Today’s tree is one you should admire from afar. Really far. In fact, don’t go anywhere near it because contact with any part of this tree could be lethal. Just ask Ponce DeLeon. Oh, wait, you can’t. Because he’s dead, and this is the tree rumoured to have killed him. It’s a Manchineel Tree, known in Spanish as arbol de la Muerte, literally “tree of death.” Its fruits are called la manzanilla de la Muerte, “little apple of death.”
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.
An unfortunate radiologist took a bite while in the Caribbean, and she describes the experience for us.
I rashly took a bite from this fruit and found it pleasantly sweet. My friend also partook (at my suggestion). 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. Sadly, the pain was exacerbated by most alcoholic beverages, although mildly appeased by pina coladas, but more so by milk alone.
Over the next eight hours our oral symptoms slowly began to subside, but our cervical lymph nodes became very tender and easily palpable. Recounting our experience to the locals elicited frank horror and incredulity, such was the fruit’s poisonous reputation.
The tree is found throughout the Caribbean, Central America and into the northern part of South America. They live in clusters in coastal areas, and they rely on the movement of water to disperse their seeds. The tree is also found in south Florida, making it America’s deadliest tree.
The sap, white and milky, is spectacularly toxic; it causes burn-like blisters upon any contact with skin, and if you’re 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, don’t 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.
Story via: Atlas Obscura