The Manchineel: Metaphor and Tree

Plant toxins are a perfect gateway to the study of intellectual history: what we knew, how we knew it, how we taught what we knew, and (of course) just how wrong we were. After all, the human knowledge of what’s edible predates written history … and yet there are a few unfortunate, unwitting guinea pigs in every generation. I might be one of these fools some day; I have a habit of tasting first and asking later.

On the other hand, I also have a habit of collecting useless information about plant and animal toxins, so maybe it all evens out.

Hippomane mancinella

M. Hocquart. "Phytographie Medicale" by Joseph Roques, published in Paris in 1821

Here are my notes on the Manchineel, a subject which I had not remembered until this week.

A tropical tree, the Manchineel (Hippomane mancinella) belongs to the euphorbiaceae family. Euphorbias are notirously toxic. I own a few. One is usually advized to avoid the latex sap. Manchineels, however, also produce a fruit which has (to begin with) a pleasant taste. The tree’s name means “little apple”, but the Spanish go all out with “manzanilla de la muerte” (the little apple of death). The tree spreads as its fruits drift on the tides and so, because the fruits are often found on the beach, the tree is also known as a “beach apple.”

Curiously (or not-so-curiously) the medical literature likes to justify its attention to the plant by noting that popularity of Carribian vacations (Earle; Strickland).

Eurphobias (the spurge family, 7,000 species) developed their toxic sap (rich in alkaloids and terpenoids) to deter herbivores. Insects, but people too (Webster).

In 1942 an unlucky soldier “came into contact” with a tree, didn’t wash his hands, and (later) had to piss. He described the growing pain on his penis to be “like tear gas burning my skin”. So, he knew what tear gas felt like and assumed others knew as well! Lesson: do not put tear gas on your genitals (Satulsky).

The Manchineel is not useless. As one of the few shore side trees in the salt water tropics, it reduces coastal erosion … and frightens tourists! (James; Pitts).

Thirty minutes of sea water bathing is suggested for skin contact, but if you eat it … you’ll probably live to regret it (Satulsky). One guy survived 24 fruits! (Howard). Milk is suggested as a remedy for the burning throat (Strickland).

The Manchineel has a fairly long history in written lore; the exaggerated accounts of poisoning lend themselves to the imagination. In 1526 Oviedo y Valdes wrote home to warn the royalty:

All the Christians in that land who serve your Majesty believe that there is no antidote so efficacious for this poison as sea water. They wash the wound well, and in this way some have recovered, but not many. . . . So that your Majesty may better comprehend the power of the poison of this tree, I say that if a man lies down to sleep for only an hour in the shade of one of these manchineel trees, he awakes with his head and eyes swollen, his eyebrows level with his cheeks. If by chance a drop of dew falls from this tree into a man’s eyes, his eyes will burst, or at least the man will go blind. (Howard)

The horrors of the Manchineel have since appeared in at least one opera (L’Africaine), novels, and even on screen (Wind Across the Everglades).

The tree has sprouted in the sands of a few poems as well. In addition to matter-of-fact references in the poetry of Caribbean poets (including Aimé Césaire and Derek Walcott), Coleridge includes it as an extended metaphor in of one of his less-read poems, “To the Rev. George Coleridge”. Describing “chance-started friendships” that became costly and painful, Coleridge writes:

… A brief while
Some have preserv’d me from life’s pelting ills;
But, like a tree with leaves of feeble stem,
If the clouds lasted, and of a sudden breeze
Ruffled the boughs, they on my head at once
Dropped the collected shower; and some most false,
False and fair-foliag’d as teh Manchineel,
Have tempted me to slumber in their shade
E’en mid the storm; then breathing subtlest damps,
Mix’d their own venom with the rain from Heaven,
That I woke poison’d!

Of course, Coleridge woke to many poisons and, although at least one was plant derived, these were not the poisons of the Manchineel. Nevertheless, I think that Coleridge latches on to the most surprising and worrisome aspect of the tree. Plenty of potential edibles are truly poisonous, plenty of plants will punish those who touch them, but the Manchineel casts a risky shadow. When the rain or dew falls from the tree it burns the unlucky persons camped below … waiting out a passing shower or spending the night on the beach seemed so benign. While not exactly a false friend, the tree does provide a false shelter.

Coleridge was not happy with the metaphor, it seems. Or, at least his boyhood teacher James Bowyer would have disapproved. In the Biographia literaria Coleridge recalls Bowyer placing the word on a list of over-used and ill-suited metaphors. In the case of the Manchineel, the metaphor is too suited, too easily applied, as Coleridge (through Bowyer) contends:

Nay certain introductions, similies, and examples, were placed by name on a list of interdiction. Among the similies, there was, I remember, that of the Manchineel fruit, as suiting equally well with too many subjects …

Perhaps too far away to have heard Bowyer’s warning, Rodolphe employs the tree in a letter he writes to Emma in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary:

[T]hat delicious exaltation, at once your charm and your torment, has prevented you from understanding, adorable woman that you are, the falseness of our future position. Nor had I reflected upon this at first, and I rested in the shade of that ideal happiness as beneath that of the manchineel tree, without foreseeing the consequences.

Again, it is the innocent, even idyllic seeming shade which burns its victims and seers itself into a file cabinet of literary metaphors.

As for me, I am no Coleridge … I am not even a Bowyer, so I have no intention of dropping the Manchineel’s poison into my poorly built metaphors. I prefer irritants closer to home; for this, I keep Opuntia potted in the backyard.

References:

Earle, K. Vigors. 1938. Toxic effects of Hippomane mancinella. Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 32, no. 3 (November 26): 363-370. http://www.tropicalmedandhygienejrnl.net/

James, Arlington. 1996. The Impact of Recent Tropical Storms and Hurricanes on Dominica’s Beaches. CSI papers 1. Environment and development in coastal regions and in small islands (CSI); UNESCO. http://www.unesco.org/csi/pub/papers/abstra5.htm

Pitts, J F, N H Barker, D C Gibbons, and J L Jay. 1993. Manchineel keratoconjunctivitis. The British Journal of Ophthalmology 77, no. 5 (May): 284-288. PMID: 8318464

Satulsky, Emanuel M. 1943. Dermatitis venenata caused by the manzanillo tree. Archives of Dermatology 47, no. 1 (January 1): 36-39. http://archderm.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/summary/47/1/36

Strickland. 2000. Eating a manchineel “beach apple”. BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.) 321, no. 7258 (August 12): 428. PMID: 10938053

Webster, G L. 1986. Plant dermatitis. Irritant plants in the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae). Clinics in Dermatology 4, no. 2 (June): 36-45. PMID: 3719513

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