Know your islands
The Machineel tree is one of the most poisonous trees in the world.
The name is derived from Spanish manzanilla or little apple, because of the resemblance of its fruit and leaves to an apple tree.
The Machineel tree is the sole species in the genus Hippomane and a species of flowering plant in the family Euphorbiaceae. It is native to the Caribbean and Central America. It may be found near beaches throughout the Caribbean as it provides a natural windbreak and the roots help to stabilize the sand which assists in preventing beach erosion.
It is important to know how to identify this tree as tiny droplets of sap often fall from these leaves and twigs and can severely irritate the eyes and skin of people underneath them.
The following is taken from Wild Trees in the Cayman Islands by Fred Burton, with illustrations by Penny Clifford.
The milky sap which springs from any broken part of this tree is highly irritant! If you are exposed to Manchineel sap, wash with water as soon as possible. You should avoid standing under a Manchineel tree when it is raining.
Manchineel has a pale brown trunk, with fairly firm bark grooved with erratic vertical fissures and many small horizontal cracks, giving the surface a crazed look. It is usually colonized by grey and pinkish-white lichens.
Manchineel grows into a large, spreading tree, often heavily colonized by bromeliads. One of the most distinctive features is the long leaf stalk, usually at least as long as the leaf blade itself, similar to the Wild Fig Ficus citrifolia, which also has white latex.
The two can be told apart by the dangling aerial roots which are characteristic only of the Wild Figs.
Manchineel leaves are silky green, with the midrib noticeably yellow: the edges are very slightly toothed, and the leaf size varies considerably.
Manchineel fruits are like small green apples, and fall to the ground where they may be dangerously tempting to children. Iguanas eat them happily, but they are poisonous to people! Manchineel is widespread in the West Indies and tropical America. In Cayman it is found on all three islands, growing abundantly in seasonally flooded areas close to Buttonwood wetlands, where the flood water is never very salty. It also may grow by sandy seashores.
Once dry, the hard, pale wood can be used in cabinet work, and in Cayman was considered an excellent material for the deck planking on wooden schooners.
Protect Cayman trees and encourage Cayman Wildlife! For more information, to share your knowledge or if you would like to get involved with the many activities in the National Trust’s Know Your Islands Program, please visit www.nationaltrust.org.ky or contact [email protected] or 949-0121.
The weekly column from the National Trust is submitted by Marnie Laing, Education Programs Manager at the Trust. The Trust can be contacted at 949-0121 or via email at [email protected]