Don’t eat its fruit. Don’t touch its leaves. Don’t look at it up close.
They say that indigenous people used this tree as a method of punishment. They tied prisoners to its trunk and left them there until the rain came.
There began the torture of the most dangerous tree in the world.
Manzanilla de la muerte (little apple of death) sounds like a creative name for a flamenco singer. However, it’s known for being one of the most lethal trees, as just one piece of its fruit can kill up to 20 people.
“All parts of the tree are extremely poisonous. Ingestion and interaction with any part of this tree can be lethal”, states a warning in a guide to the tree put together by Michael G. Andreu and Melissa H. Friedman, from the University of Florida. It’s there that you’ll find the tree, as well as on the Caribbean coasts and in the northern areas of South America.
Those who walk close by and are unaware of its dangers might be attracted by the bright green of its leaves and the pleasant smell of its fruit, which also has an appetising sweet taste. Or maybe its silvery branches, which extend over the sand like a perfect natural bench.
But behind this eden of colours, tastes and smells, lies great danger which could lead to a fatal outcome. You don’t even have to touch the tree to suffer its effects. The pollen alone can trigger a strong reaction.
Its bark, leaves, flowers and fruit secrete a milky sap full of phorbol , so caustic that it corrodes light fabric like cotton and only has to brush against the skin to cause burns. Blisters appear instantly and, if the wind blows some of its sap into your face, it will swell tremendously to the point where you could suffer temporary blindness.
Touching your eyes while close to this leafy tree or burning its wood could have the same effects. Taking shelter from the rain below its rich foliage is also a bad idea, because, even diluted by water, the poison of the plant is still extremely toxic.
Only some reptiles are capable of living in these trees and eating their fruit. So the tree depends on the sea in order to transport its seeds and reproduce, just like the coconut tree.
Its heightened danger means that, on occasion, the presence of the tree is signalled in order to alert those who walk nearby. But this wasn’t the case for Nicola H.Strikland, who had a terrifying encounter with the manzanita de la muerte.
Photo: Scott Hughes
She recounted her unfortunate experience in Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew magazine, where she explained that amid the heavenly scenery of a desert beach on the island of Tobago, she and her friend shared a fruit which they thought was delicious.
It was the manzanita de la muerte. Moments later, it was as if they’d eaten peppercorns. Then their mouths and throats began to burn until they could barely swallow anything for over 8 hours. Milk helped to calm the inflammation, but their lymph nodes had become inflamed and they were in pain.
And they were lucky, because ingestion can cause vomiting and severe diarrhoea which dehydrates the body until death occurs.
Although it may seem invincible, the tree is in danger of extinction. And it’s not good news for the indigenous people who use its toxic sap to taint their arrows and make them more lethal. Furthermore, its wood, properly dried, can be used to craft furniture and crockery.