The tree of death, chamomile of death or beach chamomile, grows on coastal beaches, brackish swamps and mangroves. It is found mainly around the Caribbean and the northern tropics. They have the scientific name Hippomane mancinella and it is a very poisonous species.
It is characterized by bright green leaves and round yellowish green fruits, making it a fairly common-looking tropical plant. However, don’t let it fool you, every part is poisonous.
The fruit of the death tree is quite appetizing, it looks like a small green apple with a sweet smell, but it is really toxic, as is the sap of the leaves and stems. It is one of the most dangerous trees in the world, thus recorded in the Guinness Book of Records.
Dangers of the Tree of Death
Eating the fruit causes intense burning and severe swelling in the throat. In addition, the area around the mouth can become inflamed and blistered, they can also lead to potentially serious digestive problems. Ingestion can lead to severe vomiting, diarrhea, and seizures.
It is so dangerous that, just by touching the leaves, even briefly, or using the tree as protection when it rains, it can cause blisters on your skin. Also, if you have contact with sap, or smoke from burning wood, in your eyes, you will most likely experience temporary blindness.
Touching its bark can leave you with chemical burns, although its notoriety and toxicity lies mainly in its fruit. It is believed that most of the unpleasant effects come from the organic compound phorbol.
Some tribes use the sap of the death tree to poison their arrows and hunt their food. There are stories of Caribbean tribes using sap as a “natural” torture device. After tying their captives to the tree, they waited for the rain to wash away the highly water-soluble sap and cause burns on the prisoners’ bodies.
The tree of death is spread more than you imagine, so it is important that you know how to recognize it. Generally, these fruit trees are accompanied by warning signs or a bright red band painted around as a warning to everyone passing by.
However, there are some trees that are not identified with this type of signage. It is essential that you take care of its presence in tropical and coastal areas. Pay attention if you see a tree with reddish-gray bark, bright leaves with alternating pattern on the stem, along with spikes. Small yellowish-green flowers and fruits that resemble an apple.
Benefits of the Tree of Death
But the tree of death is not all bad. Its fairly deep roots are beneficial, as they help prevent soil erosion and provide a very peculiar reptile called a garrobo or striped iguana from Central and South America. Only animal immune to its venom.
Despite the risk, it is possible to use the harvested wood. After burning it at the base (always being far away when doing so), the fallen tree dries in the sun until it is safe to cut it. Then, wood is used to make beautiful, unique and safe furniture.
Robert Asprin, APD is a non-dieting Accredited Practicing Dietitian passionate about inspiring positive changes in eating and lifestyle behaviors to help improve health while nurturing relationships with food and body.