National Park Mystery Plant 2: There’s Good Reason They Call This Thing "the Death Apple”
According to historical accounts, when Christopher Columbus’ men visited the Virgin Islands in 1493, one of the novel things they encountered near the beach was a tree that appeared to offer possibilities as a food source. The sweet-smelling fruit, which resembles small apples or crab apples, seemed very appealing, so some of the newbies tried it. They shouldn’t have.
This is the most poisonous tree found in America and one of the most dangerous in the entire world. Its bark, sap, leaves, and fruit contain a veritable witche's brew of toxins.
Though juicy and reportedly quite tasty when ripe, the fruit of this tree is loaded with physostigminet. And believe me, that’s something you do not want to ingest carelessly. Eat just a little bit of the fruit – as many careless tourists have -- and the resulting pain and swelling of your mouth and throat will give you a new and vital entry for your “don’t do it again” list. Eat a good bit of it, and you’re going to suffer about the same fate as someone exposed to nerve gas. The oral swelling and excruciating pain, esophageal ulcerations, edema, and cervical lymphadenopathy will make it hard to breathe, almost impossible to swallow, and very difficult to talk.
This tree can, and has, killed people.
This good-looking and fairly large tree, which tops out at about 40 feet, exudes a milky white latex sap that contains tigliane phorbol esters. Contact with the bark or leaves is very irritating to human skin and can result in severe dermatitis with blistering, swelling, and inflammation.
Long ago, Indians tied people to this tree to torture them, sometimes used its leaves to poison water sources, and (as the mortally wounded Spanish explorer Ponce de León discovered in 1521) they also poisoned arrows with the sap.
You can’t safely touch the bark or stand beneath this tree when moisture is dripping from its branches and leaves. You can’t safely inhale its vapors for prolonged periods in still air. When the wood is on fire, you’d be ill-advised to breathe the smoke, and you certainly don’t want to get the smoke or sap in your eyes (which can cause acute keratoconjunctivitis and other ocular injuries, normally only temporary).
In the Virgin Islands, this tropical evergreen tree is found at Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve, Virgin Islands National Park, and Buck Island Reef National Monument.
Although this tree is fairly widely distributed along sandy beaches and waterways in the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Central America, and (northern) South America, its mainland U.S. distribution is confined to Florida. Fortunately, it is not common there. In fact, in Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Biscayne National Park, and elsewhere in Florida, this tree is scarce enough to be a state-listed endangered species.
Do you know the name of the tree that the Spanish dubbed manzanilla de la muerte, or "little apple of death"?
Answer: The mystery plant is the manchineel tree (Hippomane mancinella), a flowering plant in the spurge family that is colloquially known as the beach apple or death apple.
Postscript: Recommended treatment for skin contact is to cleanse with soap and water to remove the plant latex and dose with antihistamines to minimize immune response and reduce edema. Sickness from ingestion is often a medical emergency calling for professional treatment.
Traveler Trivia, no extra charge: The Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve at Christiansted, Virgin Islands (St. Croix Island) is the only site where members of Christopher Columbus’ expedition set foot on what is now U.S. territory.