“The problem of the root” (Cryptobotany)


In 1924, the New York World ran a first-hand account of a young woman sacrificed to a carnivorous plant that resembled an oversized pineapple.

This death-by-tropical fruit tale began with German explorer Carl Liche foraging through the Madagascar jungle. Accompanying Liche was a companion, Hendrick, who went by one name in the sidekick tradition of Tonto, Robin, and Watson. This duo did the 1920s version of networking and enticed the cave-dwelling Mkodo people to help them hack and slice their way through their journey.

As penetrating thick vegetation by blade goes, it was going swimmingly enough until they stumbled upon the eight-foot pineapple lookalike. From the top sprouted eight slender leaves about 12 feet long, which were augmented by hook-shaped thorns. A culvert was filled with sweet liquid. Surrounding this receptacle were long, hairy tendrils, while the trunk was dark and very hard. The tribespeople then offered one of their women as a sacrifice to their delectable deity. She was forced to drink the liquid, which enraged the pineapple, who grabbed hold of the victim, suffocating, then consuming her.  

This tale was consistent with the yellow journalism era that favored massive headlines, minuscule fact-checking, imagination over investigation, and exaggerated artist’s renditions instead of photographs of the alleged subject.

At the same time, readers had also been entranced by tales of 800-pound hairy monsters and vine-shrouded lost cities that turned out to be gorillas and Mayan ruins, respectively. So why not a people-pulverizing pineapple? Believing that then would be different than swallowing it today.

Still, the Roaring Twenties forerunners of James Randi and Michael Shermer found reasons to disbelieve the tale beyond its fantastic nature and lack of corroboration. For one, Liche described perpetually-waving tendrils that are unknown to any plant species. Also, the murderous Madagascan monster was evolutionarily untenable. It would have needed to have been assembled by Victor Frankenstein’s botanist equivalent. Some of its specialized features are known in other plants, but no known member of the botanical world has all of them. In fact, this creature featured elements that came from different plant groups. It would be like an ape with wings. Such a combination could never emerge from random mutation and natural selection.

Multiple return trips failed to turn up a killer pineapple, nor even the tribe that had sacrificed one of their young maidens to it. It turned out the Mkodo were fabricated as well, and so too were their supposed travel companions, Liche and Hendrick. The story had been made up by the World’s Edmund Spencer.

This was the most well-known tale of people-eating plants. But there have been others, such as the Nicaraguan Vampire Vine, whose octopus-like appendages trapped its prey with rope-like roots and excreted a gum with a foul odor and taste. Combined with its victims’ screams, it repulsed all the senses.

Central and South America have also been the supposed location of trees who use either spikes or constricting branches to bleed or squeeze careless explorers or natives to their deaths. Also, a U.S. explorer in the Philippines reported that a tree hypnotized him with waving vines and was trying to lull him to his death. So much more subtle than the angry conifers in The Wizard of Oz.

Consistent with the region, India’s killer plant targeted not man, but his cows/reincarnated ancestors, using branches like arms to ensnare and kill its bovine prey.

There are carnivorous plants, of course, with the Venus Flytrap being the most well known. Plants, unlike animals, are capable of producing their own food and they soak up minerals from the soil. But in wet areas like swamps and bogs, plants sometimes lose potential minerals to running water. They adapt by becoming carnivorous so they can pilfer insect nutrients. Humans appear safe since the largest carnivorous plant, the Nepenthes vine, feasts on nothing bigger than frogs.

Another reason to not fear the plant world is that almost all carnivorous ones employ pheromones to lure their prey.  They would need to entice us by unleashing pizza aroma or by sprouting bulbs that resemble cheese quesadillas. Plus, multiple victims would have to fall for it over and over again, which would be as unlikely as repeated plunges into known crocodile watering holes. Moreover, a tree which has the ability to swing its vines or branches and use these supple appendages to pick up and destroy a human being is impractical.

While it may seem that I am typing the obvious, many of the subjects I write about feature implausible ideas that people subscribe to. This includes energy medicine, healing crystals, a flat (possible hollow) Earth, and Machu Picchu being built by tourists from Andromeda or Atlantis. I have yet to see a claim so baseless or extreme that it couldn’t find some believers. But when researching killer plants, I came across almost nothing. Whereas there are thousands of cryptozoology sites, there are less than 10 that address cryptobotany and I could find none where it is the main focus. Even those persons who seemed open to the idea mostly considered it intriguing, not realistic.

A good deal of my free time is spent writing this blog and otherwise promoting the skeptic movement. While it is a great passion, I would prefer to abandon it. I would love nothing more than for there to be a mass awakening that resulted in a fully-vaccinated, GMO-fed populace that realized it was the result of natural selection. I so much want to see the day when astronomy debates center on String Theory, not the shape, movement, or age of Earth.

But since this is not the case, I cannot feel too optimistic about the seeming lack of belief in trees, vines, and flowers that kill people, or at least dogs and monkeys. A few paragraphs back, I outlined some of the scientific reasons a man-devouring shrub was very unlikely. But cases just as strong are made against Bigfoot, so why are persons pursuing a bipedal ape, but not a bush that could devour it? Why are those who are fascinated by the notion of a living plesiosaur inclined to show little interest in real-life Audrey II? I think there are four reasons.

First, for the cryptozoology enthusiast, the thrill is the chase. With a man-eating plant, one could find it, but it wouldn’t be able to get away, so the chase is over. And since it’s stationary, it probably couldn’t even said to have been captured. Asserting there is a sustainable population of lumbering giant apes has also managed impregnable stealth is rather silly, but at least the beasts have locomotion that would make it possible for them to get away and hide. But a pernicious plant isn’t going anywhere.

A second reason the interest is so low is because cryptobotany is missing the out-of-focus photos, the videos shot through thick brush, and the contemporary anecdotes that populate cryptozoological circles. An alleged Bigfoot photo can be scoured for clues as to how its hair would have evolved, to estimate its height, or to proclaim it as proof it eats twigs and berries. But cryptobotancial images are limited to artist renderings that sometimes feature its shrieking human lunch. They are not purported to be the genuine article so there are no clues to search for, no reason to try and deduct what type of plant it might be or how it digests humans.  

Third, contemporary first-hand accounts are missing. Someone can claim a Bigfoot sighting and be believed and encouraged by his credulous cronies at cryptomundo.com. No further evidence will be requested. But if the same person claimed that on the way home, a cactus-like creature ate his goat, persons would ask where this stickered killer was and the claim would wither.

A fourth reason is that believers prefer their crypto critters to inhabit deep forests, rivers, or mountaintops, areas that are largely inaccessible to man. But this feature would doom a plant that munched on large mammals since prey would venture its way too seldom for it to avoid starvation.

For these reasons, belief in man-eating plants seems to be almost non-existent. Now back to work on making that the case for Reiki, chemtrails, and Tarot cards.




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