Throughout the coasts of the Caribbean, Central America, the northern edges of South America, and even in south Florida, there can be found a pleasant-looking beachy sort of tree, often laden with small greenish-yellow fruits that look not unlike apples.
You might be tempted to eat the fruit. Do not eat the fruit. You might want to rest your hand on the trunk, or touch a branch. Do not touch the tree trunk or any branches. Do not stand under or even near the tree for any length of time whatsoever. Do not touch your eyes while near the tree. Do not pick up any of the ominously shiny, tropic-green leaves. If you want to slowly but firmly back away from this tree, you would not find any argument from any botanist who has studied it.
After all, it is rumored to have killed the famed explorer, Juan Ponce de Leon.
This is the manchineel, known sometimes as the beach apple, or more accurately in Spanish-speaking countries as la manzanilla de la muerte, which translates to “the little apple of death,” or as arbol de la muerte, “tree of death.”
“Warning: all parts of manchineel are extremely poisonous. The content in this document is strictly informational. Interaction with and ingestion of any part of this tree may be lethal,” write Michael G. Andreu and Melissa H. Friedman of the University of Florida in a brief guide to the tree. This is not an exaggeration. The fruits, though described as sweet and tasty, are extraordinarily toxic.
Fatalities are not known in modern literature, though it’s certainly possible that people have died from eating the fruit of the manchineel. “Shipwrecked sailors have been reported to have eaten manchineel fruits and, rather than dying a violent death, they had inflammations and blistering around the mouth. Other people have been diagnosed with severe stomach and intestinal issues,” says Roger Hammer, a naturalist and botanist who has written many books about the flora of Florida.
We do have, thankfully, a description of what it’s like to eat this fruit; Mother Nature Network alerts us to a paper written by radiologist Nicola Strickland, who unwisely chomped down on a manchineel fruit back in 2000 on the Caribbean island of Tobago. A quote from her paper:
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.