Science & Technology

You Should Avoid the Poisonous Manchineel, aka the "Tree of Death," at All Costs

For all its raw beauty, nature can be pretty scary too. One minute you're chomping a beautifully juicy green apple from a tropical branch, and the next your throat is rapidly closing up in a mad dash to the ER. Take the manchineel tree, for example. Sure, it's nice to look at. But with a nickname like "tree of death," don't expect an entirely wonderful experience.

Danger! Watch Yourself

The manchineel is the most dangerous tree in the world. But just by looking, you would never know it. The tree is a beachy, tropical plant that generally looks like any other, save for its abundance of shiny green fruits. It's native to Central America, the Caribbean, northern parts of South America, and tropical regions of North America, including South Florida.

But this tree isn't for fruit-picking. Or carving your initials into. Or climbing. Or standing under. Or even just breathing near. Nope, this thing is basically just good for bringing the pain. There's a reason the manchineel and its fruit have garnered all those punk rock nicknames: tree of death, poison guava, little apple of death, etc. As Michael G. Andreu and Melissa H. Friedman of the University of Florida wrote in a brief guide to the tree, "Warning: all parts of manchineel are extremely poisonous ... Interaction with and ingestion of any part of this tree may be lethal."

The Secret's in the Sauce

As Andreu and Friedman described above, every component of the manchineel is basically a torture device, and that's because of one thing. The tree oozes a thick, milky sap that seeps out of everything — the bark, the leaves, and the tempting little death apples that dangle off the branches. Coming into contact with this agony juice, which is made up of a slew of delightfully hellish toxins, will give you severe burn-like blisters.

The toxin in the sap that causes the most serious reactions is phorbol, a poisonous organic compound. The stuff is water soluble, which causes an unexpected problem when it rains. Let us set the scene: It's pouring in south Florida, so you take refuge beneath a sweet tropical tree — a tree that just so happens to be a manchineel. The rain from the sky washes the toxic, phorbol-riddled sap down through the leaves onto your bare flesh and boom — you're in a world of pain.

A Cautionary Tale

Touching it is one thing, but eating it is a whole different beast. "The real death threat comes from eating its small round fruit," Ella Davies writes for the BBC. "Ingesting the fruit can prove fatal when severe vomiting and diarrhoea dehydrate the body to the point of no return." Radiologist Nicola H. Strickland learned the danger of the seemingly innocuous "beach apple" the hard way in 1999.

She writes of a vacation with a friend to the idyllic beaches of the Caribbean island of Tobago. After some shell gathering and other typical beach vacation activities, Strickland and her cohort stumble upon some sweet-smelling crabapple-like fruits. They chow down. It didn't take long for the two to become overwhelmed by a peppery, burning feeling while their throats tightened in excruciating pain, to the point where they could barely swallow. Say hello to the manchineel! Thankfully, the two made it out alive.

Two Sides to Every Story

Before you go campaigning for death to all manchineel trees, we're here to tell you they're not all bad. Consider cute patio chairs. Caribbean carpenters have used wood from these trees in furniture for centuries, Science Alert reports. (They have to carefully cut and dry it in the sun to tame the poisonous sap, of course.) The trees also play an important role in Central American ecosystems. The large, shrubby manchineel grows into dense, protective walls that prevent coastal erosion on the region's tropical beaches. Hey, what's good for the beach is good with us.

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If this hasn't freaked you out enough, you might want to check out "The Complete Manual of Things That Might Kill You: A Guide to Self-Diagnosis for Hypochondriacs." It makes a lovely coffee table book, we're sure. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto January 12, 2018

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