Everyone has heard about the tree of life, but I’d place a wager that until now, you’ve likely never come across a tree of death, save for those of you steeped in Celtic mythology.
On today’s episode of evil nature, we will be spotlighting one of the members of the kingdom Plantae, an entity better suited for Tartarean Fields of Punishment than the realms of mortal men.
Native to the sandy shores of the Caribbean Islands, southern Florida, and the Mexican Gulf, this particular species is very well known, so much so that if you ever come across one of them on vacation you won’t need a botanist to give you the heads up. Whether or not you remember this article, you’ll be able to identify this plant, not by its distinct height or enormous girth -neither of which it possesses -but by the bright red DO NOT TOUCH signs and warning bands painted around its trunk to ward off poor unsuspecting tourists and natives alike.
‘What sort of threat could a simple tree pose that it must not even be touched?’ you may be asking. Well, they don’t call it the Tree of Death for nothing. Introducing one of nature’s cruellest, a flowering member of the Spurge family (Euphorbiaceae): the Machineel Tree.
Manzanilla de la muerte, Spanish for “the little apple of death”, is a phrase descriptive of the greenish-yellow fruit of the Manchineel that bears a close resemblance to the pome of the regular green apple tree, making it easily confusable with the latter. The fruit is said to be just as sweet and tasty on the first bite, with the same crisp fruity smell. The only difference: one of these will serve as a sweet refreshing snack while the other can easily poison you to death. While there have been accounts of shipwrecked sailors and Spanish conquistadors who have eaten of this fruit of wrath and somehow survived with no more than a few peppery blisters around the mouth, others have experienced much less fortunate symptoms, such as intense abdominal pain, vomiting, bleeding and extensive damage to their digestive tracts due to the toxins contained within the fruit. Some of the toxins are even said to be carcinogenic, so I suppose this is not something you want to add to your fruit salad. Thankfully, in the modern world, it is rare to find people who accidentally ingest this fruit as science has now caused us to realize that true apples need cold weather to grow, thus you’re not going to find any on a tropical beach.
But the fruit isn’t the scariest part of this plant, not in the least. What’s scariest is that every single part of the plant is poisonous: bark, roots and all. The bark and leaves produce a poisonous white sap which on contact with skin cause inflammation and poisonous blisters so horrible a British soldier was said to have shot himself to escape the excruciating pain when he ignorantly used the leaf to wipe his bottom after defecating. The sensation has been described as the feeling of hundreds of glass shards beneath the skin. The toxins are so powerful that even taking shelter under this tree in the rain would be a fatal mistake. If you’ve ever wondered what taking a shower in acid would feel like, I’m sure this is a pretty close experience.
What’s worse is that you can’t even exact vengeance in peace. To cut it down would be to risk physical contact and further injury. To set it ablaze would be to expose yourself to toxic fumes which could cause acute respiratory symptoms and blindness, albeit temporarily.
The specific toxins in this tree remain yet unknown, but hippomanin A and B have been identified among them. Though it requires meticulous effort, these toxins can be neutralized by sun-drying for several days. Some adventurous furniture makers have even prized its durability for cabinetry and serving ware (not a risk I’d take, thank you very much). The aboriginals of the Caribbeans found a practical use for the poison sap, using it to tip their battle arrows. Herbalists have experimented with dried fruit as a diuretic!
As a one-time biology student, I couldn’t help but wonder what advantage this species gains for being so hostile. After all, fruit is designed to be a mechanism for dispersing seeds, by incentivising animals to do the work for the immobile plant in exchange for food. The animal eats and poops the seeds elsewhere, and the plant spreads to new regions. Instead, the fruit of the Manchineel tree is too poisonous for most animals, save the stripped iguana, which is not native to the regions in which the tree flourishes. What then is its gain?
Well, it turns out the Manchineel doesn’t need help from animals or humans. Seeing as its natural habitat is the coastline, the seeds spread via water channels. The fruit is carried by the tide to new locations where it can then decompose and grow anew.
Though currently on the endangered species list, the core reason I presume this tree hasn’t yet been branded a threat to life and purposefully eradicated from existence is that it has ecological value. It has pretty strong roots, which make it as good a windbreaker as it is a poison and it helps prevent erosion, a useful feature in the face of rising sea levels.
It is interesting to note that while this tree was certainly cultivated by dark powers, it isn’t the evilest plant. Surprisingly, it came in last on a top ten list of poisonous plants, the runt of the pack so to say. I’ll leave it to your imagination what the others can do.
So there you have it, folks. Once again we are reminded that no matter how colourful, fascinating or breathtaking Nature is, she is not always your friend.