Alleged bamboo executions of the orient

Man Eaters and Other Nefarious Plants

By —— Bio and Archives--October 15, 2018

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Man Eaters and Other Nefarious Plants
Botanically boisterous and man-eating plant tales abound. Hapless horticulturists stumble on all too frequently into voracious vegetation. At least they do in fictional encounters. These are often illustrated, despite the sexist term man-eating, with amply endowed damsels in dishabille.

H. G. Wells wrote at least nine stories commencing in 1887 and a Text-Book of Biology in 1893 before his ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ (1894) was published in the Pall Mall Budget. A new species of orchid is revealed to be (gulp) carnivorous but meets its demise when its hothouse is destroyed.


Other writers of the same era had proceeded Wells but remain less recognized. “The Madagascar Tree” by Edmund Spence appeared in the 1874 New York World, explaining how the Mkodo tribe on that great and mysterious island might meet their fearsome fate in its grisly embrace. Phil Robinson wrote in Under the Pukah (1881) of “The Nubian Tree” of ‘Nubia’ that demanded similar sustenance while J. W. Buel’s “Ya-Te-Veo” the ‘I-see-you’ of 1887 spread the genre from Africa to include Central America in Sea and Land.

Fans had to wait until the middle years of the next century for tales of strange herbage to be forced into bloom. John Wyndham gave mobility to the species in the now-classic The Day of the Triffid (1951) in which the venomous oil-producing plants with disgusting dining habits run amok, feasting on their victims’ putrid flesh. For wonder, this hasn’t attracted the attention of the anti-genetic engineering crowd.

Arthur C. Clarke proved that humorous science fiction could be written in his collection   Tales from the White Hart (1956) that includes ‘The Reluctant Orchid.’ A hobbyist fails to do in his woman’s lib aunt, dooming him to a life in even closer relationship with her. And for those with the blackest of a black sense of humour, movie producer/director Roger Corman’s 1960 The Little Shop of Horrors morphed into a Broadway rock musical and second telling of the tale about a florist named Seymour who gets stuck for drinks when raising carnivorous Audrey II remains near the top of their bucket list of must-sees, crying the now-classic, ‘Feed me, Seymour.’

But why stop here? Human ingenuity being what it has always been and gardeners abounding, instead of sticky endings in the digestive tracts of predatory plants, they could instead be executed by cooperative vegetation.

There is, for example, the dreaded Maguay Plant featured George MacDonald Fraser’s comic novel The Pyrates (1983). This is not the maguey plant, an agave so relished in Mexican libations. Instead the razor-sharp tip, growing at inches per hour, penetrates the sternum of miscreants suspended above it. Alan Titchmarch’s Revenge, as you might term it, was raised by vanished horticulturists of an extinct Central American civilization. Kept on their front porches, fertilized regularly and the victims’ corpses removed, it was said to last for years . . .

Famous for his Flashman, George MacDonald Fraser doubtless based the Maguey Plant on the alleged bamboo executions of the orient. A Chinese authoress claimed such to have found favour in China, Korea and Japan but reliable evidence remains elusive. Following World War Two, tales emerged of the Japanese military using such to torture Allied prisoner of war.

Earlier, in the 1821 Thai invasion of Kedah, Malays claimed that the growing tip of the mangrove or nipa palm, Nypa fruticans, was similarly used on captives.

It is true that some species of Chinese bamboo may grow up to three feet a day but could such pierce a human body hung in its path? In 2008 the television series MythBusters demonstrated that such could indeed over three days penetrate several inches of ballistic gelatin, used in lieu of a human, thus proving the viability of this form of torture if not its historicity.

Well, yes: What is that strange plant your neighbour has been culturing for this Halloween?


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Wes Porter -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. Wes has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.

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