THE FACTS AND FICTION OF MAN-EATING PLANTS
THE FACTS AND FICTION OF MAN-EATING PLANTS
They've been a staple of horror for centuries. Man-eating plants. The silent member of a league that includes vampires, Frankenstein, and werewolves. Man-eating plants have permeated books, news, television, and film. And why shouldn't they? From the ten year old with his "pet Venus Fly Trap" to native tribes wearily moving through unfamiliar jungle, man-eating plants are a primal curiosity and fear.
Madagascar Man-Eating Tree
In 1881 a German explorer named Carl Liche wrote about an expedition he took to Madagascar where he witnessed a human sacrifice performed to feed a man-eating tree. The Mkodo tribe and he were traveling through the jungle, when they came upon an unusual looking tree. The tribesman treated it with reverence and motioned for Liche to stay away. A woman was brought forward, and before Liches eyes the tree came to life, grabbed the woman and completely consumed her. This myth continued for some time, gaining further life when it was mentioned again in a 1924 book titled, "Madagascar, Land of the Man-Eating Tree". It wasn't until 1955, in the book "Salamanders and other Wonders" that the Man-Eating Tree, the Mkodo Tribe, and even Carl Liche himself turned out to be complete fabrications.
The Strange Orchid
In H.G. Wells' short-story "The Flowering of the Strange Orchid", a man named Winter Wedderburn laments that nothing has ever really happened to him. The world is dull and hardly his oyster. To pass the time, he tends to his green house and grows orchids. Attending an Orchid sale, Wedderburn returns with several great finds, including an orchid rumored to have been taken off the corpse of the man who acquired it in the wild. As the strange orchid grows, Wedderburn beams with pride at its beauty. His housekeeper, however, finds the plant creepy and almost... predatory. The day finally comes that the flower blooms. Wedderburn's housekeeper arrives an hour later to find Wedderburn passed out, and the orchid rooted into his veins with its strong, green tendrils. The housekeeper barely saves him, but Wedderburn is still thrilled to have finally had an adventure.
Venus Fly Trap
Now for something really real: the Venus fly trap. Plants are green-leafed, inanimate, boring organisms that feed only on sunlight, soil, and water. Right? By that definition then, the Venus Fly Trap isn't even a plant. Perhaps it's some sort of alien creature? (And when you see the one small area where they can be found in the wild, it's obvious how those crazy "falling meteor" rumors started.) The Venus Fly Trap, even when motionless, looks exotic. Each of its leaves ends in what appears to be a mouth, and the coincidental red coloring on its palate enforces the image. And this isn't just any mouth. The Venus Fly Trap's maw appears to be a highly-specialized, carnivorous mouth designed for nothing other than consuming flesh. But beyond this, the Venus Fly Trap has one other special characteristic. It moves. Fast. When the Venus Fly Trap detects repeated movement, its jaw snaps shut. Once its meal has been digested, the jaw reopens, ready to start anew. There is little wonder why the Venus Fly Trap is often called a "pet". Like other carnivorous plants, though, the Venus fly trap isn't actually "eating" its prey. It traps insects, kills them, and specialized cells inside its "mouth" leach the nitrogen from the insects' bodies. Usually, plants get nitrogen from the soil. In soil with poor fertility, they have to resort to other means.
Audrey Jr. or Audrey 2
Probably the most famous man-eating plants of all time, Audrey Jr./2 (both names are used) has starred in two Hollywood films, a Broadway musical, and even a children's cartoon. Audrey Jr. made its first appearance in the Roger Corman 1960s B-movie "Little Shop of Horrors". The film reached cult status, which would lead to its various remakes. The plant's origin has ranged all over, from a Venus Fly Trap/Butterwort hybrid to an invader from outer space.
In 1938 the science fiction novella "Who Goes There?" was published. It is to this day considered to be one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time. Two movie adaptations have been made (one in 1951 and another in 1982) with a third adaptation on the way. The 1982 version, as can be expected, is much more violent and chilling than its 1950s counterpart. Surprisingly though, it is the 1982 version with all of its gore that more closely follows the 1938 source material. In the original short-story and 1982 film, "The Thing" itself is a shape-shifting alien. In the 1951 version however, "The Thing" is a highly advanced humanoid plant. Strange "thing" indeed.
Another true story! While Venus Fly Traps may be the most famous carnivorous plant, pitcher plants are by far the most common. Unlike many other carnivorous plants, which are found in very specific areas, Pitcher Plants can be found throughout the world. But robustness is not what merits the Pitch Plant's place on this list. Out of all carnivorous plants, Nepenthes, or "Tropical Pitcher Plants", are the only ones capable of consuming mammals. The Nepenthes rajah and the Nepenthes rafflesiana are both known to occasionally consume vertebrate. Pitcher plants catch their prey with "pitcher shaped" leaves filled with water that creatures fall into and drown. The traps of the Nepenthes rajah and rafflesiana are so large that drowned rats, frogs, lizards, birds and even small monkeys have been found within them. Once drowned, the prey creatures dissolve in the corrosive fluid inside the pitcher. The only thing keeping these plants from being man-eaters is their size; they are too small for people to fall into them.
From the novel and movie "The Day of the Triffids", Triffids are a species of highly venomous, fully mobile, carnivorous plants with an at least basic intelligence. The origin of the plants is never set in stone, but it is strongly suggested that they are the result of experiments within the Soviet Union. Triffids remain rooted when at rest, but are completely capable of uprooting themselves and "walking". In the novel, after their discovery, Triffids are cultivated as a commercial crop. Veritibly harmless, the tables are turned, however, when the majority of human race is rendered blind by a high-altitude weapons misfire.
Corpse flowers are not carnivorous, but ironically they may very well be where the legends of jungle-dwelling man-eating plants come from. The Titan Arum and Rafflesia Arnoldii are both enormous flowers that earned their ghoulish nicknames by giving off the scent of rotting flesh. The purpose for this scent is simple. Carrion flowers rely on insects such as flies and beetles for pollination. Since these insects feed on rotting flesh, the smell attracts them. The Titan Arum is an enormous plant, and is in fact the largest flower in the world reaching heights of over nine feet. One can only imagine a native tribe moving through the jungle only to stumble upon a plant nearly twice their size, and reeking of decayed flesh. It wouldn't be hard to assume what the intimidating plant's natural diet must be. Today, carrion flowers are a crown jewel within the world's greatest botanical gardens.
Whether it be on the stage, in our garden, or even just in our minds, man-eating plants will always be a fixture within humanity's lore.