Electric Tree of New Guinea

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The Electric Tree of New Guinea, also referred to as the Electric Tree of India in later retellings, is a cryptobotanical tree that first appeared in press accounts in the 1880s, where it was alleged to have been discovered by German explorers to the interior of New Guinea, some 100 miles inland from their disembarkment point at Cape della Torre (Cape Girgir), presumably within the New Guinea Highlands. As the name suggests, the tree was reported to produce an electrical current, passed via carbon cores within its branches, this being sufficient to shock and throw back people who touched it. In the original account, it was given the pseudo-taxonomic name of Elsassia electrica (as in Elsass, a.k.a. Alsace), while later versions of the story, re-situated to the "primeval forests of India," refer to it as Phiotacea electrica.

The story was credited by the Indian Gardener to an unidentified author who reputedly confessed in a letter to the Indian Daily News, their "imaginary account" being described as an intentional hoax.[IG]

Dramatis Personae

  • Lieut. von Immer Gassende, the apparent author of the original account;
  • Dr. Kummel, one of Gassende's companions and first to be shocked by the tree;
  • Unnamed members of the German exploration party.


The Electric Tree of New Guinea (1885)

  • "The Electric Tree of New Guinea", Forestry: A Journal of Forest & Estate Management (Edinburgh & London: C. & R. Anderson) 11 (14): 504-507, Dec. 1885, 

    THE following is going the round of the papers at present, and we give it for what it is worth, merely remarking that it is too much on a par with many other unrealized wonders of New Guinea for us to accept without reserve. It has a Munchawsenish smack with it, and we shall wait with patience further developments regarding this to our mind somewhat uncanny tree. The fact that "Dr. Kummel is much puzzled to account for the existence of this singular tree by any process of natural selection," is very interesting as reflecting on the doctor's facility for being puzzled. One would naturally think that his own experience with a little bit of "core," would have suggested to him the process by which his newly discovered tree has been selected by nature as the fittest in the region it occupies. The tree that could send a German doctor rolling and yelling on the ground and cause him to lose his spectacles appears to us to be eminently capable of taking care of itself and of holding its own in the struggle for existence:—

