A CANNIBAL PLANT.
SOME years ago, a striking story was published in France describing a wonderful flesh-eating plant discovered by a great botanist. If we remember rightly, the story recounted how a certain collector discovered a plant of the fly-trap species of so gigantic a size that it could consume huge masses of raw meat. Just as the fly-catching plant snaps up a fly, and draws nutriment from the fly's dead body, so this one fed itself on the legs of mutton and sirloins of beef which were thrown into its ravening maw. The botanist in the story, for some reason, possibly fear of having his plant destroyed as dangerous to public safety, keeps the existence of the plant a secret, and preserves it in a locked-up conservatory. His wife, however, who is made miserable by his absorption of mind—he thinks of nothing but how to feed and improve his wonderful and fascinating plant—determines to follow him. This she does, accompanied by an old school-friend of the husband. When the pair reach
the inner conservatory, they see, to their horror, the infatuated botanist tossing bleeding joints of raw meat into the huge jaws of a giant fly-trap. They are at first petrified with horror. At last, however, the wife throws herself into the arms of her husband, and implores him to give up dwelling upon the horrible carnivorous monstrosity which he has discovered and reared. Unfortunately, however, the wife in appealing to her husband goes too close to the plant. Its huge tentacles surround her and then proceed to drag her in, and the two stupefied men see the plant begin to devour its victim. Fortunately, however, the friend catches sight of an axe lying near, and seizing this he strikes at the roots of the plant. A few frenzied blows do the necessary work, and the flesh-eating plant tumbles to the ground and releases from its clutches the terrified woman. The botanist, however, cannot survive his most cherished discovery, and with the exclamation; " You have killed my plant !" he falls back dead.
The story is good enough as a story, but if we are to believe an article said in the Review of Reviews to be taken from Lucifer–we say " said " advisedly, because we have looked in the October Lucifer anti can find no such article, and therefore presume there must be some mistake—it is only another in- stance of fiction being prophetic, and anticipating scientific discovery. According to the article quoted by Mr. Stead, there has been discovered in Nicaragua a flesh-eating, or rather, man-eating plant, which for horror is quite the equal of the novelist's imagination. This plant is found, it is asserted, in Nicaragua, and is called by the natives "the devil's snare." In form it is a kind of vegetable octopus, or devil-fish, and is able to drain the blood of any living thing which comes within its clutches. We give the story with all reserve, but it must be admitted to be circumstantial enough in all its details to be possible. It appears that a Mr. Dunstan, a naturalist, has lately returned from Central America, where he spent two years in the study of the plants and animals of those regions. In one of the swamps which surround the great Nicaragua Lake, he discovered the singular growth of which we are writing. "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 plant or vine seemed composed entirely of bare, interlacing stems, resembling, more than anything else, the branches of the weeping-willow denuded of its foliage, but of a dark, nearly black hue, and covered with a thick, viscid gum that exuded from the pores." Drawing his knife, Mr. Dunstan attempted. to cut the poor beast free ; but it was with the very greatest difficulty that he managed to sever the fleshy muscular fibres of the plant. When the dog was extricated from the coils of the plant, Mr. Dunstan saw, to his horror and amazement, that the dog's body was bloodstained, "while the skin appeared to have been actually sucked or puckered in spots," and the animal staggered as if from exhaustion. " In cutting the vine, the twigs curled like living, sinuous fingers about Mr. Dun- stan's hand, and it required no slight force to free the member from its clinging grasp, which left the flesh red and blistered. The gum exuding from the vine was of a greyish-dark tinge, remarkably adhesive, and of a disagreeable animal odour, powerful and nauseating to inhale." The natives, we are told, showed the greatest horror of the plant, which, as we have noted above, they called the " devil's snare," and they recounted to the naturalist many stories of its death-dealing powers. Mr. Dunstan, we are told, 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 shaken off with the loss of skin, and even of flesh. As near as he could ascertain, however, its power of suction is contained "in a number of infinitesimal months 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. A lump of raw meat being thrown it, in the short space of five minutes the blood will be thoroughly drunk off and the mass thrown aside. Its voracity is almost beyond belief."
