The Manchineel Tree
Plants are a lovely part of nature. They benefit the different kinds of life on earth, including humans. They provide shade, are an essential part of the air we breathe, as well as an integral part of the food source. However, some plants can be lethal and toxic to humans. One example is the Manchineel tree, also known as the beach apple, one bite from the fruit of this tree could be fatal. The Manchineel tree, also christened “The tree of death,” is the most dangerous tree on earth.
The Manchineel Tree is native to the Caribbean islands, but can be found in beaches on tropical islands, the everglades and Southern Florida. The trees are usually labeled with warning signs not to approach with explanations of its toxic parts, red rings are also sprayed around the trunks to warn the unsuspecting. The trees scientific name is Hippomane Mancinella which literally translates into “The little apple that makes horses mad.”
Through history explorers have had encounters with the harmless looking tree. It was called “The little apple of death,” by conquistadors. Captain James Cook and his crew came upon the Manchineel While on a voyage. His men needed supplies, so Cook ordered them to collect fresh water and chop manchineel wood. During this process crew members rubbed their eyes, which reportedly resulted in their blindness for two weeks. Shipwrecked sailors have been reported to have eaten Manchineel fruits, which caused them inflammations and blistering around the mouth.
The natives of the Caribbean used the sap of the tree to tip their arrows. Juan Ponce De Leon led his first European expedition into Florida in 1521 and then returned eight years later to colonize the Peninsula. The Calusa fighters struck Ponce’s thigh with one of these poison saps tipped arrows, during the 1521 battle. He fled with troops to Cuba where he died of his wounds.
- The legendary poison of this tree made its way into art. In the 1865 Opera L’Africaine an island queen heartbroken over her secret love of an explorer, throws herself under the Manchineel tree, singing as she draws her last breath.
Every part of the Manchineel tree is toxic. The Toxins include Hippomanin A and B and others are yet to be identified, some are fast acting, as others take their time. The fruit of the tree is greenish yellow and resembles a little apple, is 1 to 2 inches wide. If the fruit is consumed one can expect “hours of agony,” and potentially death after one bite. People who have eaten the tempting fruit is diagnosed with severe stomach and intestinal issues. Symptoms of eating the fruit is abdominal pain, vomiting, bleeding and digestive track damage. Death is a risk, but mortality data is scarce.
Burning the wood or bark of the tree can be dangerous because the smoke it toxic, it will burn the skin, eyes, lungs, and blind anyone standing nearby. The tree poses a danger to shade seekers, as standing to close to the tree may cause asphyxiation as a person’s throat closes breathing in the toxic scent of the tree. If its toxin is inhaled or enters the bloodstream death is likely.
The sap is the deadliest element of the tree, one drop can scorch the skin. The sap is white and milky and causes burn like blisters (similar to acid), if it has contact with the skin. The milky sap is found throughout the tree, including in the bark and leaves. People and car paint have been burned, as rain washes away the sap off the branches. The rain provides a trap as beach goers stand below to find shelter from the rain. Symptoms with contact to the sap range from, rash, headache, acute dermatitis, severe breathing problems, and “Temporary painful blindness.” The Machineel tree is appealing and its fruit although extremely poisonous, is sweet and tasty. Everything about the tree is toxic, and will release a toxin, yet the specific toxins found in the sap and fruit remain partially unknown.
- In the year 2000 radiologist Nicola Strickland, and a friend, took a bite of the green fruit that was lying on the beach in the Caribbean island of Tobago. She described the fruit as “pleasantly sweet,” and juicy, comparing it to the taste of a plum. The sweet taste was followed by a peppery feeling in the mouth. After a few minutes, the burning sensation in mouth began, and gradually progressed to a burning tearing sensation and tightness of throat. Her throat closed so tight she could barely swallow. Pina Colada provided some relief to them, possible because of the milk it contained. Eight hours later their oral symptoms subsided, but their cervical lymph nodes became very tender.
The Manchineel Tree has been rated in Worlds Guinness book of Records as the world’s most dangerous tree. It is considered Americas deadliest tree, and it can be found in South Florida, Coast of the Caribbean, Central America, and the northern edges of South America. Manchineel is a member of the plant family spurges, derived from the name purge. The trees live along the coast in brackish water, and tend to grow in clusters. They are the most common in the Flamingo section of the Everglades National Park, and on Floridian islands like Elliot Key and Key Largo. The Manchineel tree may reach up to fifty feet in height. The tree is on the endangered species list because of habitat loss, and eradication efforts do to its toxicity.
The poisonous nature of the tree is unique on the common principles of evolution. Fruits usually are designed for their seeds to be spread, herbivores eat them and seeds are added to the soil. Mammals understandable avoid the fruit of the Machineel. This fact baffled botanist for some time. The Machineel tree’s seeds are delivered in a different way. The seeds are dispersed the same as the coconut plant. The fruit drops from the tree into the water, then the fruit rots and seeds can grow. The tides and currents of the ocean disperse the seeds. Because of the ocean, it is not necessary for mammals to eat the fruit for the tree to multiply. Seeds have traveled by sea, as far as across the Gulf of Mexico. That does not exclude this fruit from an organism’s diet however, surprisingly the Garrobo, a striped Iguana of Central and South America, eat the Manchineel fruit and sometimes lives among the tree’s limbs. It still remains a mystery to scientist, why this tree evolved to be so deadly to mammals? Though it’s not an up close and personal kind of tree for humans, it does have its good points. This tree is a natural windbreak from Atlantic storms, fights beach erosion, and serves as a source of study in the research of pain medicine.
- Oddly the Manchineel tree has many uses, for centuries Caribbean carpenters have used Manchineel to make furniture. Trees are brought down by controlled burning at the base, since it is dangerous to use axes, the wood is then carefully cut, then dried in the sun to neutralize the poison sap. Native people have used Manchineel as medicine, gum made from the bark can reportedly treat edema, and dried fruit have even been used as a diuretic.
So! If you happen to be a tourist in the Caribbean, and are enjoying a day at the beach. Keep a very safe distance from the Manchineel tree, and admire from afar.
Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart: ISBN – 978-1-56512-683-1