|Fruit and foliage|
The name "manchineel" (sometimes written "manchioneel") 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. 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 dangerous trees in the world. Manchineel is also known as the beach apple.
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 helping to prevent beach erosion.
Hippomane mancinella, the evergreen manchineel tree, 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.
All parts of the tree contain strong toxins, some unidentified. Its milky white sap contains phorbol 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). 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.
The fruit is possibly fatal if eaten; however, "fatalities from ingestion are not reported in the modern literature" and "ingestion may produce severe gastroenteritis with bleeding, shock, bacterial superinfection, and the potential for airway compromise due to edema. Patients with a history of ingestion and either oropharyngeal burns or gastrointestinal symptoms should be evaluated for admission into hospital. Care is supportive."
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 a few feet above the ground. On Bonaire, however, trees are unmarked.
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 also 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 timber by Caribbean carpenters for centuries. It must be cut and left to dry in the sun to remove the sap. A gum can be produced from the bark which reportedly treats edema, while the dried fruits have been used as a diuretic.
Literary and artistic references
William Ellis, ship's surgeon for James Cook on his third and 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, author of the book The Buccaneers of America wrote of his experience with the "tree called mancanilla, or dwarf-apple-tree" when in Hispaniola (modern day Haiti/Dominican Republic): "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." The young first-person narrator in Sid Fleischman's famous pirate-ship tale "The Ghost in the Noonday Sun" also encounters this tree in like fashion, breaking a branch from the tree to swish biting insects, and soon suffering similar devastating consequences that last for several 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."
Rodolphe, a character in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857, Part 2, Chapter XIII), refers to the "poisonous shade of the fatal manchineel tree" in a letter to Emma Bovary: "Nor had I reflected upon this at first, and I rested in the shade of that ideal happiness as beneath that of the manchineel tree, without foreseeing the consequences." [translation]
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- The Buccaneers of America; Part I, Chapter IV
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