    "One of the German expeditions to New Guinea has just made a startling discovery. It has, of course, been perfectly well known, and is indeed one of the great principles of modern science that force, or energy, is not only indestructible, but transformable, as, for instance, the heat energy of steam is transformed into the energy of visible motion by the steam engine, and that again into the form of energy which we call electricity, by the dynamo. So, again, it is of course familiar that the peculiar force, whatever it is, which we call vital is partly transformed into weak electric currents along the nerves of men and other animals, as extreme instance occurring in the well-known electric eel which gives a really powerful discharge of electricity. Now, hitherto in plant-life nothing of the sort, however possible, has been proved to exist and the New Guinea discovery is neither more nor less than a gigantic vegetable gymnotus. The scientific interest of the find is immense, and not less, probably, its future practical bearing on the lives of our descendants. The electric eel could scarcely be used as a regular source of electric currents, but the Elsassia electrica, as Dr. Kummel has patriotically named it, can, to all appearance, be readily acclimatized and cultivated, and, if not overdrawn on, will give, if one may use the expression, a steady crop of energy available for all the multitudinous uses for which modern civilization now uses the dynamo or the battery. It is true that the current given by one tree is, though considerable in quantity, of much lower intensity than is wanted for many purposes; but even if it is found that this defect cannot be remedied by coupling up a number of trees in series without damaging them, science has methods of transforming with little loss, larger weak currents into smaller strong ones, and there need be no difficulty on this score. The outlook is immense: parks which will form a pleasant recreation ground to the citizens will light our cities almost free of cost or care; our gardens will themselves illuminate the villages of their owners, whilst the very hedgerow trees on our farms will supply the power for agricultural operations in the fields which they surround. I purposely refrain from the greater question of the application of electricity from this source to the general supersession of steam and other motors, but that it will come I have little doubt. However, I have said enough both on the the theory and the prospects of the discovery, and cannot now do better than relate in his own words the account given me by Lieutenant von Immer Gassende, the fortunate discoverer, who is now on his way to Sydney, where he catches the French mail steamer the Salazie, on the 6th October and proceeds to Europe. The Lieutenant, though much pulled down by the dangerous fever he has had, and which is indeed the cause of his return home, is anxious to be again in New Guinea, and to pursue those explorations which have been already so fruitful in result. He is a fine type of the German gentleman and sailor. He said: 'It is unnecessary to trouble you with many details of our journey. Dr. Kummel and I, with some half-a-dozen men, left the ship at anchor in a small bay to the east Cape Della Torre, and at once commenced working our way, as nearly due south as we could manage, over the low jungle-covered range which here skirts the coast. We saw for the first two days few natives of the type prevalent in this part of Papua, with small patches of bananas and other cultivated ground; we were not, however, molested by them, and farther on the country seemed absolutely without inhabitants. When we had got some 100 miles inland, a journey which took no less than twelve days' hard work, and had reached an elevation of about 5000 feet, being, in fact, on one of the northern spurs of the great central range, we encamped for the night in a more open country than we had hitherto seen. Our way in the morning was on an ever-ascending slope through park-like scenery, not only beautiful in itself, but a very refreshing change from our previous experiences. Towards noon I stopped under a large tree which seemed to particularly attract the attention of Kummel, who had been finding all kinds of novelties the whole morning, to take the exact bearings of a high peak which was visible through an opening in front of us. To my surprise, the compass seemed utterly drunk, varying in all directions in the most capricious manner at each movement I took. I called Kummel's attention to this, and he said jokingly that we must have arrived at Sinbad's loadstone rock. I tried a variety of experiments, and found that, on walking into the open, the disturbances became feebler, but did not entirely cease for some distance. Whilst we were discussing the matter, one of the men, who carried a heavy cutlass or machete for clearing the path, struck one of a number of peculiar buttresses which ran up the outside of the tree, splitting off a large slice, and severing a curious-looking black core some half an inch thick, which formed the centre. Kummel, in his scientific curiosity, ran up, placed his hands on the two ends of the core to look at it more closely, and instantly to my utter astonishment, gave a yell and rolled head over heels, getting up without his spectacles, and stammering to me that he had had a severe electric shock. One of the men was induced to repeat the experiment with similar results. I had no galvanometer, but improvised one with a length of copper wire, the centre of which I formed into an open spiral round my compass, and on inserting the ends of the wire into the opposite sides of the black matter, the needle was violently deflected, showing conclusively that a very considerable current was passing. Every branch and every twig of the tree, which I can assure you we treated with much respect, presented similar ridges and cores with the addition of a thicker central one, and I quickly proved that the current circulated through the entire system. How it is kept up no one can at present tell; but there it is. I am not able to say what the intensity or the quantity the current might have been, but it was enough to knock you down in a very unpleasant way. We made a lot of more experiments on the tree, and would have cut it down, but it seemed a dangerous job to undertake. We saw a great many more of the same kind farther on, quite a forest, in fact; but I was that night attacked with very severe fever, and, after stopping several days to rest I found myself obliged to return to the ship, and was then invalided home as my only chance. Dr. Kummel has returned with instruments to take proper measurements of the current, and to satisfy himself as to a number of points. In the meantime, I take home a preliminary memoir, pieces of the wood and core, etc., and seeds which we were fortunate enough to obtain. I am sorry I cannot show you them, as they are in my boxes on the steamer. The chemist on board says the black substance is a very pure amorphous carbon, giving hardly a trace of ash. Dr. Kummel is much puzzled to account for the existence of this singular tree by any process of natural selection. He says he cannot see how the possession of this system of electric currents could have benefited it. It has certainly however cleared out nearly every other species of forest tree from its habitat. Yes, I sincerely hope Elsassia electrica will grow in other countries it would be a great thing would it not?'"

Electrical Plants (1886)

India's Electric Tree (1898)

  • "India's Electric Tree", The Railway Agent and Station Agent (Cleveland, OH: Railway Agent Pub. Co.) 20 (2): 80, Oct. 1898, 

    A German authority on forestry announces that discovery in the primeval forests of India of a tree with most curious and inexplicable characteristics. The leaves of this tree are so highly electrical that whoever touches one of them receives a severe shock. Even upon the magnetic needle this tree, to which the name Phiotacea electrica has been given, has a strong influence, causing magnetic variations at a distance of about seventy feet.

    The electrical strength of the tree varies according to the time of day. It is strongest at noon, but disappears almost entirely at midnight. Its electricity also disappears in wet weather. Birds never nest or perch upon its branches, nor have any insects ever been seen upon it.

An Electric Tree (1904)


Harold T. Wilkins refers to the 1912 variation of the story in his book Secret Cities of Old South America (1952).