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FEB 1 2 1! 
IeB 1 1 1975 

kc 4 n' 

L161 — O1096 

Carnivorous Plants 


"Th^ Man-Eating Tree'' 




^^ 0^"^"" SOPHIA PRIOR 

Leaflet 23 




The Botanical Leaflets of Field Museum are designed to give 
brief, non-technical accounts of various features of plant life, especially 
with reference to the botanical exhibits in Field Museum, and of the 
local flora of the Chicago region. 


No. 1. Figs $ .10 

No. 2. The Coco Palm 10 

No. 3. Wheat .10 

No. 4. Cacao 10 

No. 5. A Fossil Flowrer 10 

No. 6. The Cannon-ball Tree ^i. -10 

No. 7. Spring Wild Flowers ' .25 

No. 8. Spring and Early Summer Wild Flowers . . .25 

No. 9. Summer Wild Flowers ; .25 

No. 10. Autumn Flowers and Fruits 25 

No. 11. Common Trees (second edition) 25 

No. 12. Poison Ivy (second edition) 15 

No. 13. Sugar and Sugar-making 25 

No. 14. Indian Corn 25 

No. 15. Spices and Condiments (second edition) ... .25 

No. 16. Fifty Common Plant Galls of the Chicago Area .25 

No. 17. Common Weeds 25 

No. 18. Common Mushrooms 50 

No. 19. Old-Fashioned Garden Flowers 25 

No. 20. House Plants 35 

No. 21. Tea 25 

No. 22. Coffee 25 

No. 28. Carnivorous Plants and "The Man-Eating Tree" .25 






r^^ WAR 8-1939 


Field Museum of Natural History 

Chicago, 1939 

Leaflet Number 23 
Copyright 1939 by Field Museum of Natural History 


The habit of capturing prey and of digesting animal 

tissue for food, is so commonly held to be a special attribute 

of predatory animals that it seems paradoxical to speak 

of carnivorous plants. There exist, however, a number of 

flowering plants that not only capture small animals, by 

passive or active means, but have the power of digesting 

and assimilating the organic food thus obtained. As to 

relationships, these plants do not constitute a single group 

but belong to various, in part unrelated, plant families, 

and thus exhibit several kinds of structural provision for 

- capturing prey. This prey generally consists of small 

, insects, but in some instances of other small animals — 

minute freshwater Crustacea, isopods, worms and various 

^ aquatic larvae, and, it is said, even small vertebrates — 

captured either like flies on sticky fly paper, or by a trap 

, mechanism, or by drowning. 

/^^^^^==^ One of the minor types, the common butterwort 

' (Pinguicula vulgaris), has a rosette of several small 

- r oblong leaves, about an inch and a half long, with a very 

*^ short stalk. When fully grown the leaves lie closely 

pressed to the soil, usually with numerous flies and insects 

<r- adhering to the upper surface. Darwin describes the 

^ leaves as having two kinds of glands which secrete a color- 

^ less viscous fluid, so sticky that it may be drawn out in 

~- long threads. The margms of the leaves curve inward, 

,v. apparently to hold this substance which becomes so pro- 



2 Field Museum op Natural History 

fuse when the glands are stimulated that it trickles towards 
the curved edges. 

The small inconspicuous sun-dew {Drosera rotundi- 
folia) is to be found wherever bogs and swampy places 
exist, even in Australia and at the Cape of Good Hope. 
Its round leaves, with long slender stalks, seldom attain 
half an inch in diameter. The stalks radiate from a 
central point, with the leaves lying flat on the ground 
like a rosette. In the center of this rosette rises the small 
stem with minute white flowers. The leaves are covered 
with curious gland-bearing tentacles, or hairs with glands 
at the tip surrounded by a secretion resembling minute 
dewdrops that sparkle in the sun. This phenomenon has 
given rise to the plant's name, the sun-dew. An object 
coming in contact with the tip causes a movement of the 
clubbed structures towards the center of the leaf, the 
impulse being transmitted from the tentacles touched to 
others nearby, thus bending them over and enclosing the 
object. It is an established fact that the secretion from 
the glands of the sun-dew is capable of dissolving animal 
substance in much the same manner as in the process of 
digestion in animals. 

Bladderwort ( Utricularia macrorrhiza) , a submerged 
water plant, with finely divided foliage, is equipped with 
bladders which are adapted for capturing small animals, 
such as the minute insect larvae and Crustacea which 
live in the water. The leaves are repeatedly bifurcate to 
twenty or thirty points and have two or three bladders 
on each leaf, generally near the base. These structures 
are translucent, of a green color, and when fully grown 
are about one-sixteenth of an inch in length. There is a 
valve on the posterior free edge lined with numerous 
glands, each consisting of an oblong bead and a pedicel. 
This valve opens only inwards and is highly elastic. 
Small animals can enter the bladder through this valve 
which shuts instantly behind them and does not yield to 
pressure from within, so that it is impossible for an animal 

A. Sun-dew (Drosera rotundifolia). 

B. Common butterwort {Pinguicula vulgaris). 

C. Venus's fly-trap {Dionaea muscipula). 

Above. A Venus's fly-trap with a small frog caught in its grip (X 3). 
American Weekly, August 1, 1937. 

