For all its raw beauty, nature can be pretty scary too. One minute you’re chomping a beautifully juicy green apple from a tropical branch, and the next your throat is rapidly closing up in a mad dash to the ER. Take the manchineel tree, for example. Sure, it’s nice to look at. But with a nickname like “tree of death,” don’t expect an entirely wonderful experience.
Danger! Watch out for yourself
The machineel is the most dangerous tree in the world. But just by looking, you would never know it. The tree is a beachy, tropical plant that generally looks like any other, save for its abundance of shiny green fruits. It’s native to Central America, the Caribbean, northern parts of South America, and tropical regions of North America, including South Florida.
But this tree isn’t for fruit-picking. Or carving your initials into. Or climbing. Or standing under. Or even just breathing near. Nope, this thing is basically just good for bringing the pain. There’s a reason the manchineel and its fruit have garnered all those punk rock nicknames: tree of death, poison guava, little apple of death, etc. As Michael G. Andreu and Melissa H. Friedman of the University of Florida wrote in a brief guide to the tree, “Warning: all parts of manchineel are extremely poisonous … Interaction with and ingestion of any part of this tree may be lethal.”
The Secret’s in the Sauce
As Andreu and Friedman described above, every component of the manchineel is basically a torture device, and that’s because of one thing. The tree oozes a thick, milky sap that seeps out of everything — the bark, the leaves, and the tempting little death apples that dangle off the branches. Coming into contact with this agony juice, which is made up of a slew of delightfully hellish toxins, will give you severe burn-like blisters.
The toxin in the sap that causes the most serious reactions is phorbol, a poisonous organic compound. The stuff is water soluble, which causes an unexpected problem when it rains. Let us set the scene: It’s pouring in south Florida, so you take refuge beneath a sweet tropical tree — a tree that just so happens to be a machineel. The rain from the sky washes the toxic, phorbol-riddled sap down through the leaves onto your bare flesh and boom — you’re in a world of pain.
A Cautionary Tale
Touching it is one thing, but eating it is a whole different animal. “The real death threat comes from gorging its small round fruit,” Ella Davies writes for the BBC. “Ingesting the fruit can prove fatal when severe vomiting and diarrhoea dehydrate the body to the point of no return.” Radiologist Nicola H. Strickland learned the danger of the seemingly innocuous “beach apple” the hard way in 1999.
She writes of a vacation with a friend to the idyllic beaches of the Caribbean island of Tobago. After some shell gathering and other typical beach vacation activities, Strickland and her cohort stumble upon some sweet-smelling crabapple-like interesting fruits. They chow down. It didn’t take long for the two to become overwhelmed by a peppery, burning feeling while their throats tightened in excruciating pain, to the point where they could barely swallow. Say hello to the manchineel! Thankfully, the two came out alive.
Two Sides to Every Story
Before you go campaigning for death to all manchineel trees, we’re here to tell you their is a sunny side to this sad tale of woe. Consider cute patio chairs. Caribbean carpenters have used wood from these trees in furniture for centuries, Science Alert reports. (They have to carefully cut and dry it in the sun to tame the poisonous sap, of course.) The trees also play an important role in Central American ecosystems. The large, shrubby manchineel grows into dense, protective walls that protect from coastal erosion on the region’s tropical beaches. Hey, what’s good for the beaches is good with us.
THIS WAS EXTRACTED FROM WIKIPEDIA ABOUT THE MANCHINEEL TREE BELOW
Commonly known as manchineel. All parts of this tree, including the fruit, contain toxic phorbol esters typical of the Euphorbiaceae plant family. Specifically the tree contains 12-deoxy-5-hydroxyphorbol-6gamma, 7alpha-oxide, hippomanins, mancinellin, sapogenin, phloracetophenone-2, 4-dimethylether is present in the leaves, while the fruits possess physostigmine. Contact with the milky white latex produces strong allergic dermatitis. Standing beneath the tree during rain will cause blistering of the skin from even slight contact with this liquid (even a small drop of rain with the milky substance in it will cause the skin to blister). Burning tree parts may cause blindness if the smoke reaches the eyes. The fruit can also be fatal if eaten. Many trees carry a warning sign, while others have been marked with a red “X” on the trunk to indicate danger. In the French Antilles the trees are often marked with a painted red band a few feet above the ground. The Caribs used the latex of this tree to poison their arrows and would tie captives to the trunk of the tree, ensuring a slow and painful death. A poultice of arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea) was used by the Arawaks and Taíno as an antidote against such arrow poisons. The Caribs were also known to poison the water supply of their enemies with the leaves. Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León was struck by an arrow that had been poisoned with manchineel sap during battle with the Calusa in Florida, dying shortly thereafter.
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