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Botanicult Fiction: The Man-eating Tree of Madagascar

June 23, 2020

By Dr. David Galbraith, Head of Science, Royal Botanical Gardens.

If you had been an avid reader of newspapers in the later part of the 19th century, you would have been confronted with a series of fantastic tales of plants that made a regular habit of consuming people. These included stories of the “hideous” Yateveo plant of Africa, the vampire vine of Nicaragua, and the one that started it all, Crinoida Dajeeana, the “Man-eating Tree of Madagascar”.

Readers were not ready for Edmund Spencer’s article about the tree from Madagascar in the New York World newspaper, published on 26 April 1874. Spencer reported that he had received a letter from a Karl Leche, a German explorer travelling through the island nation. There Leche had encountered the Mkodo, local people who performed sacrifices to an enormous tree that dutifully ate humans whole. While the World’s readers may have been horrified, other newspaper publishers were delighted, and the story soon spread around the world. By October, news of Leche’s discovery was appearing in papers in Australia.

The entire tale was a hoax, from the name of the tribe to the identity of the supposed explorers to the details of the plant’s gruesome table manners. This was revealed about 1890, but that didn’t stop this story and others like it which fed, ultimately, on racism and fear of the unknown and the different, to spread for years. As late as the early 1930s, expeditions were apparently being organized to try to find Crinoida Dajeeana: The Man-eating Tree of Madagascar!

An account from 18 August 1932 of a man eating tree
An account from 18 August 1932 published in the Washington Reporter reporting on a British expedition intent on finding a legendary carnivorous tree.

Botanicult Fiction is an affectionate review of plants in pop culture viewed through the lens of plant nerds and curated for your reading or viewing pleasure during this challenging time of self isolation