Some of the more mysterious and indeed ominous flowers are those that are almost mythical in nature, a sort of cryptid that may or may not exist, and which in many cases are considered outright lethal. One of these is the so-called “Man-Eating Lotus of Nubia,” which was an enormous lotus tree renowned for its gorgeous flowers and also known to lure in prey with sweet, succulent fruit, only to lash out to kill and consume them. In an 1881 travelogue called Under the Punkah, explorer Phil Robinson told of how one of these man-eating plants had attacked his uncle. The uncle was reported as having emptied his firearm into the blood-thirsty tree, after which he had hacked away at it with a knife as it grabbed and stabbed at him with vines and branches. He was finally able to barely escape with his life, but one of his native guides had not been so lucky, and was devoured. Robinson described the Man-Eating Lotus thus:
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.
Joining the ranks of dangerous cryptid flowers is a deadly flowering tree that supposedly existed on the island of Java, in the East Indies, which was known as the Bohon Upas, with upas being the Javanese for “poison,” or more ominously and spectacularly known to the West as “The Hydra Tree of Death.” One of the first mentions of this tree in the West comes from an account by the French Catholic traveller Friar Jordanus, who in the 14th century wrote of trees in Java that produced vibrant flowers that exuded a noxious, poisonous cloud that would kill anything that came near them. Sporadic reports of such malevolent trees came from travelers over the centuries and considering the exotic, remote location of these reports the idea of mysterious murderous trees in the jungles of Java took hold in the imagination of Westerners, for whom many Java was still a wild, untamed land.
The tale of the Bohon Upas really took off and gained popularity in the 18th century, when a German doctor named J.N. Foersch claimed in a 1783 article of The London Magazinethat he had collected several first-hand accounts of these killer trees when he had been stationed in the Dutch East Indies as a surgeon, and that he had decided to mount a daring expedition to find them for himself. In his account Foersch claimed that there was only one of these trees known to exist, and that he had found it out in the jungles tucked away within a secluded area surrounded by high hills. According to him, the tree lived up rather quite well to its deadly reputation. The land around it for up to 12 miles was apparently completely devoid of all vegetation, not even a single blade of grass, and every animal that entered was purportedly quickly overcome and smothered by a noxious gas “like the putrid steam of a marshy cavern,” with birds that flew into the bleak, poisonous zone spontaneously dropping dead in midair.
Foersch claimed that he had circumnavigated this deathly desert and come across an old hermit who lived on the fringes of this wasteland, who claimed that he was stationed there in order to provide equipment and last rites to the criminals he said were sent to the tree in order to attempt to gather its potent resin. The old hermit explained that these criminals accepted the task in lieu of a direct death sentence, and that before they entered the barren ring of death surrounding the tree they would dress in protective gear consisting of “a long leather cap, with two glasses before their eyes, which comes down as far as their breast,” as well as sturdy gloves, after which they would venture forth towards the lone tree, which was the only splash of green in a sea of brown and dead, bloated carcasses. According to the hermit, only one in ten of these poor souls made it back alive, the rest doomed to drop and rot away on that deathly tundra to wait for others to join them. According to Foersch, the toxic resin was collected from the tree to be used for the purpose of executing criminals, and he even claimed to have witnessed the poison used in this way on at least one occasion, saying that the victims died writhing and contorting in great agony.
As incredible as this account is, there were doubts that this tree ever existed, with some botanists at the time claiming that such a tree was impossible, and although the general public ate up this tale of adventure and exotic danger, serious scientists at the time largely scoffed at Froesch’s report, although not all. Even today Foersch’s account is often blamed for perhaps being an exaggerated tale that embellished certain grains of truth. For instance, there is indeed a tree the locals call the upas, which does indeed produce deadly poison that they use for poison tipped arrows, but the tree does not produce deadly airborne clouds that kill anything near it, with its odor actually being quite harmless. It has also been pointed out the barren circle of death surrounding the tree and the rumors of fatal fumes could have been the result of the area being plagued with toxic gasses generated by an extinct volcano called Guava Upas, which had a crater that spewed carbonic gas and sulphur that indeed snuffed the life out of any creatures that ventured too close, littering the valley with skeletons. The idea of men going into this wasteland to gather the tree’s resin may also have originated from the locals who risked their lives to gather sulphur from the volcanic crater. It is unknown whether the Bohon Upas tree ever really existed or not, but it is an intriguing tale nevertheless.
