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?

April 1, 2011 - 3:57am
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