"Vicious Vegetables and Flowering Fiends"

Investigation by Dr. Abner Mality

The Good Doctor has always considered himself a medical man, but lately I'm thinking of exploring the world of botany. I'm developing a bit of a green thumb and I'd like to take up gardening. First, though, I need to get a thorough background in HORROR-culture. Perhaps using human remains as fertilizer will promote growth and thereby increase crop yields, thereby insuring world peace? Just imagine it, Dr. Abner Mality...Nobel Peace Prize winner! And people think I'm crazy...

Well, every dream has to start somewhere. Being the inquisitive fiend I am, I've always been interested in the darker side of the vegetable world and that's what we'll be taking a look at in this edition of The Wormwood Files. Nope, no mere daffodils and peonies for me. I am more interesting the possibility of MAN-EATING plants.

Do such things exist? They've always been a vital part of science fiction and horror. I can name a lot of sci-fi classics where vicious vegetation has played a strong role. The original THING in the 1951 classic of the same name was a humanoid plant that used fresh blood to nurse its seedlings...touching, eh? How about the monstrous TRIFFIDS in the movie and TV miniseries "Day of the Triffids"? Radiation from a meteor shower turned harmless plants into ambulatory killers that preyed upon a devastated humanity. In the obscure 50's flick "The Woman Eater", a mad scientist brought back a man-eating tree from darkest Africa and kept it well fed with a steady stream of attractive girls.

And of course who could forget the ULTIMATE man-eater of the movies, the amazing AUDREY II from "The Little Shop of Horrors"? This overgrown flytrap not only ate everything in sight, but it demanded to be fed in a loud singing voice .

So man-eating plants have a long and venerable tradition in popular fiction. But does the fiction have any root (pun intended) in reality? That, humanoids, is what we shall be examining in this article.

To be sure, there ARE plants that are carnivorous and devour living animals, but those animals are mostly insects and very small mammals and birds. No known species is even close to being able to subdue and eat a human being...no KNOWN species. The first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of carnivorous plants is the famous Venus Flytrap. This hungry feller is actually found right here in North America (in the Carolinas, in fact) and, while not extremely common, is not all that rare, either. In fact, there have been certain "fad" periods where kids adopted flytraps like pets, feeding them bits of hamburger (and nothing more, hopefully). It is often difficult to keep a Flytrap in good condition, as they require very specific types of soil and watering. The previously mentioned Audrey II was basically a gigantic parody of a Venus Flytrap.

Somewhat less known are pitcher plants. These odd plants grow leaves that form a literal pitcher where water collects and forms a reservoir. An alluring scent draws insects to the water...when they land on the leaves, they find it impossible to get a grip on them and they sink into the water, where they drown. At the bottom of the pitcher, digestive juices from the plant break down the dead body into tasty nutrients.

Another variety of carnivorous plant is the sundew. The sundew has many small, sticky tentacles sticking up from a central plant mass. When a bug is attracted to the sundew's scent and lands on that central mass, the sticky tentacles close on the insect by reflex, trapping it there. The bug is then slowly broken down by acid and the nutrients absorbed by the plant.

In the case of each of these plants, it must be stated that none of them actually have animal intelligence or abilities. Other than the ability to eat meat, they remain 100% vegetable, with no animal characteristics.

OK, so carnivorous plants exist. But how about ones capable of devouring a human being? Well, for over a hundred years now, there are have been rumors, stories and legends of a horrific tree on the island of Madagascar that uses tentacles to trap and digest human beings. The graphic account of this man-eating tree was supposedly written by a German explorer named Carl Liche in 1878 and given to one Dr Omelius Fredlowski, a Polish scientist, who distributed it to several scientific and popular publications. Searches for the original printings of this tale have been impossible to find, which is not a surprise considering that many consider Liche's tale to be a complete hoax.

Liche's story was a gruesome, rip-roaring tale of wild adventure featuring a crazed tribe of pygmies and wild orgies as well as the terrible tree. Some have likened it to a "tall tale" spread by a real-life "Colonel McBragg" (remember this cartoon character known for outrageous lies and exaggerations from the old Underdog show?). We'll look at the authenticity of the story later, but right now, let's focus on Liche's story of the tree itself. Now remember that this took place in the late 19th century, a time when vast parts of the world were still unknown and exotic species were still being discovered regularly.

Liche and an expedition had ventured into the trackless and wild jungles of Madagascar, where they encountered a primitive and uncouth race of pygmies known as the Mkodos. Liche described them as being entirely uncivilized and devoid of clothing or buildings. The Mkodos accompanied the expedition to a remote lake in a God-forsaken valley, where they pointed out an extremely bizarre plant in the middle of a clearing which they called "Tepe". I will now give Liche's description of the Tepe tree in his own words:

"If you can imagine a pineapple eight feet high and thick in proportion resting upon its base and denuded of leaves, you will have a good idea of the trunk of the tree...From the apex of the truncated cone at least two feet in diameter, eight leaves hung sheer to the ground, like doors swung back on their hinges. These leaves, which were joined at the top at regular intervals, were about eleven or twelve feet long and shaped very much like the leaves of the American agave or Century plant. They were two feet thick at the thickest point and three feet wide..."

