Arbor Diaboli, the Devil Tree of Mexico

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Arbor Diaboli (Latin: Devil Tree) is the appellation for a cryptobotanical carnivorous plant that reputedly existed in several different environments around the world, including the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains of Mexico. According to a circulated account, credited to one John M. Betterman, the tree was observed to devour entire birds, including those the size of poultry chickens, wrapping several tentacles around the body of the prey before draining the blood with suckers along the length of each tentacle (compared to those of an octopus by the writer, and similar to the Devil's Snare); this story was later credited to Joseph Mulhattan, the "Prince of Liars," a notorious hoaxer.[1]

Dramatis Personae

  • John M. Betterman, the American botanist and explorer;
  • Prof. Wordenhaupt, "world-famous botanist" of the University of Heidelberg;
  • Joseph Mulhattan, known hoaxster and (later) credited as author of the story.

The Report


As published in The Mechanical News: An Illustrated Journal of Manufacturing (New York: James Leffel & Co.) 19 (22): 349, 1890-02-01 

John M. Betterman, an American, sends the following letter from Chihuaha, Mex., which was published in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat:
"I have taken much interest in the study of botany during my sojourn in this country, the flora of which presents one of the richest fields for scientists in the world, and have wandered some distance from town on several occasions in my search for specimens. On one of these expeditions I noticed a dark object on one of the outlying spurs of the Sierra Madre Mountains, which object excited my curiosity so much that I examined it carefully through my field-glass. This revealed that the object was a tree or shrub of such an unusual appearance that I resolved to visit the spot. I rode to the mountain, the sides of which sloped sufficiently for me to make my way on horseback to within a few rods of the summit. But here I was stopped by an abrupt rise, so steep that I despaired of reaching it even on foot. I went around it several times seeking for some way to climb up, but the jagged, beetling rocks afforded not the slightest foothold. On the top of this knob stands the tree I had seen. From the spot on which I now stood I could see that it somewhat resembled in form the weeping willow but the long, drooping, whip-like limbs were of a dark and apparently slimy appearance, and seemed possessed of a horrible lifelike power of coiling and uncoiling. Occasionally the whole tree would seem a writhing, squirming mass. My desire to investigate this strange vegetable product increased on each of the many expeditions made to the spot, and at last I saw a sight one day which made me believe I had certainly discovered an unheard of thing. A bird, which I had watched circling about for some time, finally settled on the top of the tree, when the branches began to awaken, as it were, and to curl upwards. They twined and twisted like snakes about the bird, which began to scream, and drew it down in their fearful embrace until I lost sight of it. Horror-stricken I seized the nearest rock in an attempt to climb the knob. I had so often tried in vain to do this that I was not surprised when I fell back, but the rock was loosened and fell also. It narrowly missed me, but I sprang up unhurt, and saw that the fallen rock had left a considerable cavity. I put my face to it and looked in. Something like a cavern, the floor of which had an upward tendency, met my sight, and I felt a current of fresh air blowing on me, with a dry, earthy smell. Evidently there was another opening somewhere, undoubtedly at the summit. Using my trowel, which I always carried on my botanizing expeditions, I enlarged the hole, and then pushed my way up through the passage. When I had nearly reached the top I looked out cautiously to see if I should emerge within reach of that diabolical tree. But I found it nowhere near the aperture, so I sprang out. I was just in time to see the flattened carcass of the bird drop to the ground, which was covered with bones and feathers. I approached as closely as I dared and examined the tree. It was low in size, not more than twenty feet high, but covering a great area. Its trunk was of prodigious thickness, knotted and scaly. From the top of this trunk, a few feet from the ground, its slimy branches curved upward and downward, nearly touching the ground with their tapering tips. Its appearance was that of a gigantic tarantula awaiting its prey. On my venturing to lightly touch one of the limbs, it closed upon my hand with such force that when I tore it loose the skin came with it. I descended then, and closing the passage, returned home. I went back next day, carrying half a dozen chickens with which to feed the tree. The moment I tossed it the fowls, a violent agitation shook its branches which swayed to and fro with a sinuous, snaky motion. After devouring the fowls, the branches, fully gorged, dropped to their former position, and the tree giving no sign of animation, I dared approach it and take the limbs in in hand. They were covered with suckers, resembling the tentacles on the octopus. The blood of the fowls had been absorbed by these suckers, leaving crimson stains on the dark surface. There was no foliage, of course, of any kind. Without speaking of my discovery to anyone about, I wrote an account of it to the world-famous botanist, Professor Wordenhaupt, of the University of Heidelberg. His reply states that my tree is the arbor diaboli, only two specimens of which have ever been known — one on a peak of the Himalayas, and the other on the Island of Sumatra. Mine is the third. Professor Wordenhaupt says that the arbor diaboli, and the plant known as Venus' fly-trap, are the only known specimens, growing on the land, of those forms of life which partake of the nature of both the animal and vegetable kingdoms, although there are instances, too numerous to mention, found of this class in the sea."

[Included in closing of other versions of the same report: The Portuguese man-of war may be mentioned, however, as one, and the sponge as the best known specimen of this class.]