As similarly deadly flowering tree was known as the “Kumanga Killer Tree,” which was first heard about by outsiders by the Czech explorer Ivan Mackerle in 1998, while searching for the legendary Man Eating trees of Madagascar. Natives claimed that this particular tree was found on only one part of the island and was said to have colorful flowers that exuded an extremely poisonous gas. The natives claimed to know where such a tree was and guided Mackerle to its location. During the trek, the expedition members were so concerned about the poisonous nature of the plant that they actually wore gas masks. When they arrived at the alleged Kumanga Killer Tree, they found no gas spewing flowers, but did find several animal skeletons under the tree. The lack of flowers, the natives explained, was due to the tree not being in bloom. Mackerle also uncovered a story of a former British army officer who allegedly took photographs of a tree on the island that had various animal skeletons strewn about its base. Whether this particular tree was either one of the aforementioned carnivorous trees or something new is uncertain. It is also unknown what became of these photographs, or if indeed they ever existed at all.
Perhaps just as odd as these cases is a supposed man-eating flower native to the forgotten South Pacific islet of El Banoor, a place said to be home to a man-eating flower known only as “The Death Flower.” The flower’s existence is mostly known of through the 1581 account of the explorer Captain Arkwright, who wrote of it in his journals of his travels. He described the plant as basically a huge, brightly colored flower with very large petals. The flower reportedly could release a soporific, sleep inducing aroma, whereupon the victim would lie down upon one of the petals. Once this happened, the flower would close and digest its sleeping prey alive. It seems like a fascinating account, but since it is only one report and the location of El Banoor is not specifically explained, it seems unlikely we will ever know for sure just how much veracity the account holds.
Other mysterious flowers are less lethal, but nevertheless steeped in legend, myth and magic. One is the so-called “fern flower” of Slavic and Baltic lore, curious in that ferns are not flowering plants. According to the tales, these mystical flowers bloom only for a very fleeting time during the Summer solstice, and will bring wealth, luck, and the ability to understand animal speech to anyone who manages to find one, that is if they are able to get past the evil spirits that supposedly guard them. These flowers are mentioned countless times in the lore, but whether they ever really existed or not remains lost to time.
Accounts of an even more bizarre flower buried within an ancient work reconstructed by Una Woodruff in 1979, called Inventorum Natura: The Expedition Journal of Pliny the Elder, is an account of a very strange plant indeed. The volume supposedly catalogues natural wonders that the great Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder during a 3-year journey he took around the known world of the time, and within its pages is a description of a miraculous type of grass native to mainland Asia, which had flowers said to morph into tiny colorful birds that would fly off when ripe. These birds were said to look mostly like the real thing and could act independently, yet when dissected showed that they were still anatomically botanical in nature. The weird plants would be also mentioned in a 1667 work by Athanasius Kircher called China Illustrata, where it was described thus:
In Sichuan Province there is said to be a little bird which is born from the flower called Tunchon, and so the Chinese call it Tunchonfung. The Chinese say that this measures its life by the life of the flower, and that flower and bird die at the same time. The bird has a variety of colours. When flying and beating its wings, the bird looks like a beautiful flower flying across the heavens.
Cryptozoologist Karl Shuker has written of these anomalous flowers, and has theorized that this could be a legend born from a misconception that small, nectar-loving birds such as hummingbirds or sunbirds that hovered about actually came from the flowers themselves. Shuker has written of this theory:
It is possible that the latter is a species of sunbird (nectariniid). Native to Africa, Asia (including China’s Sichuan Province), and Australasia, sunbirds are small, extremely brightly coloured, and mirror ecologically albeit not taxonomically the New World hummingbirds. Feeding primarily upon nectar, moreover, they spend much of their time in such close proximity to flowers that this intimate association may well have inspired an erroneous belief that these diminutive birds were actually being engendered by the flowers.
