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Victorian Gothic, Murderous Plants into Vegetable Carnivory

Victorian Gothic, Murderous Plants into Vegetable Carnivory
© Photograph by Simon Werdmüller von Elgg

Carnivorous or insectivorous plants have long induced fascination in men, and they are among the most popular plants in cultivation; they are often offered for sale in garden centres and over the Internet. Many amateur botanical societies focus upon them.

The first living specimen of Dionaea muscipula Ellis ex L. came to the attention of the populace of London in 1768, an event that “caused a sensation throughout Europe” (Magee, 2007: 49).

Indeed, Linnaeus is reported to have declared “miraculum naturae” (Magee, 2007) upon seeing D. muscipula. Before this event, John Bartram had sent Patrick Collinson, a London botanical collector, several plant parts, after the specimen sent by Governor Dobbs of North Carolina had failed to arrive (Magee, 2007).

Bartram used a popular name for D. muscipula, “tippity witchet”, a somewhat ribald Elizabethan term for vulva (McKinley postscript to Nelson, 1990). This connection between female sexuality and carnivorous plants continued into 19th century England and may have had something to do with their popularity and continued public fascination.

Insectivorous plants epitomise Victorian England’s cultural interest in the Gothic form in literature, architecture and art and, regarding natural history, bizarre spectacles.

These “queer flowers”, as Grant Allen described insectivorous plants in 1884, reached a zenith of popular and artistic attention during the mid to late 19th century. Allen’s essay demonstrated the lure of the insectivorous plant as a floral femme fatale and in the richly descriptive language described its “murderous propensities” (Allen in Smith, 2003).

Smith (2003) considered Swinburne’s poem ‘The Sundew’ concerning Allen’s essay and Darwin’s (1875) study on insectivorous plants. He noted that “both Swinburne’s poem and Darwin’s book were prominent elements in a cultural fascination with the sundew that extended from the 1860s well into the 1880s”, and “in the aftermath of Insectivorous Plants the potentially subversive moral and cultural implications of ‘The Sundew’ become more difficult to ignore” (Smith, 2003: 130–131).

In one of the most fanciful of Victorian stories, the German explorer Carl Liche and members of the cave-dwelling Mkodo tribe were described as making a trip through the Madagascar jungle. At one point, they come upon a fantastic sight: a large plant with a bulbous trunk resembling a 2.5-m pineapple with eight elongate leaves, 3–4 m long, studded with hook like thorns surrounding a depression filled with honey-sweet liquid. At the top of the tree are a set of long, hairy green tendrils and tentacles, “constantly and vigorously in motion, with […] a subtle, sinuous, silent throbbing against the air.”

The story goes on to say that one of their women is forced at javelin point to climb the trunk. Then “the atrocious cannibal tree, that had been so inert and dead, came to sudden savage life. 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 great leaves slowly rose and stiffly, like the arms of a derrick, erected themselves in the air, approached one another and closed about the dead and hampered victim with the silent force of a hydraulic press and the ruthless purpose of a thumbscrew.” [‘Liche, 1881’ (almost certainly a fictitious author; see below) cited by Osborn (1924)].

Some readers took this account seriously. Travellers had been returning from the jungles of the world with astonishing stories: ferocious man-like apes, vine-shrouded lost cities. Gorillas and the Mayan ruins turned out to be real. Why not the man-eating reported to pierce the body of the victim, Buel made an analogy to the maiden, a torture instrument “of the dark ages” (with inward pointing spikes) which “was made, somewhat crudely, to represent a woman, hence the name applied to it”.

Following more gory details about ulcers resulting from puncture wounds inflicted by the plant and mention of the “hundreds of responsible travelers [who] declare they have frequently seen it”, he concluded this section as follows: “All of which, however, I am inclined to doubt; not that there is no foundation for such statements as travellers sometimes make about this astonishing growth, but that the facts are greatly exaggerated”. Thus even writers aiming to provide a vivid, but true, account of the wonders of nature managed to confuse real and fictional carnivorous plants.

Liche’s story was adopted by Chase Osborn (1924) in his book ‘Madagascar, Land of the Man-Eating Tree’. Osborn said missionaries had vouched for the existence of the tree. No one has ever laid eyes again on this carnivorous horror, or on the Mkodo tribe for that matter, and Ley (1955) wrote that the Madagascan man-eating tree, the Mkodo tribe and even Carl Liche himself were all fabrications. It is nevertheless a gruesomely good story that may have its origins in older works, such as the True History of Lucianus Samosatensis, written in the 2nd century AD, in which female grapevines consumed sailors who tried to mate with them (note again the references to carnivorous plants being alluring and female).

Darwin himself was fascinated by carnivorous plants. He came to believe, after much experimentation, that the movement-sensing organ in sundews (Drosera) is far more sensitive than any nerve in the human body (Darwin, 1875).

American naturalist Mary Treat, who studied many of these plants in her garden and understood their functioning in detail, discovered the function of bladderwort (Utricularia L.) traps (Fig. 2). She communicated regularly with Darwin about carnivorous plants and helped him understand their habits better (Sanders & Gianquitto, 2009).

Another female correspondent and friend, Lady Ellen Lubbock (the wife of Darwin’s great supporter Sir John Lubbock, later Lord Avebury) wrote a poem on reading Darwin’s Insectivorous Plants and sent it to him (see Milner, 2009).

We are accustomed to think of plants as being immobile and harmless, and there is something genuinely unnerving about the thought of carnivorous plants. The ongoing fascination with these stories, exaggerating the traits of real-life carnivorous plants, indicates the deep horror we feel towards the idea of being devoured by a plant. No wonder the myths of the man-eating tree have stayed with us for centuries.

In 20th century Anglo-American culture, we saw a shift from the Gothic form to kitsch with the show Little Shop of Horrors and the character Audrey II – a carnivorous extraterrestrial plant that continually cries ‘feed me’ (Fig. 3). The Life of Pi (Martel, 2001) featured a floating mat of carnivorous algae. Vegetable carnivores have also been adopted in science fiction stories such as Parasite Planet (Weinbaum, 1935), in which a plant on Venus eats humans. In The Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien, 1954), hobbits fall asleep and find themselves eaten by a plant. Substantial carnivorous trees are also dangers of the forests in Beyond the Deepwoods (Steward & Riddell, 1998).

In Comet in Moominland (Jansson, 1973) Moomintroll saves the Snork Maiden from the twining arms of a poisonous bush of the ‘dangerous Angostura family’ with his penknife.

A carnivorous plant, Tentacula, is also featured in the Harry Potter series (Rowling, 1998), building upon the romantic but horrific idea of plants devouring people. Even some Pokémon characters (e.g. Bellsprout, Weepinbell and Victreebel; Pokémon, 2009) are based on carnivorous plants, bringing them into modern, popular culture. More recently, the discovery of Nepenthes attenboroughii A.S.Robinson, S.McPherson & V.B.Henrich (Robinson et al., 2009) has stimulated a flurry of internet-dispersed rumours of ‘rat-eating plants’ (e.g. Instructables, 2009) and so a fascination with the ‘murderous propensities’ of carnivorous plants continues to capture the public imagination.

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