Below. Venus's fly-trap closing and closed on a fly. Photos by 
Leon Keinigsberg. 

Carnivorous Plants and "The Man-Eating Tree" 3 

to escape once it is caught in this prison. Under favorable 
circumstances many of the bladders may be found to 
hold as many as eight minute Crustacea. 

A bladderwort has been described by Moseley which 
entraps young fish and spawn. "Most are caught by the 
head, and when this is the case the head is usually pushed 
as far into the bladder as possible till the snout touches 
the hinder wall. The two dark black eyes of the fish then 
show out conspicuously through the wall of the bladder." 

According to current newspaper reports the bladder- 
wort is now being used "effectively" to fight mosquitoes. 

Among plants, Venus's fly trap {Dionaea muscipula), 
says Darwin, "from the rapidity and force of its move- 
ments is one of the most wonderful in the world." The 
leaf is bilobed, with a foliaceous stalk. On the margin of 
the leaf are sharp teeth or spikes, with two or three hairs 
on the leaf. These hairs are extremely sensitive and 
function as triggers; the instant they are touched the 
two lobes of the leaf close, locking the spines together. 
The unhappy insect that set off this mechanism becomes 
its prey. The leaf remains closed and is converted into a 
virtual stomach and the glands on the upper surface of 
the leaf come into action until all the soft parts of the prey 
are liquified. A Venus's fly trap has been seen holding 
fast in its grip a small frog. This plant is a native of 
North Carolina. 

The above are all rather small herbs that generally 
attract but little attention even in places where they are 
abundant. Much more conspicuous carnivorous plants 
are the pitcher plants of which there exist two distinct 
types, one of the northern hemisphere, the other of the 
oriental tropics. The two types belong to different 
families but agree in one important respect: the leaf or 
part of the leaf of each is converted into a pitcher, con- 
taining a fluid in which insects and other small animals 
drown and are digested. The northern pitcher plants, 
Sarraceniaceae, consist essentially of a clump of pitchers. 

4 Field Museum of Natural History 

six inches to two feet or more in height, according to the 
species. The tropical pitcher plants, Nepenthaceae, are 
much taller plants, with a central stem and foliage like 
a corn plant. From a tendril-like prolongation of the 
midrib of the leaf, curious jugs or pitchers hang suspended, 
one from each leaf. A small leaf-like flap like a lid covers 
the mouth of the pitcher. The flowers are fragrant, 
brightly colored, and attract insects, which find their way 
into the pitchers and may be utilized by the plant. 

Because of their peculiar appearance, both types of 
pitcher plants are often cultivated in greenhouses as curi- 
osities, and consequently they are better known than the 
other groups of insectivorous plants. 

The most generally known pitcher plant of the north- 
ern hemisphere is Sarracenia purpurea, a widely distributed 
plant in the marshes of North America from Hudson Bay 
to Florida. Its leaves are metamorphosed into pitcher- 
like structures which are arranged in rosettes with their 
bases resting on the damp soil. They are inflated in the 
middle like bladders, narrow at the orifice and terminate 
in a small lamina streaked with red. 

The inner surface of these pitchers is lined with cells 
arranged like scales while the laminae are covered with 
glandular hairs which exude honey and cover the surface 
with a film of sweet juice. The animal enticed by this 
honey finds its way into the pitcher, and is prevented 
from escaping by the slippery cells lining the inside. 

Darlingtonia calif ornica, which is found growing at a 
height of from 300 to 1,000 meters above the sea in the 
California uplands, differs slightly in form. ^ The lamina, 
which is purplish red in color and shaped like a fish tail, 
hangs at the entrance of the pitcher like a sign board, thus 
attracting insects from afar. There is also a spiral tor- 
sion to these leaves which probably makes escape more 
difficult for the insect. Sarracenia flava shows very little 
variation in form except that its pitchers are long and 
narrow. These species produce flowers singly on a spike 

Carnivorous Plants and "The Man-Eating Tree" 5 

and vary in size from an inch to two inches. They are 
bright yellow with deep red or green markings, or deep 
red with green markings as in Sarracenia purpurea. 

