Little Apple of Death
– Commonly known as the Manchineel tree
– Modern-day Spanish name is manzanilla de la muerte (little apple of death)
– Native to Caribbean, Florida (where it’s endangered), Bahamas, Central and northern South America
– One of the most toxic trees in the world
– Every part of the tree (bark, leaves, fruit) contains the toxic sap
– The fruit looks and tastes like a crabapple
– Spanish explorer, Juan Ponce de Leon, was killed with the sap
The Manchineel is a flowering tree from the spurge family (the same as Christmas poinsettia), which is found from the southern part of North America to the northern South Americas. The tree is found on beaches and brackish swamps (where you find mangroves) where it plays an important role in stabilising the sand and acting as a windbreak. In Spain it is known as the “little apple of death” due to it being one of the most toxic trees in the world. The milky-white sap contains numerous toxins and is found in every part of the tree, including the bark, leaves and fruit.
The sap is so dangerous, even standing under the tree in the rain will result in blistering skin… the water soluble sap in a small drop of rain in will cause burns. The sap even damages the paintwork on cars. If you burn the wood the smoke can cause eye damage. Consuming the apple can result in severe gastroenteritis, bleeding, shock and bacterial superinfection as well as a possible compromised airway, eventually killing through dehydration.
Some tribes used a poultice of arrowroot to treat poisonings, however no known antidote exists.
In parts of the world the trees carry a warning sign, or a red “X” on the trunk to indicate danger.
The black-spined iguana is the only known animal to be able to eat the fruit – they even live among the branches of the tree. Even though the tree is deadly, it’s been used by Caribbean furniture makers for centuries. The timber is cut and dried in the sub to remove the sap.
Even though the fruit is potentially fatal if eaten, there aren’t any modern day reports of death. One case of accidental consumption was reported in the British Medical Journal:
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.Nicola Strickland
Apparently, it took over eight hours for the pain to slowly reduce (as they sipped their pina coladas and milk). Unfortunately the toxin drained into their neck lymph nodes providing further agony.
Historically it’s a different story. The poison was used by tribal people to poison the water supply of enemies (using the tree’s leaves). In 1521, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon died after a battling the Calusa in Florida. He was struck by an arrow poisoned with the sap of a Machineel tree.