Manchineel: Evil Queens Would Have Loved Them!

We all know from our childhood how Snow White’s wicked step-mother poisoned her with an apple. The step-mother apparently brewed a malodorous and poisonous potion, and dipped the apple in it so that it would absorb the toxins. And she had to take a lot of care because knowing that Snow White would be suspicious after many attacks on her, she had to leave half the apple free of poison so that she could eat it to allay the girl’s doubts and tempt her into eating the other half. The Queen must have gone through hoops to gather various obscure ingredients, brew the powerful potion, and soak one half of an uncut apple in it! And for all that, the poison was only strong enough to put Snow White to sleep, waiting for true love’s kiss!

If only the Queen had known about the Manchineel, a tree which bears apple-like fruits. The tree is one of the most toxic ones known, and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s most dangerous tree. The sap of the tree is extremely poisonous, and every part of the tree, from the bark to the leaves to the fruit, is pervaded with the sap, and hence poisonous.  

The poisonous nature of the tree has been recognized for long. Its botanical names is Hippomane mancinella. Hippomane is derived from two Greek words: Hippo for horse, and mane a derivative of the word mania. The story goes that a Greek philosopher gave the tree its name after seeing horses go crazy after eating the apple-like fruits. One of the Spanish names of the tree, given by Christopher Columbus, is manzanilla de la muerte, meaning ‘little apple of death.’

Evil queens would not even had to go to the trouble of feeding the fruit to their victims. It is said that simply standing under the tree during rains will lead to dire consequences—serious blistering and blinding. In fact indigenous people of the Caribs where the tree is native, are known to have poisoned enemy water supplies with the leaves. They also dipped arrows in the sap to make effective poison-tipped weapons. Ship-wrecked sailors of yore who ate the fruits died horrific deaths with their mouths, throats and stomachs blistered. Even the smoke from a burning tree can cause blindness.

Fiction and films have used the toxicity of the tree to create dramatic situations—from enemies being given machineel leaves rolled into cigarettes to kill them, to villains tying their victims to the trees!

Manchineel trees are native to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. They grow well in sandy soils and flourish among the mangroves. The trees grow up to a height of about 12 metres with a 60-cm thick trunk. The leaves are yellowish green in colour, and long-stalked, shiny, leathery, and elliptical. The fruits look like apples and are sweet smelling, and range in colour from yellow to red.


The tree is quite common in Florida. Many of the manchineels growing there are labelled with a warning sign, telling people not to eat the fruits or stand under the tree during the rains.

If only the evil queens of old had known of this tree! Of course, they would have had to figure out a way to grow these tropical trees in Europe where most of the stories are set. But they were ingenious enough to have found ways to do that. And how much more interesting fairy tales would have been!


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