Dr. Hooker has described over thirty species of 
Nepenthes, natives of the hotter regions of the Asiatic 
archipelago, from Borneo to Ceylon, with a few outlying 
species in New Caledonia, in tropical Australia, and in 
the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean. More than 
half of these are to be found in Borneo, and of these a 
dozen are exclusively confined to its soil. The pitchers 
are generally produced abundantly during the younger 
state of the plants. They show considerable modifica- 
tions of form and external structure and vary in size 
from little more than an inch to almost a foot in length. 
Some species, from the mountains of Borneo, have pitchers 
which measure a foot and a half, and the capacious bowl 
is large enough to drown a small animal or bird. 

One of the rare pitcher plants in this region is the 
striking Nepenthes Veitchii which grows as an epiphyte 
on the larger branches of trees. It produces a bag-shaped 
pitcher about ten inches in length, rather wide and 
blotched with blood-red patches. The mouth of the 
pitcher in this species is its most conspicuous and remark- 
able part that by its rich orange color and its vertical 
position, becomes a perfect trap for enticing insects at a 
distance. Another remarkable species which climbs trees 
has narrow pitchers about twenty inches long and a stalk 
which is often as long as twenty feet. The mouth of some 
of these pitchers is fringed with rigid points directed in- 
wards toward the cavity. 

Many travelers have described these plants as they exist 
in their native habitat, especially in Borneo. Mr. Alfred 
Wallace was told that he would find water at Padang- 
batu but having looked for it in vain, and being extremely 
thirsty, he at last turned to the pitcher plants. The 
water contained in the pitchers was full of insects, and 
otherwise uninviting; but on tasting it, it was found to be 

6 Field Musexjm of Natural History 

very palatable, though rather warm. The mountain tops 
in this region, he relates, are covered with these pitcher 
plants which trail over the ground or climb over shrubs 
and stunted trees, the showy pitchers hanging in every 
direction. Some of the finest yet known have been 
obtained on the summit of Kina-Balu, in northwest 
Borneo. The species Nepenthes Rajah from the moun- 
tains of Borneo surpasses all other known species in the 
immense development of its pitchers, some of which are 
twelve inches across, and hold seven pints of water in 
which small animals or birds can drown. 

A large plant of this kind was found in tropical India 
and exhibited at Horticultural Hall in London. The 
odor from its blossom attracts large insects and even mice. 

A small but beautiful and extremely interesting plant, 
Cephalotus follicularis, is found in West Australia near 
Albany. It grows in peaty soil, almost in running water, 
and sometimes at the base of woody shrubs. The plants 
are very attractive in appearance with their gracefully 
shaped pitchers in bright colors of red to purple, crim- 
son and vivid green. The lids are marked with small 
spaces of translucent white. These small pitchers are 
arranged in rosettes from the center of which ordinary 
leaves appear and often assume a bright crimson and 
yellow color. The flower spike emerges from the center 
of this clump of leaves. 

The liquid in these pitchers varies from greenish 
black to quite colorless depending on the number of vic- 
tims contained in it. In one of these pitchers there have 
been recognized wings, legs, and chitinous plates from 
the thorax and abdomen of various insects, balancers 
of mosquitos, scales of moths, claws of Crustacea, the 
living larvae of a fly and a unicellular alga which obvi- 
ously lives and multiplies in the liquid. 

The living algae and larvae are fine examples of organ- 
isms taking advantage of conditions created by others for 
their own benefit. Among insectivorous plants there 

A. Bladderwort (Utricularia macrorrhiza), natural size. 

B. Section through a bladder with trapped small animals (X30). 

C. Leaf showing position of bladders (X6). 

A. The common pitcher-plant {Sarracenia purpurea). 

B. A pitcher of the trumpet plant {Sarracenia flava), a large 
leaved pitcher-plant, of southeastern United States. 

C. (Darlingtonia californica), a native of California uplands. 

All about one quarter natural size. 

Carnivorous Plants and "The Man-Eating Tree" 7 

are many striking examples. In Borneo, there is a spider 
that lives on the upper slippery part of a Nepenthes 
pitcher where it weaves a thin web for a foothold and lies 
in wait for insects. A parallel case exists of an insect in 
New South Wales which lives on Drosera hinata and 
shares the insects captured in the sticky tentacles of 
the plant. Geddes mentions an American fleshfly which 
lays its eggs on the rim of Sarracenia pitchers. When 
hatched the larvae crawl down into the decomposing 
mass, live there for some time and finally make their way 
underground to pass the chrysalis stage. A bird associated 
with this plant slits the pitchers in search of these par- 
ticular larvae. 

There are various opinions concerning the process of 
digestion by these carnivorous plants. One is that the 
liquid contained in these various pitchers and bladders is 
a culture fluid for bacteria which attack and decompose 
the captives, and that the plant absorbs the decom- 
posed products without having brought about digestion. 
On the other hand we have the view held by others 
whose experiments, made under conditions excluding the 
action of bacteria, indicate that true digestion takes place 
by digestive ferments which must have been secreted 
by the plant. 

