Hippomane mancinella (or manzanillo) is a highly toxic tree that belongs to the long and diverse family of euphorbiaceae, which also includes the decorative – and slightly poisonous – poinsettia or poinsettia. It can reach up to twenty meters in height if its stem grows straight, it is native to areas of southern North America, Central America, the Caribbean and northern parts of South America, and it can live in environments with very high salinity, which is why it is normally found in coastal environments.
The pommel-shaped fruits give off a sweet aroma when ripe and are attractive to the eye. They look like small green apples about 4 cm in diameter. They exhibit a glossy, glaucous appearance that turns to greenish-yellow when mature, and contain a highly poisonous off-white latex for which they have earned the nickname Chamomile of Death .
But not only the fruits give off the terrible latex; it can be said that the whole plant exudes it through the bark, branches and stems. This circumstance causes that approaching a manzanillo entails an unexpected splash that, if it falls on the skin, can cause burning and serious blisters .
This tree has a plethora of toxins in the latex it gives off; Among them, phorbol, an organic compound that belongs to the diterpene family, stands out as a fundamental element. These are made up of four units of the chemical component isoprene, which has the ability to form linear chains or rings of organic compounds.
Never take shelter under it
One of the properties of phorbol is that it is very soluble in water, which increases the danger and toxicity of the plant . In fact, if someone takes refuge under it during a downpour, the phorbol diluted in the drops that fall from the tree will splash on the person’s skin and cause severe burns.
In the work Summary of the natural history of the Indies (1526), the Madrilenian chronicler Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo spoke of the effects caused on the discoverers by the arrows that the indigenous peoples impregnated with a herb made from the resin of this plant and other poisons: “The chamomiles that the archery Carib Indians make the grass that they shoot with their arrows are born from trees crowned with many branches and leaves, thick and very green and carry a lot of this bad fruit […] and are born, like I have said, these apple trees near the water of the sea […] there is no such remedy for the wounded of this herb […] and out of fifty that hurt, not three escape ”.
He also related: “Only a man lay down for a short time to sleep in the shade of an apple tree of these, when he gets up his head and eyes are so swollen that his eyebrows meet his cheeks , and if by chance one falls drop or more of the dew of these trees in the eyes, breaks them, or at least blinds them ”.
Image: Gabriele Kothe-Heinrich via Wikimedia
You can read the full report ‘This tree can kill you. Manzanillo, an attractive, very toxic plant ‘, written by Mario García Bartual, in number 432 of Muy Interesante.
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