"The apex of the cone was not a flower but a kind of receptacle and into it exuded a clear treacly liquid, honey sweet but possessed of violent intoxicating and soporific qualities...From underneath the rim, a series of long hairy green tendrils stretched out in every direction toward the horizon. These were seven or eight feet long and tapered from four inches to a half inch in diameter yet they stretched out as stiffly as iron rods, Above these six white, almost transparent palpi reared towards the sky, twiling and twisting with a marvelous incessant motion, constantly reaching upwards. Thin as reeds and frail as quills, they were five or six feet tall and were so constantly and vigorously in motion, with such a subtle, sinuous, silent throbbing against the air, that they made me shudder in spite of myself..."

Liche's fear of the plant was well founded, for now unfolded a horrible scene of sacrifice and debauchery. As the Mkodos chanted, a female native was forced at spearpoint to climb the Tepe tree until she reached the "receptacle" portion. The natives then demanded that she drink the clear fluid flowing from the plant, which she did. In prose that would do H. P. Lovecraft proud, Liche then described the horrifying scene that followed:

"The atrocious cannibal tree that had been so dead and inert now came to sudden savage life! The slender delicate palpi, with the fury of starved serpents, quivered a moment over her head and then with demoniac intelligence fastened on her in sudden coils around her neck and arms. Then while her awful screams and still more awful laughter rose wildly to be instantly strangled down again into a gurgling moan, the tendrils one after another, like green serpents, with brutal energy and infernal rapidity rose, then retracted themselves and wrapped about her in fold after fold, ever tightening with cruel swiftness and the savage tenacity of anacondas fastening upon their prey!"

After the victim had been squeezed to death by the tendrils, the giant leaves slowly folded upwards upon their hinges, forming a huge closed bulb. Between the leaves, though, poured more of the clear fluid "mingled horribly with the blood and oozing viscera of the victim." Liche continues the nightmarish scenario: "At sight of this, the savage hordes around me, yelling madly, bounded forward and crowded next to the tree, clasped it, and with cups, leaves, hands and tongues each one obtained enough of the liquor to send him mad and frantic. Then ensued a grotesque and indescribably hideous orgy...May I never see such a sight again!"

Liche's story struck Europe like a thunderbolt. The monster tree of Madagascar was the talk of the Continent. The more sensationalist magazines and papers ran wild with the story. Established scientists and botanists, though, were not only unimpressed but thoroughly contemptuous of the story. They demanded that Carl Liche be found and interrogated by a respectable scientific board concerning the Tepe tree. But Liche was never found. A more thorough investigation of the story revealed that the Mkodo people were unknown to anyone, although they bear a certain resemblance to a lost tribe of Madagascar pygmies known as "Kimos".

Several expeditions to the island have failed to produce anything resembling the Tepe tree. The only thing even a little bit close is the giant "corpse lilly", also known as rafflesia, the world's biggest flower. This weird giant is distinguished by huge fleshy petals reaching up to three feet in diameter. The plant is also known for smelling like rotting meat...the stench attracts insects who help it pollinate. Hence its attractive nickname. But even though it is surely one of the world's strangest plants, there is nothing carnivorous or dangerous about it. Most researchers have concluded that Carl Liche's story of the man-eating Tepe tree is a hoax or a gross exaggeration of some much smaller carnivorous plant.

There have been other reports of fearful flora throughout the years. The Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico were supposedly the home of a "snake-tree" whose tentacle-like branches crushed any creature unfortunate enough to land on them. The branches were covered by octopus-like suckers which tore open the skin of the victim so the tree could nourish itself on blood. The dead body would then be dropped to the ground, where its decay would further enrich the soil. But the report of the "snake-tree" was even more dubious than Liche's story of the Tepe. Even the name of the explorer who encountered it was unknown.

Nicaragua was the site of another killer plant, according to a story which appeared in the Illustrated London News of 1892. The story told how a naturalist named Dunstan found his dog entangled in a network of sticky roots. To his horror, he found it very hard to yank the yelping animal from the roots and when he did so, he saw chunks of the dog's flesh gouged out by the plant. Dunstan then took a knife to the roots: "In cutting the vine, the twigs curled like living, sinuous fingers around his hand and it required no slight force to free the member from their clinging grasp, which left the flesh red and blistered." The natives of the area were very familiar with the hideous vines and deathly afraid of them.

These "vampire vines" of Nicaragua have also never been found. However, one wonders if they perhaps may simply be a type of vine covered with extremely nasty thorns. If the vines grew together into a mat and some animal, even some human being, fell into the midst of them, it may very well seem like they were alive, even though they were not capable of movement. The existence of such a plant seems much more feasible than the Tepe tree or the Mexican snake-tree. And remote corners of tropical Nicaragua may yield such exotic and extremely rare species that could be limited to a very small area.

In the later half of the 20th century, no further reports have come from the world's forests and jungles concerning man-eating plants. Indeed, the forest seems to be in full retreat across the globe. If any such bizarre botanical discoveries are yet to be made, they will come soon. The plants will simply have nowhere left to hide.

For now, though, I must reluctantly conclude that carnivorous plants capable of snacking on foolish human travellers are nothing more than legends. It seems like some real life Colonel McBraggs got excited by native stories and decided to spin a good yarn or two. I could only wish that such vicious vegetables really lived. Imagine how much easier raising a garden would be if the carrots ate the rabbit instead of the other way around!!!

This is Dr. Abner Mality, turning out the lights.