1874: Man-Eating Tree of Madagascar
In 1874, a letter written by a German traveler named Karl Leche was published in journals, magazines, and newspapers in the United States and Europe in which he described a most unusual plant: a man-eating tree!
According to his letter, Leche was traveling in Madagascar, an island off the east coast of Africa, to find and catalog unusual plants. A local man named Hendrick, whom Leche had a hired as a combination of guide and assistant, advised Leche to visit a secluded section of the island that was rumored to be inhabited by cannibals... Hendrick was friends with the tribe, named the Mkodos, and insisted their reputation was false and that the valley they lived in had many strange plants indeed. Leche, intrigued, agreed to go to the valley with Hendrick. After many days travel to the isolated valley, the Mkodos led Leche and Hendrick deep into a swampy forest in the valley, to a clearing that contained the most unusual tree the botanist had ever seen.
Illustration by Garth Haslam (larger version here)
Leche described the tree as having a trunk like an eight-foot-tall pineapple, colored a dark brown, and as hard as iron. From the top of this trunk hung eight gigantic and stiff leaves, "like doors swung back on their hinges." These were around twelve feet long, closely resembling the leaves of the American agave, or century plant, and were three feet wide at the widest, and two feet thick at their thickest. The upper surface of the leaves were lined with tiny hooks, and these leaves were tipped off by a sharp point like a cow's horn. The top of the tree's trunk, in the area where the eight leaves all met, had a white bowl shape structure that was filled with a sweet smelling liquid. Eight foot long hairy green tendrils stuck out stiffly in all directions from the base of this bowl, and six white tendrils also sprouted from the base of the bowl, and actively waved in the air above it like snakes.
Leche's first observation of the tree was then interrupted by the Mkodos... at spear-point, they forced a young woman to climb up the tree and drink some of the fluid from the bowl. She immediately went into a stupor as the white tendrils grabbed her, and the hairy green tendrils slowly wrapped around her, squeezing the life from the woman. Finally, the great hooked leaves rose up and shut upon her like a vise, and soon both gore and sap was dribbling down the trunk of the tree. At the sight of this, the Mkodos all leaped forward, catching the vile fluid in a variety of containers, or just plain sucking it off the tree directly... soon, they were all in a horrible state of drunken bawdiness, and Leche and Hendrick quickly left the scene.
Over the next ten days, Leche kept checking back on the tree... on the tenth day it had re-opened, and a new white skull lay at its base.