Plants capturing and consuming animals for food pro- 
vide a striking instance of reversal of the prevailing order 
of things. The phenomenon, though not very conspicuous, 
is of such an extraordinary nature that it has stimulated 
the inventive imagination of many authors of natural 
history fantasies. 

As a result readers of Sunday Magazine supplements 
have been startled from time to time by stories of vege- 
table monsters as formidable and incredible as dragons and 
werewolf or other atavistic nightmares of medieval zoology. 

Some of these tales, such as that of The Death Flower 
of El Banoor, are plainly intended to be fiction. Others 
challenge our incredulity by making serious claims of 

8 Field Museum of Natural History 

being true accounts of actual observations. Their authors 
are apt to grow irascible when approached for further 
information and it is to be noted that the scene is 
always laid in some indefinite place in a far-off country, 
difficult of access and uninviting to visitors. 

Fifty years ago "the man-eating tree" was generally 
ascribed to Central America. Now, since that part of 
the world has become easily accessible and too well- 
known to serve as a hiding place, its habitat has shifted 
to more remote Madagascar or Mozambique. 

Some of the various accounts that follow are quoted 
just as they appeared in print. 

"We may dismiss as mythical the travelled tale of a 
Venus fly-trap which was magnified into quite another 
matter before Captain Arkright was through with it, for 
such tales grow larger the farther they go from their 
beginning. It was in 1581 that the valiant explorer 
learned of an atoll in the South Pacific that one might 
not visit, save on peril of his life, for this coral ring inclosed 
a group of islets on one of which the Death Flower grew; 
hence it was named El Banoor, or Island of Death. This 
flower was so large that a man might enter it — a cave of 
color and perfume — but if he did so it was the last of him, 
for, lulled by its strange fragrance, he reclined on its lower 
petals and fell into the sleep from which there is no waking. 
Then as if to guard his slumber, the flower slowly folded 
its petals about him. The fragrance increased and burn- 
ing acid was distilled from its calyx, but of all hurt the 
victim was unconscious, and so passing into death through 
splendid dreams, he gave his body to the plant for food."^ 

Mr. Dunstan, a naturalist, relates that while, botaniz- 
ing in the swamps of Nicaragua hunting for specimens, 

1 Skinner, Charles M., Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, 
Fruits, and Plants. 

Carnivorous Plants and "The Man-Eating Tree" 9 

he heard from a distance his dog crying out, as if in 
agony. Running to the spot whence the cries came, he 
found the animal caught in a perfect network of what 
seemed to be fine, rope-Hke roots and fibres. The plant 
seemed composed entirely of bare interlacing stems, 
resembling the branches of a weeping willow denuded of 
foliage, but of a dark, nearly black, color, and covered 
with a thick, viscid gum that exuded from its surface. 
Mr. Dunstan attempted to cut the poor beast free with 
his knife, but it was with great difficulty that he managed 
to sever the fleshy fibres of the plant. When the dog was 
finally extricated, Mr. Dunstan saw to his horror not only 
that its body was blood-stained, but the skin appeared to 
be actually sucked or puckered in spots, and the animal 
staggered as if from exhaustion. In attempting to cut 
the vine the twigs curled like living, sinuous fingers about 
Mr. Dunstan's hand, and it required great force to free 
it from their grasp, which left the flesh red and blistered. 
The tree, it is reported, is well known to the natives, who 
tell many stories of its death-dealing powers. Its appetite 
is voracious and insatiable; and in a few minutes it will 
suck the nourishment from a large lump of meat, reject- 
ing the carcass as a spider does that of a used fly. 

The "Snake- tree" is described in a newspaper para- 
graph as found on an outlying spur of the Sierra Madre, 
in Mexico. It has sensitive branches of a slimy, snaky 
appearance, and when a bird alights on them incautiously, 
it is seized, drawn down in the tree and lost to sight. 
Soon after it falls, flattened out, to the ground, where 
bones and feathers, no doubt of former captures cover 
the earth. An adventurous traveler having touched one 
of the branches of the tree tells how it closed up on his 
hand with such force that it tore the skin when he wrenched 
it away. He then fed the tree with chickens, and the tree 
absorbed their blood by means of suckers with which its 
branches were covered, very much like those of the octopus. 

10 Field Museum of Natural History 


A recent report is credited to a Brazilian explorer named 
Mariano da Silva who returned from an expedition which 
led him into a district of Brazil that borders on Guiana. 
He had there sought out the settlement of Yatapu Indians. 
During his journey he saw a tree which nourishes itself 
on animals. The trunk of the tree has a diameter of about 
90 centimetres and is about six to seven meters high. 
Around the lower part are found leaves which are 0.9 by 
20 centimetres large and the thickness of the thumb. 
The tree itself exudes a peculiar sharp odor which attracts 
animals, especially monkeys. As soon as they climb the 
trunk, all is up with them, for very quickly they are com- 
pletely closed in by the leaves, and one neither hears nor 
sees them again. After about three days the leaves open 
and let drop to the earth the bones, completely stripped. 

