodless carcass.
The Nicaraguan Devil’s Snare
The Devil’s Snare is an alleged Nicaraguan man-eating plant.
In 1891, the British journalist William Thomas Stead published an article in the journal Review of Reviews describing the alleged species.
Stead claimed to have sourced his information from a report by an alleged naturalist, Mr. Dunstan of New Orleans. According to Stead, Dunstan described a plant native to a swampy region of Nicaraguan in an article published in the journal Lucifer.
While Dunstan searched for plant specimens in the Nicaraguan swamp, the alleged carnivorous plant trapped his dog in tendril-like structures and killed it by draining its blood.
Dunstan reportedly said that the tendrils had tiny suckers that stuck to the skin, and it was impossible to extricate the victim without tearing off their skin or flesh.
Sightings and Tales
Known carnivorous plants
Man-eating trees or plants are unknown to science. However, many species of carnivorous plants ingest and digest animal tissues for nutrition.
The plants have active mechanisms that trap and digest prey. However, most carnivorous plant species only ingest small invertebrate animals, especially arthropods, such as insects and arachnids (spiders).
Most carnivorous plants rely on ingested animal tissues for only part of their nutritional needs. They may generate their energy requirements from photosynthetic activity but rely on carnivory to supplement their nitrogen needs.
Botanists proposed that the carnivorous lifestyle is a survival strategy adopted by plants growing in areas where the soil is poor in nitrogenous nutrients.
We shall briefly describe two representative carnivorous plants:
The Venus flytrap (Dionaea Muscipula) is one of the best-known carnivorous plants. The plant is native to parts of North and South Carolina.
It uses the protein from animal tissues to supplement its nitrogen requirements when growing on nutrient-poor soil. The plant traps insects and arachnids (spiders) using structures that are part of its leaves. Tiny hair-like structures trigger the trapping mechanism.
When a prey lands on the Venus flytrap’s leaves, it comes in contact with the hair-like structures that prime the trapping mechanism. The mechanism requires a second contact shortly after the first for activation.
Once the plant traps an insect, glands on its leaf surface secrete juices that digest it.
The cobra lily (Darlingtonia Californica) or California pitcher plant is a carnivorous plant species native to the swampy mountainous areas of northern California and southern Oregon.
The plant grows on nutrient-poor soils, such as bogs and swamps. It uses its carnivorous lifestyle to supplement its nitrogen needs.
The plant has hooded leaves that resemble a pitcher. The resemblance to a cobra poised to strike explains why the plant is called a cobra lily.
The plant attracts insects to draw nectar. The insect approaches the mouth of the pitcher and enters the hollow leaf structure.
The hollow structure’s translucent walls confuse the insect, so it does not know how to escape after entering. The slippery walls of the pitcher also make it hard for the insect to escape.
After struggling for a long time, the insect gets exhausted and falls into the fluid at the bottom of the pitcher.
Unlike the Venus flytrap, cobra lilies don’t secret digestive juices. The bacteria content of the fluid at the bottom of the pitcher helps digest the insect and prepare it for absorption.
Butterworts (Pinguicula Moranensis) is a carnivorous plant native to Guatemala and Mexico. The plant’s leaves have glands that secrete a sticky substance that draw and trap insects, arachnids, and other small arthropods.
The secretion also digests the trapped prey to derive nutrients. The plant’s carnivorous diet supplements its nutritional requirements in poor soil.
|Other Name/s||Crinoida Dajeeana, Devil Tree of Magadascar, Devil's Snare|
|Habitat||Forest, Marsh, Mountains, Swamp|
Where to find
Madagascar: Land of the Man-eating Tree (1924).
Sea and Land by James W. Buel (1889).
https://www.rbg.ca/the-man-eating-tree-of-madagascar/, “Botanical fiction: The man-eating gree of Magadascar,” accessed on March 19, 2023.
https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-mythical-maneating-plants-that-paved-the-way-for-little-shop-of-horrors, “The Mythical Man-Eating Plants That Paved the Way for ‘Little Shop of Horrors’,” accessed on March 19, 2023.
https://www.sfgate.com/homeandgarden/article/The-Dirt-Myths-about-man-eating-plants-3236037.php, “The Dirt: Myths about man-eating plants – something to chew on,” accessed on March 19, 2023.
https://books.google.ca/books?id=T_ZYAAAAYAAJ&dq=%22current+literature%22&pg=PA154&hl=en&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false, “Wonderful stories: The man-eating tree,” accessed on March 19, 2023.
https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/39810790?searchTerm=man-eating%20tree%20madagascar&searchLimits=l-title=41, “The man-eating tree of Magadascar,” accessed on March 19, 2023.
https://hatch.kookscience.com/wiki/Crinoida_Dajeeana,_the_Devil_Tree_of_Madagascar, “Crinoida Dajeeana, the Devil Tree of Madagascar,” accessed on March 19, 2023.
https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/gory-details/anemone-eats-bird-and-other-surprising-animal-meals, “Anemone eats bird, and other surprising animal meals,” accessed on March 19, 2023.
Featured Image: The man-eating tree are alleged carnivorous plants that consumes humans. Pic credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain