Although it resides on chilled-out, tourist-friendly beaches, the manchineel tree (Hippomane mancinella) appears hell-bent on its vendetta against humanity.
This tree can found in the Caribbean, the Bahamas, the Gulf of Mexico, parts of northern South America, the Galápagos Islands, and even parts of Florida. When the Spanish first found the tree during their colonial invasion of the Americas, they named it “arbol de la muerte,” which translates to "tree of death." Even touching its bark can leave you with chemical burns, although its notoriety and toxicity mainly lies in its fruit. Ingesting the sweet-smelling fruit can cause severe vomiting, diarrhea, and seizures.
Nicola Strickland, a consultant radiologist, wrote about her run-in with the “death apple” on her Caribbean holiday in Tobago. After mistaking the fruit for a crab apple, she and her friend took a small bite. Moments later, the “peppery” taste in their mouth turned into a burning sensation and within minutes they struggled to breathe as their airways closed up. Along with this, they developed severe pain in their necks as the toxin began to seep into their lymph nodes. Strickland and her friend were lucky to live; it is speculated they survived purely because they ate such a minuscule amount.
A manchineel tree's "death apple" on Santa Cruz Island, Galápagos. image credit: Jason Hollinger/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)
The tree contains many toxins. However, it is believed most of the unsavory effects come from the organic compound phorbol. Scarily, pretty much every part of the tree contains these toxins, from its bark to its sap.
There are even stories of Caribbean tribes using the sap as an “au naturel” torture device. After tying their captives to the tree, they would then wait for the rain to wash the tree’s highly water-soluble sap over their body. The sap is so packed with toxins, contact with skin can cause blistering, burning and severe irritation.
“Burn it and send it to hell,” you might say. Unfortunately, setting fire to the wood will produce smoke, which will cause massive irritation to the eyes and is even known to cause temporary blindness.
As fearsome as the tree may be, iguanas are often spotted living amongst its branches and even eating its fruit.