Looking for Some Shade–Avoid the Tree of Death
So there you are on a hot, tropic day and a shower breaks out. So you slip under a pretty green tree sporting what looks like crabapples.
Of course, hiding under a tree during a thunderstorm is an inherently bad idea. Trees being what scientists call Lightning Magnets.
But this particular tree you’ve sought shelter under has its own nasty surprise for you. The water dripping off its leaves is poisonous and you are about to start feeling very bad.
Welcome to the tree of death, scientific name Hippomane mancinellaas, also known as the manchineel tree or sometimes poison guava.
The tree is found in southern North America and in the Caribbean.
The Science Alert blog tells the story of a hapless victim:
In 1999, radiologist Nicola Strickland went on a holiday to the Caribbean island of Tobago, a tropical paradise complete with idyllic, deserted beaches.
On her first morning there, she went foraging for shells and corals in the white sand, but the holiday quickly took a turn for the worse.
Scattered among the coconuts and mangoes on the beach, Strickland and her friend found some sweet-smelling green fruit that looked much like small crabapples.
Both foolishly decided to take a bite. Within moments the pleasantly sweet flavor was overwhelmed by a peppery, burning feeling and an excruciating tightness in the throat that gradually got so bad, the women could barely swallow.
As explained by the Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, all parts of manchineel are extremely poisonous, and “interaction with and ingestion of any part of this tree may be lethal”.
That’s because the sap contains a range of toxins; it’s thought that the most serious reactions come from phorbol, an organic compound that belongs to the diterpene family of esters.
Because phorbol is highly water-soluble, you don’t even want to be standing under a manchineel when it’s raining – the raindrops carrying the diluted sap can still severely burn your skin.
“The real death threat comes from eating its small round fruit,” Ella Davies writes for the BBC. “Ingesting the fruit can prove fatal when severe vomiting and diarrhoea dehydrate the body to the point of no return.”
Fortunately, Strickland and her friend lived to tell the tale, because they only ate a tiny amount of death apple. In 2000, Strickland published a letter in The British Medical Journal, describing her symptoms in detail.
It took over eight hours for their pain to slowly subside, as they carefully sipped pina coladas and milk. The toxin went on to drain into the lymph nodes on their necks, providing further agony.
“Recounting our experience to the locals elicited frank horror and incredulity, such was the fruit’s poisonous reputation,” Strickland wrote. “We found our experience frightening.”
STRANGE FACT: The deadliest plant in the world is tobacco, killing more than 5 million people a year.