Many explorers including Captain Cook came across the manchineel tree and saw its effects first-hand. The Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon who died in a skirmish with native people in southwest Florida in 1521 is said to have been killed by an arrow dipped in manchineel. Photo by Special Collections, University of Amsterdam, VIG5
A member of the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae), this species actually holds the record as the world’s most dangerous tree. The milky sap of the manchineel, which drips from any wounds in its trunk or branches, as with other spurges, contains strong irritants. It is so caustic that on contact with the skin, the sap will immediately cause blistering and burns, and can produce temporary blindness if it gets in the eyes. Even standing under this tree in the rain is dangerous, as drops contaminated by the sap can have the same effects.
Native to the tropical areas of southern North America (including Florida), the Caribbean, Central America and northern South America, this evergreen tree grows up to 15 meters (50 feet) tall. It is found along beaches and coastlines, where its roots help prevent erosion. The fruits resemble small green apples, but they are also highly toxic and the tree has many sinister common names including the Spanish arbol de la muerte or manzanilla de la muerte — tree or apple of death. Said to taste quite sweet, the fruit’s flesh if eaten soon results in severe burning and ulceration of the mouth and throat, leading to excruciating pain. As all parts of the manchineel are toxic, local people will sometimes mark the trunk of a tree with a red X or a sign to warn of its presence. The wood is used, with care, in the making of furniture, but even burning it is dangerous as the smoke from the fire can still give rise to serious eye problems.
People have learnt the hard way to avoid the sap and tempting fruits of the manchineel, which are highly toxic. The tree has evolved this severe deterrent to rebuff herbivores, while its fruits are thought to be designed to drop on to the beach and be carried away by the tides to a new location where they can germinate and grow. Photo by The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Encounters with this species are mentioned by several famous explorers. The eighteenth-century naturalist Mark Catesby recorded the agonies he suffered after the juice of the tree got into his eyes, and that he was “two days totally deprived of sight.” Manchineel’s notorious reputation has even spread into literature — references are found in Madame Bovary and The Swiss Family Robinson, among others, while it also appears in operas, including Giacomo Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, where it is chosen as a means of suicide by the heroine Sélika.
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Cover courtesy of the University of Chicago Press
Reprinted with permission from Remarkable Trees by Christina Harrison and Tony Kirkham published by The University of Chicago Press. © 2019 Thames & Hudson Ltd and the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew All rights reserved.