If you ever come across a manchineel tree, do not eat it, touch it, stand under it, or even look at it.
Cayman adults will not go near this dangerous tree. Children were told to stay away from it and animals are killed by eating it.
It is also listed in the Guinness World Records as the world’s most dangerous tree.
It looks unassuming enough, often little more than a shrubby bush, but it can grow into a tree about 50 feet high. Its bark is gray-brown and its leaves are a bright and silky green.
The manchineel is a shade tree with fruit that supposedly tastes sweet at first, but has devastating effects later on. Eating these fruits can cause extreme burning and pain in the mouth, followed by a tightening of the throat preventing one from swallowing.
Fortunately, injuries in Cayman have been rare because of warning signs posted on trees in public areas.
The fruits are known as “manzanilla de la muerte,” which in English translates to “little apple of death.” The name alone should be enough to stop even the most curious from tasting it.
All parts of the manchineel tree exude a toxic liquid that severely irritates the skin, so even touching it should be avoided. If you should get the toxic milk on the body, immediately wash with soap and water.
The milky white sap is incredibly poisonous. Even one drop can cause rashes, blisters and swelling. One of the biggest mistakes people make is to take refuge from rain under this tree. Water dripping off the leaves and bark can cause severe ailments – just one drop in the eye may cause permanent blindness.
It even exudes a toxic mist in the wind, giving one more reason to stay far away.
“We were warned to stay away from this tree by our parents and grandparents,” said Twyla Vargas, a Bodden Town resident familiar with manchineel.
“There was only one tree I can recall of being in my area when I was growing up, and that was behind the Bodden Town Mission House, but I think it died,” Ms. Vargas said.
“Hearing about manchineel brings back childhood fears. That’s was one plant everyone in Cayman was very afraid of,” Ms. Vargas said.
Marilyn Nasirun, now 61, had the unfortunate experience of coming face to face with a manchineel tree at age 14.
“My face and eyes were swollen for weeks after I walked under the tree and a leaf brushed my face,” she said.
Despite the inherent dangers associated, the tree has been used as a source of timber by Caribbean carpenters for centuries. 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.
Toxic as the tree may be to humans, blue iguanas eat it.
National Trust field officer Stuart Mailer said Cayman blue iguanas love the fruit. Strangely enough, after ingesting the fruit, the iguana gets into a drunken state.
Mr. Mailer witnessed this recently at the Botanic Park when he encountered a blue iguana acting strangely and inquired from the park warden what was wrong. He was told it had just ingested a manchineel fruit.
Manchineel trees at the Botanic Park are labeled as dangerous, with signs warning people to stay away.
The book “Wild Trees in the Cayman Islands,” by Fred Burton and illustrated by Penny Clifford, states the manchineel is found on all three islands, growing abundantly in seasonally flooded areas close to buttonwood wetlands, where the floodwater is never very salty. It also grows by sandy seashores.
The tree is native to parts of the Caribbean, Central and South America, including the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands.