In 1521, Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León was nicked by the poisoned arrow of a Calusa warrior, somewhere along the coast of Florida. The injured colonist fled to Cuba where he succumbed to his flesh wound. The actual cause of death? Toxic sap from the deadly manchineel tree.
What happened to Ponce de León is just a fraction of the damage the manchineel tree (Hippomane mancinella) is capable of inflicting on its victims. And while you probably haven't heard of it before, there's not a single part of this fatal flora that won't cause you pain, or at the very worst, an excruciating death.
The manchineel's name comes from a derivative of the Spanish phrase manzanilla de la muerte, or "little apple of death." Indeed, the tree produces small, greenish fruits that look and apparently taste identical to the real thing. But a single bite of this forbidden fruit is enough to kill a person. Those who have unwittingly ingested a manchineel "apple" have reportedly suffered a range of symptoms including "severe gastroenteritis with bleeding, shock, bacterial superinfection, and the potential for airway compromise due to edema."
In a report published in the British Medical Journal, radiologist Nicola Strickland woefully described her experience of accidentally eating a manchineel "beach apple" on the Caribbean island of Tobago.
"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."
Unfortunately, it only gets worse. According to ecologists, the deadliest part of the manchineel tree is actually its thick white sap, which contains the highly toxic organic compound phorbol, along with a host of other toxins. If it touches your skin, you can bet your butt that you'll get a nasty, oozing blister. And because phorbol is water soluble, standing underneath a manchineel tree in any sort of precipitation will likely result in severe burns.
Even brushing your skin past one of the manchineel's leaves is enough to cause irritation. Oh, and if someone has the terrible idea to burn one of these things down, run—don't walk away, because the subsequent smoke will almost certainly induce respiratory problems and temporary blindness.
The manchineel is native to the mangroves of the Caribbean, Florida, Bahamas, Mexico, and Central and South America. (Sorry, beach-goers!) Thankfully, many land managers take care to mark manchineel trees with a large red "X" or other warning signs.
Yet despite its noxious reputation, the manchineel tree is endangered in Florida. Like all species, the manchineel plays an important role in its ecosystem, such as preventing beach erosion and even being a source of food for the garrobo or striped iguana (Ctenosaura similis) of Central and South America. As a result, conservationists encourage people to simply leave the tree alone, instead of cutting it down.
So if you're ever on vacation and spy a juicy-looking beach apple, think twice about that tasty snack. Trust me, your body will thank you.