While our past plants of the week have been fruits widely consumed in the islands, we are going in a different direction this week.
A large Manchineel tree on a beach.
This is the Manchineel Tree. It is one of the most poisonous plants in the world. Native to Florida, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean, the Manchineel tree is commonly found along sandy beaches. The tree produces small apple like fruit, has oval shaped shiny green leaves and can grow in excess of fifty feet tall.
The tree is notorious in the areas in which it grows. While no deaths have ever been recorded from the tree, it is indeed seriously poisonous. In fact, the fruit of the tree were supposedly named “manzanita de la muerte” or little apple of death, by Christopher Columbus himself. Records indicate that several of his crew were made gravely ill after consuming the fruit. The tree gets it’s nefarious reputation from a caustic form of latex in it’s sap. If touched the tree or leaves can cause dermatitis, swelling, burns, and blisters. The most common injury from the tree comes from taking refuge under one during a rain storm. The sap is so caustic, the rain drops coming from the tree can cause burns. Even the smoke from a burning manchineel can cause injury. The fruit of the tree carries the same dangerous chemicals, and its effects when ingested are similar to its external effects. Compounding the danger of the tree is the fact that some people report that the fruit actually taste pleasant at first. Allowing an unsuspecting creature to take several bites of the dangerous “apple.”
The tree isn’t all bad though. It is classified as an endangered species in Florida due to it’s important role as a wind break. It also plays a crucial role in the prevention of beach erosion. In the caribbean, this is extremely important to protecting vulnerable coastlines during tropical storms and hurricanes.
Luckily, injuries from the manchineel are rare. In areas where the tree is common they are well marked, and public education about its dangers makes people aware. Signs are often posted, and their warnings should be heeded. Any tree with a red band, or a skull and crossbones (the poison symbol) painted on it should be avoided. If contact occurs, seek medical treatment.
A warning sign found in Virgin Islands national Park, the fruit of the tree can be seen laying on top of the sign.
Here at Tree Limin’ Extreme, we offer samples of local fruits, but the fruit of the manchineel isn’t on the menu. Because we are not located near beaches, we have no manchineel trees on our property, and most of these trees in the Virgin Islands are well marked.
To see many other types of plants and animals from high in the rainforest canopy, come have the ultimate caribbean experience on our ziplines. See us at Tree Limin’ Extreme. Call for reservations at 340-777-9477 or visit our website at www.ziplinestthomas.com
-The TLE Botanical Crew