The Tree So Deadly It Was Used As A Torture Instrument

By Debra Kelly on Friday, January 24, 2014
Hippomane_mancinella_(fruit)
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” —Marie Curie, Our Precarious Habitat

In A Nutshell

The manchineel tree is one of the deadliest plants in the world. Even coming into contact with the bark or leaves will leave a person suffering from severe burns, and eating any of its sweet-smelling fruits is a potentially lethal choice. The tree has long been used for supplying sap for poison darts, and as a place to tie—and torture—Spanish conquistadors.

The Whole Bushel

The manchineel tree is named after the Spanish word for “little apple,” which is manzanilla. That’s appropriate enough, as the tree sports green fruits that look like small apples. But it had another, even more appropriate name—the Spanish call it the arbol de la muerta, or “tree of death.” The tree’s genus, Hippomane, was assigned to its line after noting that horses were driven mad after eating it.

It looks unassuming enough, often little more than a shrubby bush, but sometimes growing into a tree that’s around 15 meters (50 ft) tall. It’s found mainly in the Southeastern United States, the Caribbean, and Central America. Its bark is gray-brown, and its leaves are a bright and shiny green. The fruits of the tree are sweet-smelling and attractive.

Every part of the tree is poisonous, and just coming in contact with the tree can be potentially lethal. The leaves and bark contain a poison that will irritate the skin and cause severe blisters. The milk-white sap that leaks from wounds in the tree will also cause severe blistering. If sap touches a person’s mucous membranes, it can cause severe burns.

The fruit makes the tree even more deadly. The fruits look like small green apples, only an inch or two in diameter. The fruits are very sweet-smelling, and those who are brave—or foolhardy—enough to eat them say that they even taste good. But eating just a small amount will leave blisters and burns on your mouth and throat. In addition, the raw, soft tissues of your digestive tract will begin to swell and blister after eating just the smallest bite of the fruit. Larger amounts are deadly.

As if that isn’t enough, the tree can also cause serious damage if you so much as stand under it. If it’s raining, water falling off the leaves will carry toxins and burn the skin of anyone it touches. In fact, there are accounts of 16th-century Florida natives pressing invading Spanish conquistadors to stand beneath the trees during the rain to burn and even blind them.

Many indigenous peoples have used the poisonous, deadly tree to their advantage. The sap of the manchineel tree was often used for poisoning arrows and darts, which in turn were used to control captives. Tying people to the tree and leaving them with any exposed skin would result in excruciating pain and burns.

Removing the tree from populated areas proves problematic. Cutting the tree releases the squirting, spraying sap, and burning the tree turns the toxins into a vaporous form that’s carried in the smoke. Even contact with the smoke can leave burns on the skin and can sometimes result in blindness.

Strangely, the wood of the tree has been highly prized in the making of colonial furniture. Once the wood has been left to dry in the sun, its poisonous qualities largely disappear. Drying the fruits has a similar effect, and these dried fruits have been known to be used as a diuretic. In Jamaica, manchineel tree gum has been long used to treat various venereal diseases. There’s also an iguana native to Central America that is completely immune to the poisonous qualities of the tree, and often lives among its branches.

Show Me The Proof

University of Florida: Hippomane mancinella, Manchineel
US FDA Poisonous Plant Database: Botanical Hazards
Manchineel tree advisory (pdf)
Featured image credit: Hans Hillewaert

  • Marozia

    Very interesting article. Never knew about this tree! Keep up the good work KnowledgeNuts!

  • absupa*
    • Hillyard

      Excellent link. Good article there, thanks.

  • Jay

    What animal(s) eat the fruit of this tree?

  • Hillyard

    I think I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree… Joyce Kilmer obviously never ran into one of these trees.

  • patrick weidinger

    Interesting.

  • Luis Pachón

    It is “árbol de la muerte” instead of “muerta”

  • Dan Valverde

    Evolution is amazing!

  • lbatfish

    An American co-worker of mine on the island of Yap (Micronesia) took a long hot hike one day with some friends, and near the end of it, they decided to cool off in a nearby tidal pool. Unfortunately, there was a Changad (“Semecarpus venenosus”) tree hanging over the pool and dripping into it. She had to take a few sick days after that, because the result was similar to a severe poison ivy rash, but covering every square inch of her body.

    In retrospect, it probably would have been a good idea for them to have invited a local along on their hike.

    • Lisa 39

      That’s awful, if i were her i might not have left the house ever again.

      • lbatfish

        That wasn’t her worst experience there. She was later busted by Guam Customs for having ONE dope seed in the backpack (because Guam is nasty that way, and used to give anybody from my island a bad time when visiting Guam). And a few years later, she was on a ferry in the Philippines that sank, and spent many hours in shark-inhabited waters before finally getting picked up. She wasn’t too much the worse for wear (aside from shark-induced fright), but a lot of other people died.

        On the whole, like many former bush-Alaskans, she’s pretty durable. 🙂

        • Lisa 39

          But is she still sane? Cause i’d have lost my damn marbles in there somewhere, probably when the sharks showed up.

          • lbatfish

            I’d assume that she was plenty scared at the time, but hey . . . who wouldn’t be? But like I said, she was a pretty tough lady . . . though it’s possible that she might have preferred showers to tub baths for a while afterwards.

            Plus, being a teacher in a third-world school (where she was my replacement) was probably good preparation for the experience.

          • Lisa 39

            You have to be pretty darn sturdy and tough just to be a teacher these days, she should write a book, i’d read it!

  • Micho Rizo

    I smoke trees

  • Micho Rizo

    My nuts are very knowledgable.

  • Janet D’Anna

    This is really interesting. Love KnowledgeNuts!

  • rincewind

    Speaking of plants used in torture, bamboo grows at a rate of 3 or 4 feet a day (about 2 inches an hour). Prisoners were made to sit on this. Oh, deary me…

  • B Mc

    I don’t recommend eating from this tree. I did in Culebra – thought it was crabapple. Almost died – throat swelled shut so I could’t swallow for 24 hours. Thought I was going to die. Seriously.

  • Bhavjit23

    oh god this is crazy