Saturday, June 2, 2018

Not in My Garden (Thank God!)

Unfortunately, I have let the weeds go in my yard for a couple of years, so that now, I have a fantastic variety of strange plants that are rapidly taking over the yard.  I am long past the point of being able to pull them up, so drastic action is required.  In short, I need a civilian version of Agent Orange.

Scrummaging through the garden shed, I found two partial bottles of weed killer so old that no doubt half the active ingredients were probably inert, but what the hell:  I  decided to use them anyway.  With two new bottles of weed spray, plus the old bottles, I was able to spray the weeds daily for two weeks with the best herbicides available.

Now, I have the happiest, healthiest, and most vigorous collection of useless parasites this side of Congress.

It seems the government has banned every chemical that might make an effective herbicide.  The only remaining hope is to grind up fresh steak and sprinkle it around on the lawn in the hope that the weeds die from the high cholesterol.

My yard now contains such a variety of weird plants that I might be able to declare the front yard as a botanical park and begin charging admission.  This is not as strange a notion as you might think:  I know of a similar park, though I have to admit that one does have stranger plants.

Years ago, I visited an unusual arboretum in Honduras, the Lancetilla Botanical Gardens.  Divided into an experimental plantation, a huge natural preserve, and a fantastic arboretum, it is both a tourist attraction and a research center.  While I would have loved to have ventured into the preserve (if only to see if the howler monkeys are anything like a faculty meeting), that part of the park was closed to tourists, so I went instead to see the exotic trees.

Central America used to be famous for its hardwood trees, but a few centuries of heavy harvesting have cleared out many varieties.  Many of the former forest areas were cleared for farm land and most of what remained were destroyed for their valuable timber.  As a child, I can remember newspaper advertisements for furniture made from Honduran mahogany selling at bargain prices.

Today, if you want to see many of the exotic kinds of trees that used to be common in Central America, you have to go to a “tree zoo” where the nearly extinct samples are preserved.

One of the "zoo's" trees that fascinated me was the manchineel, a tree that is incredibly poisonous.  The tree is called the manzanilla de la muerte ("little apple of death") by the locals and you don’t even have to eat the attractive green, apple-like fruit for it to kill you, because every part of this tree is deadly. Simply touching the plant can poison you and the sticky milky white sap will raise blisters on the skin.  Even sitting under the tree while it rains would be hazardous to your health.  The manchineel is the most deadly tree on earth.

Symptoms of manchineel poisoning sound like some of those side-effects lists from the medicines hawked on television (which are obviously written by lawyers), including everything from ingrown toenails to an overdrawn bank account.  Well, actually the list is:  difficulty breathing, a narrowing or closure of the esophagus, skin blisters, fever, headaches, blindness, skin rashes, and a burning sensation of the mouth and throat.

The sharp, serrated leaves are so poisonous that before the Spanish arrived, the Carib Indians threw bundles of the leaf-bearing branches into the water supplies of their enemies in an early form of biological warfare.  Contact with just the surface of the tree’s bark, branches, and leaves will cause blisters of the skin. There have even been documented cases of people's suffering respiratory symptoms from unknowingly breathing in the dust from the bark while standing in the shade of the tree.

This homicidal tree can be found in Florida, Cuba, Mexico….just about anywhere around the edge of the Caribbean.  The plant’s fruit floats, and the seed is still viable after long exposure to salt water.  The tree can grow to a height of 50 feet, and is usually found along beaches, where it is an excellent tool to prevent beach erosion.  English sailors called the fruit the "beach apple", and learned quickly how harmful the tree could be.

Most deadly plants evolve their poisons as defensive measures, but no one is quite certain why the manchineel has evolved into such a deadly nightmare.  Fruits usually smell sweet to attract animals to eat them (with the exception of durian fruit, that smells like turpentine and onions garnished with a gym sock, according to the Smithsonian), so that their indigestible seeds will be planted elsewhere.  And while the attractive apples of the manchineel do indeed smell good (kind of like a freshly baked apple pie), the animal that eats one will not live long enough to spread the seeds.  Scientists also have yet to explain why the deadly fruit is the least poisonous part of the tree.

Dead birds are frequently found under the tree. I have emphasized a couple of times that the fruit kills any animal that eats it, but...Well...there is one animal who eats manchineel with impunity.  The black iguana is somehow uniquely immune to the tree and can safely eat the fruit.  Since iguanas are not migratory, nor do they travel far during their lifetime, once again, scientists are not sure how this trait evolved.  (Having seen a few black iguanas, my personal theory is that a four foot long, carnivorous lizard, that has been clocked at 22 mph, is just too damn mean to be bothered by anything.)

Cutting down the tree is also dangerous, since the flying dust from the bark can cause skin blisters, difficulty breathing, and blindness.  Even the smoke from burning the tree is harmful.  And if all the above weren't bad enough, the unlucky victim of the tree who survives the initial assault may still succumb to its effects later since recent research shows that the tree’s poisonous sap is also carcinogenic. 

For some completely unfathomable reason, the tree is on the endangered and protected list in Florida—possibly to cut down on Yankee tourism???  Even more unfathomable, somebody braver than I in Honduras actually found a modern use for it.  If you can survive burning through the base of the tree, and allow the wood to dry in the sun for a few weeks, the attractive wood can be used for furniture.  At a market in the seaside city of Tela, I found kitchen utensils made from the wood.  I resisted the temptation to buy them. 

The only other use for the tree has been in warfare.  Several native tribes found that tipping arrowheads in the sap of the tree made their weapons far more effective.  One example figures prominently in American history, though you have probably never heard of it.

In 1513, the Spanish nobleman and politician, Juan Ponce de Leon, lost an important legal case with Diego Columbus, the son of the famous explorer, over who was the rightful governor of Puerto Rico.  Denied the position he wanted, Ponce de Leon took the advice of King Ferdinand and set out to explore more of the Caribbean.  He sailed north and up along the East coast of what he named La Florida, or the land of flowers.

Everyone knows he was looking for the Fountain of Youth.  (Everyone, that is, except  Ponce de Leon, who had never heard of this ridiculous myth—a lie that was probably started more than a decade after his death).  What the rich nobleman did discover was fertile land, good harbors, and natives whom he hoped could be forced to build his new colony.

After securing royal approval, Ponce de Leon set out with a large expedition to build the first colony in what would become today’s United States.  Landing somewhere in Southwestern Florida in 1521, he ran into a large, angry party of Calusa natives.  In the ensuing battle, Ponce de Leon was struck in the thigh with an arrow tipped in manchineel sap.  Prudently withdrawing back to Puerto Rico, Ponce de Leon died from the poison.

So, a poisonous tree defeated the first attempt at European colonization in the United States. 


  1. What a lovely weird story. I think I'd let that tree go ahead and go extinct, though. It's amazing what environmentalists will try to preserve.

    Me, I think there's a reason things go extinct and we probably shouldn't mess with the process of natural selection.


  2. Iguanas are not carnivores. Good read though.