Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Tree Grows in the Tropics

There's been a huge resurgence of concern in North America about the spreading of the giant hogweed plant. It's an invasive species which originated in Europe and Asia and has been around since the 1940's. To me, it looks much like Queen Anne's lace. The difference is that the giant hogweed, as the name suggests, has huge spiky leaves and, the plant is much greater in size. It is also a health hazard since the sap can cause blisters, lesions and swelling on the skin particularly when exposed to sunlight. It sounds awful, but I've heard of something worse.

In the Caribbean there's a species of tree that is so highly toxic, it can kill you. Before it does so however, it will cause you to erupt in burning blisters all over your skin. You might lose your voice and you could go blind. This tree is called the manchineel tree, nicknamed the manzanilla (little apple).
As I bent over these apples to take the photo, the tour guide yelled at me
to keep away. He feared I was attempting to touch them.
The tree is prolific in many of the islands because it's been left to grow for shade. In some countries, there are warning signs. In others, there are red X's on the tree trunk. In some, for example Bonaire, there's nothing to indicate an issue. You have to know.
Some islands have more sophisticated signs, but this hand painted
one makes the point in several languages.
We were told that should we ever be on a beach and see a tree with nobody lying in its shade, not to go near it. In fact, this same tree, is so toxic that when wet, it will drip, stain and discolour the ground or burn the paint off a vehicle parked beneath it. In other words, if it does that to the ground or to a car, don't use it as refuge during a rainstorm. Often, the trees are found on beaches and near water. The apples have even sometimes been called beach apples.
On desert islands, the manchineel trees are supposedly left for shade. On the other hand, disposal is challenging. Attempting to burn the trees will spew toxic smoke into the air that can cause blindness and breathing issues. Natives once used the sap from the trees to poison the tips of their arrows. Google has some interesting sites with further details which even suggest that explorer Ponce de Leon died from exposure to this tree's toxins.

As for the giant hogweed, I suppose we'll just have to steer clear and wait to see if anything is done about it. It is currently not listed among the world's top ten most poisonous plants. The manchineel tree is.

Take a look to see if you recognize any of the other nine. Copy and paste if necessary.

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