Do Not Eat, Touch, Or Even Inhale the Air Around the Manchineel Tree
February 06, 2017 01:42 pm
Throughout 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.

You might be tempted to eat the fruit. Do not eat the fruit. You might want to rest your hand on the trunk, or touch a branch.  Do not touch the tree trunk or any branches. Do not stand under or even near the tree for any length of time whatsoever. Do not touch your eyes while near the tree. Do not pick up any of the ominously shiny, tropic-green leaves. If you want to slowly but firmly back away from this tree, you would not find any argument from any botanist who has studied it.

After all, it is rumored to have killed the famed explorer, Juan Ponce de Leon.

This is the manchineel, known sometimes as the beach apple, or more accurately in Spanish-speaking countries as la manzanilla de la muerte, which translates to the little apple of death, or as arbol de la muerte, tree of death.

Warning: all parts of manchineel are extremely poisonous. The content in this document is strictly informational. Interaction with and ingestion of any part of this tree may be lethal, write Michael G. Andreu and Melissa H. Friedman of the University of Florida in a brief guide to the tree. This is not an exaggeration. The fruits, though described as sweet and tasty, are extraordinarily toxic. Fatalities are not known in modern literature, though it’s certainly possible that people have died from eating the fruit of the manchineel. 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, says Roger Hammer, a naturalist and botanist who has written many books about the flora of Florida.

The sap, white and milky, is spectacularly toxic; it causes burn-like blisters upon any contact with skin, and if you are unfortunate enough to get it in your eyes, temporary blindness is highly likely. This sap is found throughout the tree, including in the bark and leaves, so, you know, do not touch any of it.

The specific toxins found in this sap and in the fruits remain partially unknown, but not unused. The aboriginal peoples of the Caribbean were familiar with the tree and used it for many purposes; the sap, in particular, was used to tip arrows. It is believed that the Calusa used it in that manner to kill Juan Ponce de Leon on his second trip to Florida in 1521, says Hammer.

Manchineel is a member of a family of plants known as the spurges. (The name comes from purge, because, although all these plants have toxic sap, the toxicity varies, and some can be used as a laxative.) Spurges are found worldwide, in various forms, ranging from tiny herb-like plants to large bushes and trees. Manchineel is one of the largest, reaching up to 50 feet in height, but despite its dangerous reputation is not the most famous—that d be the poinsettia, the manchineel s more festive cousin.

The manchineel tends to live along the coast, especially in brackish water. Generally speaking, it likes the same environments as the mangrove, though it s nowhere near as common. In Florida (and in the US in general), the manchineel is endangered, but tends to occur in clusters. Assuming you want to find one for some reason, it s most common in the Flamingo section of Everglades National Park, along with some smaller Floridian islands like Elliott Key and Key Largo. There are other very small populations elsewhere in the Keys, says Hammer. It is quite common around some of the coastal mangrove-buttonwood forests near Flamingo.”

In looking into the manchineel I was most curious about its place in the chaotic ecosystems of south Florida and the Caribbean. What could possibly be the evolutionary reason, I wondered, for a tree to be this toxic? The sap is fairly easy to explain, as a method of deterring herbivores who might otherwise want to harm the tree by eating its leaves or bark. But the fruit, in particular, baffled me: fruits, typically, are designed to trick animals into spreading seeds, since trees can’t spread seeds themselves. The tree wants animals to eat the fruit; the animal, ideally, will eat the fruit and poop out the seeds somewhere else, scattering them with a nice helping of fertilizer (read: poop) to help them grow somewhere new.

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