"The man-eating tree" was repeatedly described in 
newspapers and magazines from 1878 to 1882, but it is 
alleged to have been discovered long before. Travelers and 
missionaries have spent considerable time investigating 
for their personal satisfaction the question of its existence 
and have always come to the conclusion that the tale is 
without foundation. 

Dr. Carle Liche who claimed to have seen the tree in 
Madagascar in 1878 first writes of it in a letter to Dr. 
Omelius Fredlowski, following which it appeared in numer- 
ous magazines, papers, and even scientific journals in various 
parts of the world, however, without sufficient verification 
to warrant a scientific investigation. A part of the account 
which appeared in the Carlsruhe Scientific Journal was 
quoted in a newspaper story as follows: 

"I had gone," he writes, "to Madagascar, the land of 
the lemurs, the lace plant, the gye-gye, and also of the 
man-eating tree, to visit Queen Ravalana II, and was 
persuaded to visit the Mkodos, by a native who had heard 

Carnivorous Plants and "The Man-Eating Tree" 11 

that besides generous daily pay, I was accustomed to 
reward liberally anyone who showed me something strange 
or out of the way. 

"In his company I journeyed to the southeastern part 
of the island, among the hills covered with thick virgin 
forest, where there is a district practically unknown, 
whose white visitors can be numbered on the fingers of 
one hand. This is the region inhabited by the Mkodos. 

"It was while among these natives that I was witness 
to what was probably the most horrible sight I have ever 
seen. Their religion consists in the worship of their 
sacred tree, one of the most wonderful freaks of nature. 
To this tree they offer human sacrifice. Once upon a 
time, as each was consummated, it had been their cus- 
tom to bum each tree. This, however, they had been 
forced to give up on discovering that the trees were 
getting to be very scarce. When I arrived they were 
practically extinct, and it was with difficulty that my 
guide, whose wild stories had attracted me to the place, 
could find one to show me. 

"The sacred tree is most remarkable in appearance. 
Its trunk, which rarely rises ten feet above the ground, is 
of a strange, barrel-like shape, covered with a quaint 
mosaic sort of bark, looking like nothing so much as a 
gigantic pineapple. At the top of this trunk it is between 
eight and nine feet in circumference, and upon it is fixed 
a remarkable growth very much resembling a huge plate. 
From the top of the trunk there hung eight leaves. They 
are of extraordinary size, ten to twelve feet long, a foot 
wide where they were hinged to the tree, widening to about 
two feet, and finally tapering down to a point as sharp as 
a needle. They were plentifully strewn with huge venom- 
ous looking thorns. 

"These leaves could not have been less than fifteen 
inches thick in the centre, and hung down inertly along 
the trunk, their point trailing in the earth. Above these 
there stretched, rigidly and horizontally, a number of 

12 Field Museum of Natural History 

branches several feet in length. Finally, from under- 
neath the plate-like arrangement, there grew, pointing 
upward, half a dozen frail looking stamens — palpi would 
be a better name, I believe — that shivered eonst-intly, 
as if agitated by some strong wind. 

"It seems the plate-like affair on top of the trunk con- 
tained some thick sweet juice. This liquid, which is a 
product of the tree and was probably originally intended 
to attract birds, is highly intoxicating, and even a very 
small quantity very soon produces coma. When sacrifices 
take place a woman is forced to climb into the tree and 
drink. If the devil inside is in good humor, the girl will 
be allowed to get down again in safety. If he was feeling 
ugly, however, then the poor girl was out of luck. Exactly 
how the tree was going to prevent her jumping down I 
could not make out, but I was to learn eventually. 

"I desired to draw closer and examine the tree care- 
fully, but my guide begged me not to, warning me that 
the tree would certainly be angered at my sacrilege and 
would take my life in revenge, explaining that the leaves 
would rise up and crush me. Of course, I did not pay 
much attention to this, but, nevertheless, left the tree 
alone, for it has always been my habit to respect native 
superstitions and customs. 

"One evening my guide presented himself to me and 
told me that what he had been waiting for would take 
place that night. 

"That night, having made the chief a present to insure 
that I would be welcome to witness their ceremony, I 
followed the tribe into the forest. They made their way 
to the sacred tree, and round it built twelve fires, so that 
the whole surroundings were lit up brightly. Then they 
disposed themselves about them and made themselves at 
home, some eating, but most of them drinking huge 
gourdfuls of native ferment. Very soon they were all of 
them more or less intoxicated, both the men and the 
women, with the exception of a young girl nearby who 

Carnivorous Plants and "The Man-Eating Tree" 13 

neither spoke nor moved, but glanced about her as if she 
were terrified out of her wits. 

