In South Florida and along the Keys, there grows a small tree that locals in the know disdain. A cousin to the Brazilian Para rubber tree, the manchineel (Hippomane mancinella) has played a sometimes lethal part in history.
It is reported that when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Florida Keys intent on conquest, the local Indians fought back with everything at their disposal. That included the poisonous sap of the manchineel, which they used to contaminate the Spaniards' water supplies. In fact, because even the tree's leaves can trigger painful reactions, the soldiers learned to fear and avoid it. In caution to others, one Spaniard wrote, "He who sleeps under a machineel sleeps forever."
During the turn-of-the-century construction of railroad magnate Henry Flagler's extension to Key West of his Florida East Coast Railway, manchineel again reminded man of its dangers. According to Pat Parks, writing in her book The Railroad That Died At Sea, in 1910 a hurricane suddenly overtook a section of the railroad's building site. Endangered by the raging storm, a construction superintendent secured himself to a nearby tree with is belt. Not until it was too late did he realize that his savior was actually a manchineel! Sap from the wind-splintered branches oozed into his open wounds, adding to his peril. The man lived, but spent many months in a hospital recuperating from the tree's poison.
Needless to say, the little manchineel tree has never earned renown as a supplier of woodworking wood. Even firewood gatherers have left it alone, for poison also lingers in the smoke of burning manchineel.
Illustration: Jim Stevenson