NO NAME KEY, Fla. – What’s been categorized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the planet’s most dangerous tree can be found right here in Florida -- growing in some parts of the state, and the public doesn’t even know it.
The Manchineel tree’s sap and fruit pose the biggest threat. The fruits look like small green apples and have the nickname “Manzanilla de la Muerte,” which translates into “Little Apple of Death.”
News4JAX spent weeks tracking down tree specialists and experts to learn more about the toxic tree and find where it grows in the Sunshine State. It is known to live in portions of Southern Mexico, the Caribbean, and as we found, it also grows in portions of the Everglades and spots in the Florida Keys.
So, after our research, we found a National Park Ranger who agreed to lead us into the forest in No Name Key – a small key that is home to the National Deer Key Refuge – to let us carefully get up close and personal with the tree that’s been known to cause blindness, blistering, and even death.
“They look a lot like a fig leaf or poison wood if you don’t really know what you’re looking for,” said Park Ranger Kristie Killam, who has worked at the park for many years. “But they have a real bright green color to them.”
On that stretch of land, there are multiple Manchineel trees scattered among the forest. The trees are not marked and very hard to identify for a person not extremely familiar with native vegetation.
“I heard all these horror stories, hold my breath and run underneath them. So after a couple years I realized it’s not going to jump out and bite you or anything. I calmed down and now I don’t have any fear,” she said.
Killam explained that the park does not identify the toxic trees with warning signs because the park tries to keep its native vegetation untouched. She said in many spots, where there are more people, the trees have been removed because they are so dangerous.
“It’s a burn versus say like a poison ivy or poison wood tree where it’s more like an itchy or scratchy thing. This thing can burn,” said Killam about coming into contact with the sap.
Also she says sitting under the tree during rain can be dangerous.
“If it’s raining out, or where moisture gets off a leaf and comes on you, then it’s a problem,” Killam said.
The biggest threat, however, would be ingesting the fruit which could theoretically be fatal. There haven’t been any deaths accounted for in modern literature but historically, there have been accounts of deaths from the Manchineel tree. In fact, one story is that explorer Juan Ponce de León was killed with an arrow that was dipped in Manchineel sap.
The trees are native to the southern end of Florida as well as a few nearby islands along with parts of Mexico and South America, like we mentioned.
To learn more, News4JAX traveled to the home of Roger Hammer, a botanical expert who lives in South Florida.
“The sap is caustic. It’ll cause severe, mild to severe skin lesions. If you get it in your eye, it will cause temporary blindness,” said Hammer, who has actually rubbed the sap on his skin in years past.
“I like to speak from experience, so as a naturalist for the county I broke a leaf off a tree and touched the sap on my wrist. It blistered up for… I kept thinking it was going to get better but it kept getting worse over a period of many weeks,” he explained.
Hammer even grew a Manchineel tree on his property years ago, until his dogs started getting into the fruit. Since the fruit is known as “the little apple of death,” he carefully and cautiously cut the tree down.
“With a chainsaw and wiped Vaseline on my hands and face and wore a rain jacket and cut it with a chainsaw,” he said, noting that he avoided the sawdust because that could cause you to need hospitalization.
You don’t want to burn the wood from a Manchineel tree either. The smoke from the burning wood can cause eye injuries.