A bit more ominous is the flower once said to be found at the notoriously haunted Deadman’s Island of Vancouver, British Colombia, in Canada. The land was first tainted with the blood of the dead when two tribes of the area, the Northern and Southern Salish nations, were locked into a bloody war. During one particularly brutal engagement, the southern tribe kidnapped 200 women, children, and elderly tribespeople from their enemies and held them captive on the island, demanding 200 of their enemy’s warriors in exchange for their release. When the northern tribe agreed and handed over 200 of its finest warriors, the men were ruthlessly massacred right then and there by a rain of arrows and knives. According to Native legends, the following day there were mysterious and menacing flaming flowers growing where the dead had fallen, causing the southern tribe to abandon the land and deem it an accursed place plagued with black magic. Author E. Pauline Johnson gave the best account of this bloody massacre in her 1911 book Legends of Vancouver, and described these flowers thus:
In the morning the southern tribes found the spot where they fell people filled with flaming fire-flowers. Dread terror seized upon them. In the depths of the undergrowth on Deadman’s Island there blossomed a flower of flaming beauty… but somewhere down in the sanctuary of its petals pulsed the heart’s blood of many and valiant men.
Still other flowers really did exist at one point, but were no less miraculous in their own way. One is a lost plant with phenomenal properties was an herb known as silphium, which was revered throughout the ancient Roman Empire and was so rare and sought after that it was worth more than its weight in gold. Silphium reportedly looked fairly nondescript, with stumpy yellowish leaves, fennel-like stalks, thick roots, and small yellow flowers, but its uses and properties were nearly legendary. It was considered to be a wonder medicine, purportedly able to cure and heal all manner of afflictions and diseases or protect from poisons, and it was claimed to be an effective birth control method, as drinking its sap was said to “purge the uterus.” Ironically it also made for a potent aphrodisiac, with its heart-shaped leaves thought to have popularized this shape as a symbol of love, and its uses extended out to making perfumes, feeding it to livestock to make their meat much more tender, preserving food, and as a food itself, with the stalks roasted, sautéed, boiled, or eaten raw.
The herb was so beloved and valued in ancient Rome and the surrounding regions that it was widely written of in song, poems, and literature. The value of silphium was raised even more due to the fact that for some reason it could not be successfully cultivated or farmed, with gathering it in the wild the only way to obtain it, although no one knew why. Silphium made a fortune for the city of Cyrene, at modern Shahhat, Libya, which was the only area where the plant was known to grow, with the city even having the herb printed on their currency.
There were various efforts to try and farm or grow the herb in captivity but none of these were successful, and no one, not even the so-called “father of botany,” Theophrastus, could figure out why this should be. This was one of the reasons why Rome was so keen to annex the then Greek city of Cyrene, which they did in 96 BC. Unfortunately, this marked the steady decline of silphium. Whereas the Greeks had had strict rules on how much of the herb to cultivate at a time, the silphium-hungry Romans quickly overharvested the plant, and as its value continued to skyrocket it was a target of black markets as well. This also combined with overgrazing, as livestock fed with silphium was said to taste remarkably better.
After the span of only around a century silphium was practically extinct, and the Roman author, naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder (AD 23 – 79) would lament that in his entire lifetime only a single stalk of silphium had ever been found anywhere. It would not be long after that silphium would seemingly vanish completely from the face of the earth, leaving us with only historical accounts to go on. In modern times it is unknown just what kind of herb silphium was or even exactly what it looked like, as there are only scattered, stylized artistic representations of it, but it is thought to have been possibly related to a group of fennel-like plants called the Ferula, which are related to carrots. However, no one really knows, and although it is speculated that this mysterious plant could still exist somewhere in the wilds of Libya, possibly right under our noses, it is likely that this ancient wonder herb will forever remain a historical oddity.
Another flower that is known to exist at the present is not mythical in and of itself, but may very well have contributed to the various legends of cyclops creatures scattered throughout the folklore of many cultures. A plant known as the corn lily is known to be slightly toxic but absolutely irresistible for some grazing animals such as sheep and goats. While ingesting this flower does not cause any lasting damage to adult animals, one chemical compound found within it has been found to have profound effects on developing fetuses. This compound, fittingly dubbed cyclopamine, has the effect of causing the animal to develop just one half of a brain and one eye, a nearly always fatal condition known as cyclopia, which can be seen across a vast spectrum of different types of animals and on some occasions even humans. Could these flowers or something like them have been behind the tales of cyclops throughout the ages?
It seems when looking at the many accounts and legends such as these that flowers are more than just pretty things to look at. They have some profound place in our world beyond merely decorations and natural slotches of color. What are the secrets to the flowers we have looked at here? Will we ever understand any of them or their mysteries any more completely than we already do, or are they historical oddities lost to time? Whatever the case may be, it certainly gives one something to think about the next time one sees a bunch of comely flowers.