Whether you climb them, hug them or admire them, trees are one part of nature that are so easy to love, cleansing the air we breathe, offering shade from the sun and providing sweet, nutritious fruit. But love isn’t exactly what you’ll feel if you get too close to the manchineel tree. Known as the most dangerous tree in the world, it’s found along the sandy beaches and mangroves in tropical climates stretching from Florida to the Caribbean, and down into parts of Central and South America. And this tree can cause a world of hurt.
The Dangers of the Manchineel
The manchineel’s small apple-like fruit definitely won’t keep the doctor away — it packs such a poisonous punch that the Spanish conquistadors called it the ‘la manzanilla de la muerte’ or ‘little apple of death.’ The ominous name may sound extreme, but history shows that indigenous peoples used the sap to poison their arrows and contaminate the water supply of the invading Spaniards.
While there are no reported instances in modern botanical literature of anyone dying from ingesting the innocent looking fruit, if you were to bite into it, the sweet taste would quickly turn quite painful. And we’re not talking about the uncomfortable burn of eating a super-hot pepper; the manchineel fruit will cause intense burning and severe swelling of your throat. The area around your mouth may get inflamed and blister, and potentially severe digestive problems can ensue.
Unfortunately, the danger doesn’t stop there. Just touching the leaves, even briefly, or using the tree as nature’s umbrella during a rainstorm will cause blistering lesions on your skin. And if you get any of the sap — or smoke from burning the wood — in your eyes, you will most likely experience temporary blindness.
Here’s radiologist Nicola Strickland describing in the journal BMJ her experience ingesting the fruit of the manchineel tree on a visit to the Caribbean island of Tobago:
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.
But the tree isn’t entirely evil. Their deep-growing roots help prevent soil erosion, and it provides a safe home and fully belly for one lucky reptile — the garrobo,or striped iguana of Central and South America. The only animal immune to its poison, the garrabo has the tree all to itself.
A manchineel tree on the beach at Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica.
How to Identify a Manchineel Tree
While most manchineel trees are marked with a large red X or a sign explaining the danger, you’ll want to know what to look out for if you’re travelling in a tropical area. The bark is a reddish-gray, and the shiny leaves can be 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 centimeters) long and 1 to 3 inches (2 to 8 centimeters) wide, laid out in an alternating pattern on the stem along with spikes of small yellowish-green flowers.
So, before you pick up what looks like a free afternoon snack or lean against a tree while exploring a tropical destination, stop and make sure it’s not the manchineel. Sure, it helps clean the air, offers shade and produces fruit — but this tree is one you’ll definitely want to love from afar.