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Madagascar's Legendary Man-Eating Tree

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It's probably one of the most fantastical tales in all of botany: the legend of the man-eating tree. First reported in 1881 by a German explorer named Carl Liche, it was said to be a sacred and much-feared plant used in sacrifice rituals by the native Mkodo tribe. The South Australian Register printed his account of a first-hand encounter with the Mkodo and their fearsome tree:

"From the top of the tree sprout long hairy green tendrils and a set of tentacles, constantly and vigorously in motion, with ... a subtle, sinuous, silent throbbing against the air. [Presented a woman as offering], 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."

Forty years later, a former governor of Michigan turned explorer named Chase Osborn wrote about the tree in his book Madagascar, Land of the Man-Eating Tree, confirming Liche's claims and adding that other tribes as well as missionaries also knew about the tree.

So where are these amazing and terrible trees? Are they so rare? Or have they simply been victims, like much of the lush, green canopy that once covered Madagascar, of deforestation? Unfortunately, the answer is none of the above -- the whole thing was a hoax. It was debunked in 1955 by a science writer named Willy Ley, who discovered that not only were the tribe and the tree made up, but so was the German explorer who supposedly found them. Still, that hasn't stopped sci-fi writers from inventing a whole host of carnivorous plants to take its place (think Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors or the bushy villains from Day of the Triffids). Still, I think the fact that people were willing to believe this outlandish story for nearly 70 years says something about human nature. Some strange part of us wants there to be giant man-eating trees somewhere in the world.

Why do you think that is?

Also: it's purely coincidence that I'm posting this on April Fool's Day ... but it's kind of appropriate, no?

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
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While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, right?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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science
Belly Flop Physics 101: The Science Behind the Sting
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Belly flops are the least-dignified—yet most painful—way of making a serious splash at the pool. Rarely do they result in serious physical injury, but if you’re wondering why an elegant swan dive feels better for your body than falling stomach-first into the water, you can learn the laws of physics that turn your soft torso a tender pink by watching the SciShow’s video below.

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