Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Other Tree of Death

I have a standing Google search that sends daily content from the web to my inbox. Just standard keyword searches for stuff I’m interested in, like “Nachos” and “Beer plus Nachos” and “Bacon plus Beer plus Nachos”, etc.

One of the handful of searches unrelated to nachos is “Tree of Death.”

I keep the Tree of Death search active to keep track of my book by the same title, not necessarily because I love reading the frighteningly common news stories about someone being crushed to death by the tree that they themselves were either: a) standing next to while cutting down, or b) actually standing in while cutting down. (And newsflash: It’s always men. There has never been a single story about a woman cutting a tree down on top of herself. Us males are the only ones dumb enough to do that.)

The “Tree of Death” book is named after the fruitless pear tree in my front yard. It blooms beautiful white flowers every spring that smell like rotting meat. That wouldn’t be so bad, except we live in the house that the front yard is attached to. Also, these ridiculously stinky trees are in every front yard on our street, and every other street in our entire neighborhood. So, for two weeks in the spring, our whole world smells like a decaying rat at low tide. It’s magical.

I first wrote about my Tree of Death in 2011 - which is almost six years ago by my public school math - and I started the standing Google search shortly thereafter. So, how come, Mr. and Mrs. Google, you people are just now alerting me to another tree that is apparently widely known as El Arbol de la Muerte?

We speak Spanish here in California, but in case you don’t, el arbol de la muerte translated literally is “the tree of the death.” There is another tree of death out there, and I’m just now hearing about it. I’m not sure Google really works right all the time.

Daksha Morjaria from – tagline “Fodder for young minds” (perfect for me, since my brain never really grew up) – brings us the headline, Behold, The World's Most Dangerous Tree!

With its wide canopy of leaves, the majestic 50-feet tall manchineel tree that is native to the Caribbean, Florida, the northern coast of South America, Central America, and the Bahamas, looks particularly inviting, especially on a hot summer day. But you may be wise to heed the warning signs given that the deceptively innocuous tree holds the Guinness World Record for “the world’s most dangerous tree.”

(Exactly how young are the minds that is targeting if they are throwing out “deceptively innocuous” in the first paragraph? Even I had to look that up. Also, how many trees were in the running for the Guinness “most dangerous foliage” category? Anyway...)

The deadliness begins with the sweet-smelling fruit that is often found strewn on the sandy beaches where the trees grow.

Apparently, if you even take a single bite of the fruit, your throat tightens up to the point of you almost dying, and you stay that way for about eight hours, as long as you don’t die. If you die, you stay that way a little longer.

David Nellis, author of “Poisonous Plants and Animals of Florida and the Caribbean,” says the manchineel fruit, aka "beach apple," can also result in abdominal pain, vomiting, bleeding, and digestive tract damage. However, the expert says the symptoms are temporary, and rarely result in death.

Bleeding? From where? And “temporary” digestive tract damage? Hmm... That all sounds great and everything, but I’ll just have a regular non-beach apple instead. Those rarely result in death either, and have none of the other fun side effects.

The tree’s thick and milky white sap that oozes out of its leaves and bark is equally dangerous. According to Nellis, contact with the skin can lead to symptoms that range from blisters to rash, headaches, and respiratory problems. The researcher says exposure to the eye can even cause "temporary painful blindness." Given that the sap’s most dangerous toxin, phorbol, is highly water soluble, experts advise not using the tree for shade during a rain shower, as raindrops carrying the diluted sap could easily scald your skin.

Blinding and skin-scalding sap. Yowza. (Side note: “Blinding Sap” would be a great name for a rock band.)

And can we talk for a minute about the fact that there are apparently enough poisonous plants and animals in this region to fill a four hundred and sixteen-page book? I don’t care how nice your weather is, Miami. You can keep it, along with your poisonous, scalding, blinding trees. And your alligators, which are not poisonous, so they’re not even in the book!

Novices planning to chop down the tree and use the wood for a beach bonfire should be aware that just inhaling the sawdust and smoke could burn their skin, eyes, and lungs! It is no wonder that Spanish-speaking cultures refer to the manchineel as arbol de la muerte, or tree of death.

The tree of death. Six years! Where were you on that one, Google?

And, unless we’re talking about castaways here, who goes to the beach and chops down one of the beach trees for a bonfire?

Beach cop: Where’d you get that tree in your fire?
You (standing on stump holding axe): Uh... we brought it from home.
Beach cop: Hmm... OK, good luck. Make sure you stand in the smoke. It’s great for your skin.

The tree’s sturdy wood is very popular with Caribbean carpenters who have learned to neutralize its poisonous sap by drying the bark in the sun. In Central and South America, the locals use the bark to treat body swelling caused by injury and inflammation and the dried fruit as a diuretic.

This tree grows on the beach. It’s already in the sun. How do these wily Caribbean carpenters cut el arbol de la muerte down without getting their skin and lungs scalded by the vicious, blinding sap and sawdust? And as far as using the tree of death for medical purposes – two words, Central and South Americans: Rite Aid.

This manchineel tree sounds downright scary, but do you know what the article didn’t mention about it? The smell. If it smelled awful, they would have said that. In fact, the poisonous fruit is described as “sweet-smelling.” Dead rat is not sweet-smelling.

And I never hang out under my tree in the front yard. I have a patio in the backyard, where I can still smell my nasty tree, but my patio cover never drips scalding sap on me, so I’m good there.

If I must have a Tree of Death in my front yard, the Caribbean Arbol de la Muerte is actually sounding a lot better than the one I currently have, as long as I don’t eat the fruit and I don’t hang out under it.

Shouldn’t be an issue. I think I’ll make the switch.

If you’ll excuse me, I need to go gas up the chainsaw. Does anyone know the phone number for Florida?

See you soon,


Copyright © 2017 Marc Schmatjen

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