|Fruit and foliage|
The manchineel tree (Hippomane mancinella) is a species of flowering plant in the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae). Its native range stretches from tropical southern North America to northern South America.
The name "manchineel" (sometimes spelled "manchioneel" or "manchineal"), as well as the specific epithet mancinella, is from Spanish manzanilla ("little apple"), from the superficial resemblance of its fruit and leaves to those of an apple tree. It is also known as the beach apple.
A present-day Spanish name is manzanilla de la muerte, "little apple of death". This refers to the fact that manchineel is one of the most toxic trees in the world: the tree has milky-white sap which contains numerous toxins and can cause blistering. The sap is present in every part of the tree: the bark, the leaves, and the fruit.
The manchineel tree can be found on coastal beaches and in brackish swamps, where it grows among mangroves. It provides excellent natural windbreaks and its roots stabilize the sand, thus reducing beach erosion.
Hippomane mancinella grows up to 15 metres (49 ft) tall. It has reddish-greyish bark, small greenish-yellow flowers, and shiny green leaves. The leaves are simple, alternate, very finely serrated or toothed, and 5–10 cm (2–4 in) long.
Spikes of small greenish flowers are followed by fruits, which are similar in appearance to an apple, are green or greenish-yellow when ripe. The fruit is poisonous, as is every other part of the tree.
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. 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. Contact with its milky sap (latex) produces bullous dermatitis, acute keratoconjunctivitis and possibly large corneal epithelial defects.
Although the fruit is potentially fatal if eaten, no such occurrences have been reported in the modern literature. Ingestion can produce severe gastroenteritis with bleeding, shock, and bacterial superinfection, as well as the potential for airway compromise due to edema.
When ingested, the fruit is reportedly "pleasantly sweet" at first, with a subsequent "strange peppery feeling ... gradually progress[ing] to a burning, tearing sensation and tightness of the throat." Symptoms continue to worsen until the patient can "barely swallow solid food because of the excruciating pain and the feeling of a huge obstructing pharyngeal lump."
In some parts of its range, many trees carry a warning sign – for example on Curaçao – while others are 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 roughly 1 metre (3 ft) above the ground.
The tree contains 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.
A poultice of arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea) was used by the Arawak and Taíno as an antidote against such poisons. The Caribs were known to poison the water supply of their enemies with the leaves. Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León died shortly after an injury incurred in battle with the Calusa in Florida—being struck by an arrow that had been poisoned with manchineel sap.
Despite the inherent dangers associated with handling it, the tree has been used as a source of wood by Caribbean furniture makers for centuries. It must be cut and left to dry in the sun to dry the sap. To avoid dangerous contact with the poisonous parts, the tree may be burnt at the base to fell it.
Literary and artistic references
Inside the Poison Dome we grow some of the deadliest plants on the planet, including water hemlock, deadly nightshade, elephant's ear, death cap mushrooms and castor beans. The manzanilla tree has attractive fruit which you may choose to swallow. If you do so, it will kill you instantly. There is also a white resin dripping out of it which will blister your skin and blind you.
- William Ellis, ship's surgeon for James Cook on his final voyage, wrote:
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.
- Alexandre Exquemelin wrote in The Buccaneers of America of his experience with the "tree called mancanilla, or dwarf-apple-tree" when in Hispaniola:
One day being hugely tormented with mosquitoes or gnats, and as yet unacquainted with the nature of this tree, I cut a branch thereof, to serve me instead of a fan, but all my face swelled the next day and filled with blisters, as if it were burnt to such a degree that I was blind for three days.
- Nicholas Cresswell, in his journal entry for Friday, September 16, 1774, mentions:
The Mangeneel Apple has the smell and appearance of an English Apple, but small, grows on large trees, generally along the Seashore. They are rank poison. I am told that one apple is sufficient to kill 20 people. This poison is of such a malignant nature that a single drop of rain or dew that falls from the tree upon your skin will immediately raise a blister. Neither Fruit or Wood is of any use, that I can learn.
- In Giacomo Meyerbeer's opera L'Africaine (1865), the heroine Sélika dies by inhaling the perfume of the manchineel tree's blossoms.
- In the story "The Beckoning Hand", in the 1887 collection of that name by Grant Allen, a manchineel (spelled "manchineal" here) leaf is rolled in a cigarette in an attempt to poison a person.
- In the film Wind Across the Everglades (1958), a notorious poacher named Cottonmouth (played by Burl Ives) ties a victim to the trunk of a manchineel tree.
- The tree is recorded as the world's most dangerous tree by Guinness World Records.
- In the Amazon Studios TV series Homecoming (2018), the tree's leaves are part of a mind-altering drug administered to combat veterans to test its effectiveness in reducing PTSD symptoms. In S01,E09 of Homecoming Julia Roberts' character is interviewed in the office of a company named 'Manchineel' with that name in large letters on the wall and a large ovate leaf icon next to it.
- In the TV series Total Drama Pahkitew Island, one of the characters poisons another with a manchineel fruit in order to get them out of the game.
- In the novel, “Wish You Were Here” by Jodi Picoult, the tree is referenced as Diana attempts to get an apple from the tree. Diana is met by a person who attempts to tell them about the tree’s poison. Diana suffers minor burns and blisters from the interaction.
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