Thursday, January 17, 2013

Tree Thursday - Manchineel

If you thought the Poisonwood was bad, here’s the…

Manchineel Tree
Hippomane mancinella
The Manchineel tree is a species of flowering plant in the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae), native to Florida, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Central America, and northern South America.  The name "manchineel" is from Spanish manzanilla ("little apple"), from the superficial resemblance of its fruit and leaves to those of an apple tree. A present-day Spanish name is “manzanilla de la muerte” meaning  "little apple of death" or  “arbol de la muerte” meaning “tree of death”.  The manchineel is one of the most poisonous trees in the world.  The tree is so poisonous that this warning on the top of the University of Florida’s IFAS Extension’s fact sheet “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.”  I’ve only seen this tree species once in a state park on Key Largo in an area off limits to the public.  In many cases, when a Manchineel tree is located, it is marked with a large red ‘x’ or red band.  In Florida, manchineel is in danger of becoming extinct and is a state listed endangered species.
The manchineel tree typically occurs along the seacoasts and in brackish swamps where it grows among mangroves. Manchineel is usually a tall shrub, but it can reach heights of up to 50 feet. The leaves are simple, alternate, very finely serrated or toothed, and 2–4 inches long. Each leaf has a small gland where the leaf joins the stem. The bark is reddish-to-grayish brown and deeply furrowed or cracked looking.
The sap has been known to cause burn-like blisters when it comes in contact with the skin. People have reported heavy inflammation of the eyes and even temporary blindness from irritants carried in the smoke of this tree's burning wood.  Native peoples used the poisonous sap to coat their arrows when hunting and would tie captives to the trunk of the tree, ensuring a slow and painful death.. Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León was struck by an arrow that had been poisoned with Manchineel sap during battle with the Calusa in Florida, dying shortly thereafter.  In Florida, manchineel is in danger of becoming extinct and is a state listed endangered species.  It has been documented that gum from the bark of this tree has been used to treat venereal disease and dropsy in Jamaica, while dried fruits have been used as a diuretic.  Though the manchineel tree is poisonous to humans and many animals, the iguanas of Central and South America are able to eat the fruits of this tree, and are sometimes found living among the tree's limbs.
Many references to the poisonous nature of the manchineel have appeared in the arts.  A couple of examples are the heroine of Giacomo Meyerbeer's 1865 opera L'Africaine commits suicide by lying under a manchineel tree and inhaling the plant's vapors. In the 1956 film Wind Across The Everglades, a notorious poacher named Cottonmouth (played by Burl Ives) ties a victim to the trunk of a manchineel tree.