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Man-eating tree can refer to any of various legendary or cryptid carnivorous plants that are large enough to kill and consume a person or other large animal. In actuality, the carnivorous plant with the largest known traps is probably Nepenthes rajah, which produces pitchers up to 38 cm (15 in) tall with a volume of up to 3.5 litres (0.77 imp gal; 0.92 US gal). This species may rarely trap small mammals.
The earliest well known report of a man-eating tree originated as a literary fabrication written by Edmund Spencer for the New York World. Spencer's article first appeared in the daily edition of the New York World on 26 April 1874, and appeared again in the weekly edition of the newspaper two days later. In the article, a letter was published by a purported German explorer named "Karl Liche" (also spelled as Carl Liche in later accounts), who provided a report of encountering a sacrifice performed by the "Mkodo tribe" of Madagascar: This story was picked up by many other newspapers of the day, including the South Australian Register of 27 October 1874, where it gained even greater notoriety. Describing the tree, the account related:
The slender delicate palpi, with the fury of starved serpents, quivered a moment over her head, then as if instinct with demoniac intelligence fastened upon her in sudden coils round and round her neck and arms; then while her awful screams and yet more awful laughter rose wildly to be instantly strangled down again into a gurgling moan, the tendrils one after another, like great green serpents, with brutal energy and infernal rapidity, rose, retracted themselves, and wrapped her about in fold after fold, ever tightening with cruel swiftness and savage tenacity of anacondas fastening upon their prey.
The tree was given further publicity by Madagascar, Land of the Man-eating Tree, a book by Chase Osborn, who had been a Governor of Michigan. Osborn claimed that both the tribes and missionaries on Madagascar knew about the hideous tree, and also repeated the above Liche account.
Phil Robinson, writing in Under the Punkah (1881), related the tales of his "uncle's" travels throughout the world. He described a "man-eating tree" that was to be found in "Nubia". In the tale, Robinson's uncle describes the tree:
This awful plant, that rears its splendid death-shade in the central solitude of a Nubian fern forest, sickens by its unwholesome humours all vegetation from its immediate vicinity, and feeds upon the wild beasts that, in the terror of the chase, or the heat of noon, seek the thick shelter of its boughs ; upon the birds that, flitting across the open space, come within the charmed circle of its power, or innocently refresh themselves from the cups of its great waxen flowers ; upon even man himself when, an infrequent prey, the savage seeks its asylum in the storm, or turns from the harsh foot-wounding sword-grass of the glade, to pluck the wondrous fruit that hang plumb down among the wondrous foliage. And such fruit ! Glorious golden ovals, great honey drops, swelling by their own weight into pear-shaped translucencies. The foliage glistens with a strange dew, that all day long drips on to the ground below, nurturing a rank growth of grasses, which shoot up in places so high that their spikes of fierce blood-fed green show far up among the deep-tinted foliage of the terrible tree, and, like a jealous body-guard, keep concealed the fearful secret of the charnel-house within, and draw round the black roots of the murderous plant a decent screen of living green.
The story continues in describing how the tree captured and ate one of the uncle's native companions, and how the uncle proceeded to shoot at the tree. When his ammunition was finally exhausted, the uncle continued his work using a knife to destroy the tree, as the tree fought back with its blood-sucking leaves, and entangling limbs.
In J. W. Buel's Sea and Land (1887), the Ya-te-veo ("I-see-you") plant is described as being native to Africa and Central America, and having "stems" that resemble "many huge serpents in an angry discussion, occasionally darting from side to side as if striking at an imaginary foe," while attempting to consume humans.
William Thomas Stead, editor of Review of Reviews, published a brief article that discussed a story purportedly found in Lucifer magazine, describing a plant in Nicaragua called by the natives The Devil's Snare. This plant had the capability "to drain the blood of any living thing which comes within its death-dealing touch." According to the article:
Mr. Dunstan, naturalist, who has recently returned from Central America, where he spent nearly two years in the study of the flora and the fauna of the country, relates the finding of a singular growth in one of the swamps which surround the great lakes of Nicaragua. He was engaged in hunting for botanical and entomological specimens, when he heard his dog cry out, as if in agony, from a distance, Running to the spot whence the animal's cries came. Mr. Dunstan found him enveloped in a perfect network of what seemed to be a fine rope-like tissue of roots and fibres... The native servants who accompanied Mr. Dunstan manifested the greatest horror of the vine, which they call "the devil's snare," and were full of stories of its death-dealing powers. He was able to discover very little about the nature of the plant, owing to the difficulty of handling it, for its grasp can only be torn away with the loss of skin and even of flesh; but, as near as Mr. Dunstan could ascertain, its power of suction is contained in a number of infinitesimal mouths or little suckers, which, ordinarily closed, open for the reception of food. If the substance is animal, the blood is drawn off and the carcass or refuse then dropped.
An investigation of Stead's "review" determined that there was no article published in Lucifer magazine about such a subject, and that the story in Review of Reviews appeared to be a fabrication by the editor.