It’s one of the most dangerous plants in the world, and it's found in Florida.
There’s a toxic coastal plant you need to know about, and it’s called the manchineel tree. You may have seen one during your travels—it’s often accompanied by cautionary signs and a bright red band painted around its trunk as a warning to all who pass by. While not all manchineel trees are so painted, they require a fervent advisory, because they are one of the most dangerous plant species around.
The manchineel (aka Hippomane mancinella, aka the Tree of Death) is native to coastal areas in southern North America, such as South Florida, as well as the northern reaches of Central and South America and the Caribbean. The plant gets its name from the Spanish word manzanilla, which means “little apple.” It is so named because the fruit and foliage of the plant resemble those of apple trees. It’s also been called manzanilla de la muerte, or “little apple of death,” a foreboding moniker if ever we’ve heard one.
As it happens, all of the fearsome names are warranted. The manchineel has bright green leaves and round, yellowish-green fruits, making it a rather ordinary looking tropical plant. Don’t let it fool you, though: Every part of the manchineel is poisonous. The fruit is toxic, and the sap from the leaves and stems is too. If touched, the irritants found in manchineel sap can produce inflammation and painful blisters on the skin. Passersby are warned not to stand underneath the tree when it’s raining, as dripping water can transfer toxins from the tree to anyone nearby. And finally, burning manchineel bark has been known to cause irritation, even blindness, due to airborne poison ash.
The manchineel is more widespread than you might imagine. It’s found on beaches and throughout swamps in tropical climes, where it provides windbreaks and aids in erosion reduction efforts. If you’re in locales where the manchineel grows, keep an eye out, and if you encounter one, stay far, far away. If you’re not convinced yet, read this frightening story of a manchineel encounter published in the BJM medical journal.
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Beware this coastal plant; it’s one of the most dangerous tropical species on the globe, and it’s best to stay far from it if you encounter one during a walk on the beach or an adventure in the mangroves.