"Suddenly without warning the yelling ceased and 
they scattered away like frightened deer. The crucial 
point had arrived. For a moment there was complete 
silence but for the crackling of the fires. Intuition told 
me that the girl I had noted before was the one that was 
to be the sacrifice. I looked at her and saw mortal terror 
imprinted on her features. Yet for the life of me I could 
not imagine why, and put down her fear to indignation. 

"By now the first group of dancers had somewhat 
recovered, and, suddenly springing up, rushed upon the 
poor girl with unearthly shrieks and yells. They sur- 
rounded her, and with shouts and gestures ordered her to 
climb the tree. Terrified she shrank back, apparently 
begging for mercy. At that, the whole crowd joined in, 
furiously howling at her to obey. Once more the dancers 
gave out their orders; then as she still refused and strug- 
gled, they armed themselves with spears, and stabbing at 
her forced her to retreat in the direction of the devil-god. 
For a while she resisted, seeking to hold their spears with 
her hands, and only getting wounded as a reward for her 
plucky defence. 

"At last, seeing it was useless to fight further, she 
turned and faced the tree. For a moment she stood still, 
gathering herself up for a supreme effort, then quickly she 
sprang toward the tree. Like a monkey she scrambled up, 
and reaching the top knelt and drank of the holy liquid. 
Quickly she jumped up again and I expected to see her 
jump down, thinking all was over, in that dim light not 
noticing instantly what caused her so to shrink with 

"Suddenly I realized what was happening, and I 
seemed to be paralyzed with horror. The tree, seemingly 
so dead and motionless a moment before, had come to 
life. The palpi, so frail looking, had suddenly ceased to 
quiver, and had coiled themselves about the girl's head 

14 Field Museum of Natural History 

and shoulders, holding her so firmly that all her efforts 
to free herself remained absolutely useless. 

"The green branches so rigid before began to writhe, 
and coiled themselves round and round like snakes. Then 
as that mass struggled there arose a horrible sight I shall 
never forget— the great leaves began to rise slowly, very 
slowly. Those evil looking thorns were now closing on 
her with the force of a hydraulic press. 

"As they came together tightly there trickled down the 
trunk a pinkish mixture, which the maddened natives 
fought and trod each other down to get one mouthful of 
the intoxicating fluid from the tree and the blood of the 
human sacrifice. 

"Then the feasting began again amid much rejoicing. 
The devil was appeased."^ 

Five years later in the same paper there appeared a 
similar story. This time it was a Mississippian, W. C. 
Bryant, a planter, who was determined to use a piece of 
land that was "tabooed" to everyone, on the island of 
Mindanao in the Philippines. Taking no heed of warn- 
ings, he started out with four white men and a group of 
natives who had been deceived as to their destination. 
Most of the natives finally had to be left behind at camp, 
as they refused to go into the forbidden territory, except 
an old man named Leon and some carriers. 

"Mountains began to rise, and with them mounted the 
old guide's warnings about 'diabolos,' 'demonios,' 'kotras,' 
and other inventions of a superstitious mind lurking just 
ahead. The following day he began hugging Bryant's 
knees and weeping on them, and repeated this gesture so 
often that it impeded progress until King picked up the 
old fellow like a child and carried him half a mile. Then 
the meeting came to a head and the white men won 
because, scared as the natives were to go on where the 
'diabolos' were thicker, they were even less willing to go 

1 William, B. H., American Weekly, Sept. 26, 1920. 

A. {Nepenthes distiUatoHa), sketch of an entire plant greatly 

B. Foliage of Nepenthes showing tendril with the pitcher at the 
tip, about one quarter natural size. 

C. Portion of flower spike, about one third natural size. 

An Australian pitcher-plant (Cephalotus follicularis), one half 
natural size (after Von Marilaun). 

Carnivorous Plants and "The Man-Eating Tree" 15 

back alone without the protection of the white men and 
their guns. 

"Like men counting themselves already dead, the 
Moros plodded along into the foot-hills of the mountains. 
Noon of the next day found the party preparing its meal 
in the midst of a small plateau covered with tall, wiry 
grass, high as a man's head. 

"While the meal was cooking, Bryant decided to push 
forward a short distance to a knoll from which he might 
hope to see what was ahead, for the guide in this strange 
country was of little use save to cut a path with his naked 
bolo through the grass and ferns. 

"Leon went on with him, his blade rhythmically mov- 
ing right and left two paces in advance. It was a windless 
day, without even a break to ripple the surface of the sea 
of grass in which there was a notable absence of animal 
tracks. Not even birds were in evidence. The old man 
paused, listened and cocked a watery eye, full of fear and 
rebellion at the white man. Bryant listened and realized 
that he had never been in such complete silence. There 
was not even a rustle in the grass nor the whir of an insect. 