The story is unquestionably a very curious one, and we may rely upon it, that if the plant really does exist, we shall soon have a specimen at Kew. The digging of the Nicaragua Canal will bring plenty of Americans and Englishmen into the very country where the " Vampire Vine " is said to
exist, and the question whether the whole thing is or is not a hoax may very soon be tested. This fact makes, we readily admit, very much in favour of the troth of the story. Since the shores of the Nicaragua Lake are so soon to be ex- plored, it would have been far safer for a botanical practical joker to have " seated " his plant in that natural home of un- verifiable strange stories, the Upper Valley of the Amazon. The neighbourhood inhabited by that Amazonian tribe who by the use of some secret process can reduce a human corpse to a tenth of its original size, and so produce a perfectly proportioned miniature mummy of the dead man, would have been a good locality in which to " place " the tale of the cannibal plant. Again, Nicaragua is within the Tropics, and plant-life there is therefore specially gross and vigorous. Besides, there is no inherent impossi- bility in the idea of a flesh-eating plant. It is merely a question as to whether evolution has or has not happened to develop the fly-eating Tient on a sufficiently large enough scale to do what is related of the Vampire Vine. No one who has seen the ugly snap which that tiny vegetable crab, Venus's fly-trap, gives when the hairs inside its mouth are tickled by the human finger in the way that a fly would tickle them by walking, can doubt for a moment that the development of a plant capable of eating or sucking the blood of a man, is only a matter of degree. Even in England, there are plants which act on a small scale exactly the part asserted to be played by the Vampire Vine,—for example, Lathrwa squamaria, the toothwort, " a pale chlorophyl-less parasite found in British woods." The account of the plant given by Mr. G. A. Thomson in " Chambers's Encyclopmdia," is as follows :—" Excepting the flower-stalk, the stalk is virtually underground ; it bears auctorial roots and tooth-like leaves. The latter are hollow, and are entered through a narrow aperture by many kinds of small animals. These seem to be entangled in protoplasmic exudations within the leaf-cavity, find exit impossible, die, decompose, and are absorbed." Even more remarkable is Mr. Thomson's account of the carnivorous proclivities of the butterwort. This plant secretes "a copious viscid acid secretion to entrap its victims." " This serves as `insect-lime;' but, besides retaining the unwary midges, it finally digests them. Drops of rain may fall on the leaves, or pebbles may land there, but without noteworthy effect; a small insect, however, stimulates a copious flow of the fatal secretion. But there is also movement ; for, when an insect is caught, the margin of the leaves slowly curl inwards for an hour or two, thus surrounding the booty, or shifting it nearer the centre, in any case exposing it to more glands. After digestion, the results and the surplus exudation are absorbed, leaving finally the undigested skin of the insect on the more or less dry leaf-surface." It will be noted that this, in miniature, is almost exactly the process adopted by the Nicaraguan carnivorous creeper. If the species of insect-eating plants were very few in number, and were very sparsely found, it might be possible to regard them as mere lusus nature. There are, however, known to be several hundred dicotyledons which, in some way or other, catch and live on animal food. From such a basis the evolution of a giant and man-eating dicotyledon is within the bounds of possi- bility. We cannot help hoping very much that the story of the Vampire Vine will turn out to be true, for if it does, the botanists will be able to try some very curious experiments as to how these vegetables which are half animals, digest, and whether their movements can properly be regarded as muscular movements. It is true that Darwin administered extremely homoeopathic doses (•000095 of a milligramme) of nitrate of ammonia to a sundew, and found the plant responded to the drug exhibited ; but it would be far easier to conduct experiments on a larger plant. Even as it is, we know that the insect-eating plants secrete not only an acid, but a "peptonising ferment" for the pur- poses of digestion. They also feed, like animals, " on sub- stances at a high chemical level." More than a hundred and fifty years ago, Linnaeus noted that the Lapps " used the butterwort for curdling milk, a property due to a rennet-like ferment which the plant has in addition to the digestive or peptic." Again, we are told that Dr. Burdon Sanderson bas " detected electric currents similar to those observed in the neuro-muscular activity of animals." The borderland between animal and plant life occupied by the insect-eaters is, indeed, one of the most curious and interesting fields of biological
study; and if a plant as large as the 'Vampire Vine could be 'obtained to experiment with, discoveries of enormous import- ance to science might very likely be made. The Vampire Vine would doubtless stand a grain of calomel after a heavy meat meal without damage or annoyance.