Manchineel Poisoning

4 min read

A tropical tree with apple-like fruit, the manchineel has earned the title of the deadliest tree in the world. Every part is toxic. You can even get symptoms from standing under a manchineel tree during a rainstorm.

Along with the poinsettia, the manchineel belongs to the Euphorbiaceae or spurge family. Botanist Carl Linnaeus gave it its scientific name, Hippomane mancinella, meaning "horse madness." The ancient Greeks used that name for a different toxic plant that crazed horses. Manchineel, the common name, means "little apple". Some people call it "little apple of death" or "beach apple".

The manchineel tree is medium-sized with shiny leaves and fruit that smells and tastes sweet. Most of those who live with the manchineel have learned to avoid it or use it safely. Visitors should probably stay far away. Reportedly, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon died after being shot with an arrow tipped with poison from the manchineel tree. And he wasn't the only one to suffer:

  • Sailors put on land to cut firewood were temporarily blinded if they chose a manchineel tree to cut.
  • Shipwrecked individuals suffered pain and inflammation if they tried to eat the fruit.
  • People were reportedly tortured by being tied to a manchineel tree during a rainstorm so that the stinging rain pelted their skin.   

Despite its toxicity, people have found uses for manchineel. They make furniture from the wood, letting it dry first to reduce the sap. Those practicing herbal medicine have used parts of the tree to remove excess fluid from the body and to treat sexually transmitted diseases

The trees normally grow on the beach or in brackish swamps, where they can reduce erosion and serve as windbreaks. The manchineel is not hospitable to wildlife, although one species of iguana, the garrobo, doesn't seem to be harmed by the tree's toxins.

In most places, you can easily identify manchineel trees by the red rings painted around the trunk or by other warning signs. If such signs are missing, here are the features to look for: 

  • Leaves. The glossy, leathery leaves are oval-shaped, with tiny teeth along the edges. They grow on the stem in an alternating pattern. 
  • Flowers. The tiny yellow flowers grow on spikes on the ends of branches. 
  • Fruit. The small sweet-smelling fruits are green or yellow, sometimes with an orange blush. They resemble apples but are only 1 or 2 inches in diameter.
  • Bark. Look for reddish or gray bark with cracks or furrows. 

Except for a brief time in winter, manchineel trees will have leaves and fruit. In April, the flowers are an identifying mark. 

The trees may reach 50 feet in height, but they can also appear as small shrubs. They grow in groups, almost always on beaches or in brackish water, usually along with mangroves. Their natural territory is southern Florida, Central America, Mexico, and some of the Caribbean islands. Today, most of the Florida specimens are in nature preserves or parks.

All parts of the manchineel are poisonous. Don't eat or touch any part of the tree. Don't burn it, as the smoke is toxic. Avoid standing under it when it is raining, as the toxins are water-soluble. You shouldn't even stand too close to the tree, as you could inhale toxins.

Scientists have suggested that the toxicity of the manchineel is due to a combination of poisons. There are substances that are poisonous when eaten and others in the milky sap that irritate upon contact.

Symptoms of manchineel poisoning depend upon how you're exposed. Your risk is greatest if you eat the fruit of the manchineel, which smells and tastes sweet. Eating the fruit could cause these symptoms:

  • Blistering and swelling of the mouth and throat, making it hard to swallow or breathe 
  • Life-threatening cardiovascular symptoms, like a slowed heartbeat and low blood pressure
  • Damage to the digestive tract, causing pain, vomiting, abdominal bleeding, and dehydration 

You can suffer eye injury if you get the sap of the manchineel in your eyes. You could even be temporarily blinded. The effect is like that of a chemical burn. With proper treatment, you should make a full recovery with no lasting damage to your eyes. 

Extreme skin irritation can also result if you touch the tree, if you are wet by rainwater while standing under a tree, or if you're exposed to smoke when a tree is burned.

Most of the time, treatment for manchineel exposure is simple. If you've eaten any part of a manchineel tree, seek first aid immediately. Ingesting the fruit can be fatal. 

If your eyes are exposed to manchineel, wash them out well. You may need to see a doctor, who can prescribe topical antibiotics to prevent infection. 

If you get skin irritation from the manchineel tree, follow these steps: 

  • Wash the skin well.
  • Use cold compresses, calamine lotion, or hydrocortisone cream to soothe the skin.
  • Take an antihistamine like Benadryl if your symptoms are severe.
  • See a doctor if your skin or genitals are affected or if you have a severe case.

If you're educated about the manchineel tree, you shouldn't have trouble identifying it. There aren't many tropical trees that look like the manchineel. The wild banyan tree or shortleaf fig has similar-looking leaves, but the edges of its leaves are smooth rather than finely toothed.

The main problem with manchineel poisoning is that many people don't know about this toxic tree. When you're having a nice walk on a tropical beach, the threat of poisoning is probably far from your mind. All visitors to areas where the manchineel grows should be warned about its dangers. Temporary residents like students should be educated as well.