"It was uncomfortable and he motioned for Leon to 
proceed, but the old man burst into a pitiful plea to go 
back and fell at Bryant's knees, but the white man gave 
him a shove and again the swish-swish went on until a 
lone tree rose in their path. 

"The tree was perhaps thirty-five or forty feet high, 
a compact sort of a tree with heavy dull-green leaves lying 
close together with a shingly look and concealing the 
boughs and upper trunk. Approaching near, the American 
was impressed with several things at once. 

"The foliage stopped all around at a beautifully even 
distance from the ground as if carefully trimmed by 
human hands, and the thick trunk stood in the center of a 
perfect circle of barren ground about thirty feet in diameter. 

"All about this park-like opening the congonale grass 
stood like a wall, but in the clearing itself not a wisp of 

16 Field Museum op Natural History 

any sort of vegetation was visible, nothing but what 
appeared to be a sort of volcanic ash. The air was heavy 
with an odor that struck an unpleasant chord in Bryant's 
memory, and yet to this day he cannot place it. It was 
an animal smell, something between that of carrion and 
the circus, and yet neither. 

"At the base of the trunk, shiny with some sort of 
sticky exudation, was a pile of white bones too dry to 
taint the atmosphere. Instead of saving himself thirty 
feet of unnecessary mowing, Leon started to carve him- 
self a path around the edge. Bryant looked upon this as 
one more example of the stupidity and perversity which 
all white men have remarked in the negro. Lazy as a 
dog, nevertheless when the Philippine aborigine does do 
anything he choses for himself the hardest and most 
inefficient way. 

"The American did not mind. He was glad of the 
extra time to examine that tree. His guess was that the 
big black leaves, like a shingle roof, had made the ground 
barren and dead within the circle. Still some rain should 
have blown in. Why was the boundary so sharp? 

"Among the bones Bryant saw what might be a human 
skull and started across the open to pick it up. As he 
moved he noted half-consciously that a breeze must be 
springing up, for the leaves just above his head were 
beginning to undulate. A faint hissing made him look 
again to see if it could be a snake. 

"The thought was knocked out of his mind by the 
sudden impact of the guide's body on his back. The 
Moro landed with a yell, pinioned both his master's arms 
and tried to pull him over backward, all the time shrieking 
like a fiend. Bryant, certain that the man was insane, 
wondered gratefully why the old fool had not struck with 
his bolo. The American was helpless until he could free 
his arms, which should have been easy with this rather 
frail old man, but was not, because the guide fought with 
the strength of a maniac. 

Carnivorous Plants and "The Man-Eating Tree" 17 

"Bryant set himself to break that grip and finally 
loosened it enough to get one hand on his pistol and to 
look into his assailant's face. Leon's complexion was the 
dirty grey of utter terror and his bulging eyes were not 
looking at Bryant at all. Bryant was impelled to twist 
his head in the direction of that gaze and became paralyzed 
at what he saw. The tree was reaching for him. 

"The whole thing had changed shape and was horribly 
alive and alert. The dull, heavy leaves had sprung from 
their compact formation and were coming at him from all 
directions, advancing on the ends of long vine-like stems 
which stretched across like the necks of innumerable 
geese and, now that the old man had stopped his scream- 
ing, the air was full of hissing sounds. 

"The leaves did not move straight at their target, but 
with a graceful, side- to-side sway, like a cobra about to 
strike. From the far side, the distant leaves were peeping 
and swaying on their journey around the trunk and even 
the tree top was bending down to join in the attack. The 
bending of the trunk was spasmodic and accompanied by 
sharp cracks. 

"The effect of this advancing and swaying mass of 
green objects was hypnotic, like the charm movements of 
a snake. Bryant could not move, though the nearest leaf 
was within an inch of his face. He could see that it was 
armed with sharp spines on which a liquid was forming. 
He saw the heavy leaf curve like a green-mittened hand, 
and as it brushed his eyebrows in passing he got the smell 
of it — the same animal smell that hung in the surrounding 
air. Another instant and the thing would have had his 
eyes in its sticky, prickly grasp, but either his weakness or 
the brown man's strength threw them both on their backs. 

"The charm was broken. They crawled out of the 
circle of death and lay panting in the grass while the malig- 
nant plant, cracking and hissing, yearned and stretched 
and thrashed to get at them. 

18 Field Museum op Natural History 

"The paroxysm worked up to a climax and then grad- 
ually began to subside, and Bryant, having overcome a 
faintness and nausea, walked with Leon to the opposite 
side. Immediately the commotion was set up anew and 
the huge organism bent its energies in grasping them from 
the new direction. After a more careful survey, Bryant 
estimated the leaves at about three inches across, roughly 
three times that in length and thick like a cactus. Each 
was in a vine-like tendril the thickness of a man's thumb 
and appeared to have the property of extension in length 
as well as uncoiling like a spring. 

