Why Manchineel Might Be Earth's Most Dangerous Tree

why the manchineel tree is so poisonous

Treehugger / Catherine Song

The manchineel tree (Hippomane mancinella) may be endangered, but so is anyone who messes with it. That's because this rare tropical plant, which offers deceptively sweet fruit, is one of the most poisonous trees on Earth.

Manchineels are notorious in their native habitats, the sandy soils and mangroves of South Florida, the Caribbean, Central America, and northern South America. Many are even labeled with warning signs. But aside from poisoning the occasional conquistador, tourist, and literary character, manchineel is relatively obscure considering it holds the Guinness World Record for "most dangerous tree."

Which Part Is Most Toxic?

Close-up of caution sign on manchineel tree with ocean background

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The fruits are the most obvious threat, earning manchineel the name manzanita de la muerte, Spanish for "little apple of death." Resembling a small green crabapple just one or two inches wide, the sweet-smelling fruits can cause hours of agony—and potentially death—with a single bite.

"I rashly took a bite from this fruit and found it pleasantly sweet," radiologist Nicola Strickland wrote in a 2000 British Medical Journal article about eating manchineel with a friend. "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."

Poison apples are just the beginning, though. Every part of a manchineel is toxic, and according to the Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, "interaction with and ingestion of any part of this tree may be lethal." That includes bark, leaves, and the milky sap, one drop of which can scorch the skin of shade-seeking beach-goers. Even without touching the tree itself, people (and car paint) have been burned by the thick, caustic sap as rain washes it off branches overhead.

Plant toxins typically evolve for defense, but it's not clear why manchineel went to such extremes. That its coastal locale allows its seeds to travel by sea—sometimes across the Gulf of Mexico—rather than by animals probably had something to do with it.

Pains and Effects

The tree contains a cocktail of toxins, including hippomanin A and B as well as some yet to be identified. A few act instantly, according to "Poisonous Plants and Animals of Florida and the Caribbean" by David Nellis, while others take their time. Symptoms from contact with sap range from a rash and headache to acute dermatitis, severe breathing problems, and "temporary painful blindness," Nellis writes. Burning or chopping the wood isn't advised, either because its smoke and sawdust burn skin, eyes, and lungs.

Eating the fruit usually causes abdominal pain, vomiting, bleeding and digestive tract damage, Nellis adds. Death is widely considered a risk, but mortality data for ingesting the manchineel fruit—informally known as a "beach apple"—are scarce. Aside from the short-term danger, some manchineel compounds may be co-carcinogenic, promoting the growth of benign and malignant tumors.

The most famous victim of manchineel is probably conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon, who led the first European expedition into Florida in 1513. He returned to colonize the peninsula eight years later, but his invasion met resistance from Calusa fighters. Some native Caribbean people used manchineel sap to make poison arrows, and one of these sap-tipped arrows reportedly struck Ponce de Leon's thigh during the 1521 battle. He fled with his troops to Cuba, where he died of his wounds.

Practical Uses of Manchineel

Green manchineel fruit hanging on tree

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Manchineel also has benefits to humans. Normally a hefty shrub, it can grow up to 50 feet tall, producing toxic timber that has long tempted Caribbean carpenters. And despite the danger, people have used manchineel to make furniture for centuries, carefully cutting the wood and then drying it in the sun to neutralize its poisonous sap. Native people even used manchineel as medicine, including the gum for edema and its dried fruits as a diuretic.

Although manchineel sap is poisonous to birds and many other animals, there are some creatures it doesn't seem to bother. The garrobo or striped iguana of Central and South America, for example, is known to eat manchineel fruit and sometimes even lives among the tree's limbs, according to IFAS.

People tend to leave manchineel alone, both for obvious reasons and because even this poisonous tree provides ecosystem services. It's a natural windbreak and fights beach erosion, for instance, a useful service in the face of rising sea levels and bigger Atlantic storms. And since biotoxins can inspire beneficial scientific breakthroughs like safer pesticides from scorpion venom or pain medicine from cone snails, it's probably worth keeping manchineel around.

Protecting the Manchineel Tree

Toxicity became a liability for manchineels in Florida, where eradication efforts and habitat loss pushed it onto the endangered species list. The good news? Although it's less famous than toxic plants like poison ivy or hemlock, manchineel at least has relative notoriety among endangered plants, most of which are publicly unknown. Local respect for its risks, as well as benefits, may give it an edge over endangered plants with less star power and firepower.

The IUCN classes the manchineel as a species of least concern, calling populations stable. It was last assessed in 2018.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What should you do if you come in contact with a manchineel tree?

    If you come into contact with any poisonous plant, the Centers for Disease Control recommends rinsing with a good degreasing soap or, better yet, rubbing alcohol. Scrub under your nails if necessary. Then, relieve itching and irritation with wet compresses, oatmeal baths, and an antihistamine. If it's severe, go to the emergency room.

  • What is the manchineel tree good for?

    The manchineel tree provides food and habitat for some species that are immune to its toxicity. It also combats beach erosion and serves as a natural windbreak, which is handy during tropical storms.

  • Do manchineel trees poison animals?

    Manchineel trees are poisonous to birds but not Central and South America's striped iguana, which actually eats and lives among these trees.

View Article Sources
  1. "Most Dangerous Tree." Guinness World Records. 2011.

  2. "Hippomane Mancinella, Manchineel." The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. 2022.

  3. "Sea-Beans." Texas Parks & Wildlife.

  4. Nellis, David. "Poisonous Plants and Animals of Florida and the Caribbean." Pineapple Press Inc. 1996.

  5. Muscat, Michelle (k/a Mikhaila). "Manchineel Apple of Death." The Journal of the International Federation of Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine. 2019.

  6. Blue, Lauren M., BS; Christopher Sailing, BS; Christopher DeNapoles, BS; Jordan Fondots, BS; and Edward S. Johnson, MD. "Manchineel Dermatitis in North American Students in the Caribbean." Journal of Travel Medicine. 2011.

  7. Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) & IUCN SSC Global Tree Specialist Group. "Hippomane mancinella." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2019: e.T144316752A149054389. Accessed on 06 May 2022.

  8. "Poisonous Plants: Symptoms and First Aid." Centers for Disease Control.