St. John Stories and Tips

The Manchineel Tree: Or, How to Put Yourself in Needless Danger on St. John

Warning Sign Photo, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

If your guidebook to the Virgin Islands is worth its salt, it will contain a warning about the deadly manchineel trees sprinkled around the islands. The book I read was full of alarming tidbits: the natives of the islands used to poison their arrows with its sap; in fact, this tree was so poisonous that merely standing under it in the rain would give you burns from the droplets of water falling off the leaves.

I was frightened, of course, but at the same time, a part of me longed to see one. It sounded to me like the nearest natural equivalent to the man-eating plant from Little Shop of Horrors, which I’ve always secretly rooted for when watching the movie (because really, what’s the fun in rooting for a milquetoast like Rick Moranis?). So when I got to the islands, it was with some disappointment that I learned that the manchineel is fairly rare and not likely to be met with on a casual visit. Of course, I had to feign relief at this news for the benefit of my travel companion. The Dude emphatically did not share my desire for a close encounter of the arboreal kind.

And so it was unfortunate for the Dude that he allowed me to persuade him one afternoon that we should walk from Francis Bay, where we’d just been snorkeling, to nearby Annaberg Plantation. It wasn’t that far, I argued, gesturing towards the map, and besides, who knew when a taxi would come along? With a long-suffering sigh, he capitulated.

We’d been toiling along in the relentless heat for about 15 minutes (increasingly accompanied by grumbling on the part of the Dude and forced perkiness on mine), when we noticed a sign by the side of the road up ahead. I hastened to read it, and imagine my excitement when the sign declared the tree behind it to be a manchineel and warned us off in no uncertain terms! The Dude, catching up with me and taking in the gist of the sign with a single glance of alarm, was only too ready to follow its instructions. But I lingered, ignoring his tugs at my arm, looking admiringly at the deadly tree. It looked just like all the other trees, but that only made it more tantalizingly dangerous. The sign described how Christopher Columbus, of all people, had named its dubious-looking fruit "death apples" after a sailor on his ship ate one and died. "Death apples"—what a great name!

After admiring the tree for some minutes, we finally departed with renewed liveliness—I animated by thrills of excitement, the Dude by a sensible desire to put as much distance as possible between himself and the killer plant.

So I’d like to give notice to anyone who shares my death wish—or, conversely, the Dude’s instinct for self-preservation—that the only manchineel on St. John can be found on the road to Annaberg Plantation!

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