|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 in fact 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.
All parts of the tree contain strong toxins, some unidentified. Its milky white sap contains phorbol and other skin irritants, producing strong allergic 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 in 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 was struck by an arrow that had been poisoned with manchineel sap during battle with the Calusa in Florida, dying shortly thereafter.
After its discovery, the manchineel quickly became notorious. The heroine of Giacomo Meyerbeer's 1865 opera L'Africaine commits suicide by lying under a manchineel tree and inhaling the plant's vapours. In the 1958 film Wind Across the Everglades, a notorious poacher named Cottonmouth (played by Burl Ives) ties a victim to the trunk of a manchineel tree.
Despite the inherent dangers associated, 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 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 writes 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."
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 Johann David Wyss's 1812 children's classic, The Swiss Family Robinson, the boys find a wild fruit and bring it to their father to determine whether it is edible. The oldest son, Fritz, expresses his concern that "it might be the poisonous manchineel" about which his father had warned him. The fruit turned out to be a different – and edible – tropical fruit.
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.
Rafael Sabatini in The Chronicles of Captain Blood (1930) describes poisoning by manchineel fruit juice: "'Manzanilla!' Then he swung round, and, uttering horrible, blood-curdling blasphemies, he hurled the jack and the remainder of its contents at the dead man on the floor."
The effects of manchineel poison are referenced in the 1974 novel You Are the Rain by R. R. Knudson. It is about the adventures of two teenage girls lost and stranded in the Florida Everglades amidst hurricane Aretha. Before they are separated from their all-girl paddling group, they all camp along the Broad River at dusk, taking photos. Their leader, Miss Konecky, pushes a member into the river in time to prevent the girl from posing under the manchineel, with menacing clouds overhead. When the girl returns, Miss Konecky explains that she narrowly escaped being blistered, that merely standing under a manchineel during rain would have given her face painful and ulcerous blisters, as the fruit, leaves, sap, and everything else in the tree contained water-soluble toxins. To this, the girl jokes about having a photo taken of a face that had just been narrowly saved from blistering.
In Clive Cussler's 1988-published novel Treasure, manchineel (in the inflight meal) is used to poison the crew and passengers of a special plane carrying UN Secretary General Hala Kamil to New York.
In Kieran Scott's 2009-published novel Suspicion, in which American students take a trip to the Caribbean, manchineel is used both by the protagonist in self-defence as well as by the villain in attempted murder.
In the 2011 novel Double Dexter, the sixth book in the Dexter Morgan series by Jeff Lindsay, Cody and Dexter go on a Cub Scout camping trip in the Everglades where the Scout Leader gives an in-depth lecture about the dangers of the manchineel tree.
The manchineel tree and its green flowers are an important motif in the fantasy story "The Lily and the Horn" by Catherynne M. Valente. The narrator, an expert poisoner, learned her skill at an institute called the Florilegium where everything was poisonous, including the manchineel tree in the orchard. Her beloved was at the institute to learn to counter poisons. The two of them met for the last time beneath the manchineel tree in the rain after having protected themselves from its effects by coating their skin with emerald dust.
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