The Poison Manchineel Tree

“The little apple of death.”

All through the coasts of the Caribbean, Central America, the northern edges of South America, and even in south Florida, there can be found a pleasant-looking beachy sort of tree, often laden with small greenish-yellow fruits that look not unlike apples.

  • Do not eat the fruit.
  • Do not rest your hand on the trunk
  • Do not touch a branch
  • Do not touch your eyes while near the tree
  • Do not pick up any of the ominously shiny, tropic-green leaves
  • Do not stand under or even near the tree for any length of time
  • Do not stand, or even pass under, the tree when raining

The tree grows up to 49 feet tall. It has reddish-grayish bark, small greenish-yellow flowers, and shiny green leaves. The leaves are simple, alternate, very finely serrated or toothed, and 2–4 inches long. Spikes of small greenish flowers are followed by fruits, which are similar in appearance to an apple, and are green or greenish-yellow when ripe.

I rashly took a bite from this fruit and found it pleasantly sweet. Moments later we noticed a strange peppery feeling in our mouths, which gradually progressed to a burning, tearing sensation and tightness of the throat. The symptoms worsened over a couple of hours until we could barely swallow solid food because of the excruciating pain and the feeling of a huge obstructing pharyngeal lump.

Radiologist Nicola Strickland wrote in a 2000 British Medical Journal article

All parts of the tree contain strong toxins. Its milky white sap contains phorbol[1] and other skin irritants, producing strong allergic contact dermatitis. Standing beneath the tree during rain will cause blistering of the skin from mere contact with this liquid: even a small drop of rain with the milky substance in it will cause the skin to blister.

Shipwrecked sailors have been reported to have eaten manchineel fruits and, rather than dying a violent death, they had inflammations and blistering around the mouth. Other people have been diagnosed with severe stomach and intestinal issues.

Naturalist and botanist Roger Hammer

Consumption of the fruits is potentially lethal and frequently causes burnlike blisters in the mouth and esophagus. The tree contains a cocktail of toxins, including 12-deoxy-5-hydroxyphorbol-6-gamma-7-alpha-oxide, hippomanins, mancinellin, and sapogenin. Phloracetophenone-2,4-dimethylether is present in the leaves, while the fruits possess physostigmine.

Manchineel Facts

The sap has also been known to damage the paint on cars.

Burning the tree may cause ocular injuries if the smoke reaches the eyes.

Carib Indians and other Indigenous peoples
have long used the sap to poison arrows

According to researchers, notorious colonizer Christopher Columbus is said to have called the tree’s fruit “manzanilla de la Muerte” or “the little apple of death.”

it holds the Guinness World Record for “most dangerous tree.”

Iguanas appear immune to the toxins, and in parts of Central and South America do indeed eat the fruits and disperse the seeds.

The wood has been used for non-lethal purposes and actually prized for some purposes like cabinetry and serving ware. To make it usable, it has to be burned at the base to cut it down—nobody has any interest in getting in there with an axe and chopping at a manchineel trunk—and then dried for several days in the sun to neutralize the sap.

Biotoxins can inspire beneficial scientific breakthroughs like safer pesticides from scorpion venom or pain medicine from cone snails, it’s probably worth keeping manchineel around.

On the fourth, a party of men were sent to cut wood, as the island apparently afforded plenty of that article; amongst other trees they unluckily cut down several of the manchineel, the juice of which getting into their eyes, rendered them blind for several days.

William Ellis, ship’s surgeon for James Cook

If you come into contact with any poisonous plant, the Centers for Disease Control recommends rinsing with a good degreasing soap or, better yet, rubbing alcohol. Scrub under your nails if necessary. Then, relieve itching and irritation with wet compresses, oatmeal baths, and an antihistamine. If it’s severe, go to the emergency room.



Footnotes
  1. Phorbol is a natural, plant-derived organic compound. It is a member of the tigliane family of diterpenes. Phorbol was first isolated in 1934 as the hydrolysis product of croton oil, which is derived from the seeds of the purging croton, Croton tiglium. The structure of the phorbol was determined in 1967. Various esters of phorbol have important biological properties, the most notable of which is the capacity to act as tumor promoters through the activation of protein kinase C. They mimic diacylglycerols, glycerol derivatives in which two hydroxyl groups have reacted with fatty acids to form esters. The most common and potent phorbol ester is 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA), also called phorbol-12-myristate-13-acetate (PMA), which is used as a biomedical research tool in contexts such as models of carcinogenesis. [Back]

Further Reading

Sources

Wikipedia
Britannica
Treehugger
National Library of Medicine
Atlas Obscura


Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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