"The bones on second thought, he considered hardly 
large enough for a man, perhaps not even for a full-sized 
ape. There were many feathers and he was not certain 
that he did not see hair and fur. 

"The distant report of King's rifle reminding them of 
dinner, brought to an end the study of the deadly tree. 
His last backward look showed it with leaves slightly 
ruffled like the feathers of an angry parrot. 

"Bryant wished to know why the natives, knowing 
all this, did not make a business of exterminating these 
murderous growths. The Philippine replied that a naked 
man with a bolo 'no can do.' This was probably not the 
truth. A band of Moros could easily destroy any tree if 
they really tried. They let them live from superstitious 

"When Bryant reported this to Captain Johnston, he 
replied that he had heard of the tree and understood that 
it stupefied as well as held its victims by force but hereto- 
fore had always been inclined to doubt the yarns."^ 

"The author of this tale, having been questioned, 
replies under date of January 8, 1925, that 'the tree is 
there and in the main the account is true. The circle at 
the foot of the tree was about 80 maybe 100 feet in 
diameter. The tree looked nothing like the drawings [in 

1 Escaped from the Embrace of the Man-Eating Tree. American 
Weekly, Jan. 4, 1925. 

Sacrificed to a man-eating plant. American Weekly, September 
26, 1920. 


Escaped from the embrace of the man-eating tree. 
Weekly, January 4, 1925. 


Carnivorous Plants and "The Man-Eating Tree" 19 

the paper]. It was round as a smoke stack — the trunk, I 
mean, and dark gray or ash-color. The whole tree was 
symmetrical and the tree and ground under it, was very 
inviting to a storm-beset or sun-depressed traveller. The 
clucking and hissing was, I judged, from a gluey con- 
sistency of, or on, the leaves. My impression was that if 
it reached me, it would fasten and hold me, thus it had 
done to apes, birds, and animals.' "^ 

The American version of this myth has at least the 
advantage of discarding the sensational and pseudoscien- 
tific feature common to the other reports, and introducing 
into the legend a note of humorous exaggeration. 


"Wide-eyed tourists listen around the desert camp fires 
to the sad tale of Rot-Gut Pete, who vanished between 
Salome, Arizona, and his cabin one gloomy night. It 
seems that Pete had been celebrating something or other 
at the Last Chance Saloon, and left shortly after midnight 
with three sheets in the wind and no pilot. A few days 
later, when Pete showed up missing in his regular haunts, 
a search party tracked him into the desert. 

"Finally, at the base of a very large fly-catcher plant, 
the searchers found a watch, forty-two boot-nails, eleven 
buttons, a six-gun, a belt buckle, and two silver dollars. 
They identified the gun as Pete's by counting the notches. 
Pete it seems, had leaned against one of the fly-catcher 
plants, and the thing had closed on him. Later, when the 
plant was gorged, it had opened again, dropping the 
metallic debris on the ground. You have to be very care- 
ful out in the desert. "^ 

This, in its way, seems to embody the quintessence of 
"the man-eating tree" motif. 

^ Clute, Willard, "Man-Eating Trees," American Botanist, vol. 
31, Apr. 1925, pp. 70-73. 

^Ives, Ronald L., "You Don't Have to Believe It," Science 
News Letter, Apr. 2, 1938. 


American Weekly 

Anon. Sacrificed to a Man Eating Plant, American Weekly, 

Sept. 26, 1920. 
William, B. H., Escaped from the Embrace of the Man Eating 
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Andrew, Wilson 

"Science Jottings," The Illustrated London News, Aug. 27, 1892, 
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Beccari, Odoardo 

Wanderings in the Great Forests of Borneo, Travels and Researches 
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"Man-Eating Trees," American Botanist, Vol. 31, Apr. 1925. 
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Freaks and Marvels of Plant Life. London, 1882. 
Darwin, Charles 

Insectivorous Plants. New York, 1892. 
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La Vegetale, Histoire des Plantes, 1878. 
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Chapters in Modern Botany. New York, 1893. 
Hamilton, A. G. 

"Notes on the West Australian Pitcher plant" {Cephalotus follicu- 
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"You Don't Have to Believe It." Science News Letter, Apr. 2, 
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Curious Questions in History, Literature, Art and Social Life 
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"A Carnivorous Plant Preying on Vertebrata." Nature 30: 81. 
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Madagascar — Land of the Man-Eating Tree. N. Y. 1924. 
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5000 Facts and Fancies. N. Y. 1901. 
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Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants. Phila- 
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Popular Questions Answered. 1930. 
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The Plant World — Its Romances and Realities — A Reading Book 
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The Natural History of Plants, Transl. by F. W. Oliver, New York, 
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