wrote the poem
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
However, not all trees are revered. Today, I’m going to discuss two that I have met in my citizen scientist work in the Caribbean. The first one is Poisonwood, Metopium toxiferum. A character, Polly Poisonwood, based on the poisonwood tree, is featured in the adventure tale Grow Home, Little Seeds. You can probably guess from its common name, the poisonwood is not a tree to embrace. Poisonwood belongs to the cashew family, which includes poison ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak. There seems to be a theme in the names. Poisonwood resin contains urushiol, which causes severe dermatitis. It is so potent that water dripping off leaves is enough to irritate.
So, why don’t we just get rid of all the poisonwood? Even though the tree is not useful to people, the fruit is a major food source for the endangered white-crowned pigeon and the Bahamas parrot, as well as many migratory and local birds. These trees really are “for the birds.”
The second unloved tree is the Manchineel tree, Hippomane mancinella, which I encountered in the Cayman Islands. It is considered to be one of the most deadly trees known to man. It is believed this tree was used to kill Juan Ponce de Leon. The name is from the Spanish word for little apple, manzilla, due to its fruit that resemble apples.
Every part of the tree contains toxins, which cause strong contact dermatitis. A drop of rain washing over the tree will cause blistering. The sap will even damage the paint on cars.
Machineel is a member of the spurges, so named from “purge,” because of their toxic saps. Poinsettias are also members of this family.
Why do people keep such a dangerous tree around? The fruit is deadly poisonous and toxic to birds and mammals. Most plants want the fruits to be eaten, so the seeds can be dispersed during defecation. Why have a toxic fruit? One group of animals is immune to the toxins and enjoy eating the machineel fruit. It’s my favorite group of animals – iguanas! These large lizards eat and disperse the seeds for the birds.
So, remember: Even though we may not like certain trees, it doesn’t mean they aren’t important to the certain birds or animals in the environment. They do need to be preserved for them and their eco-systems.
The two trees above are characters in the delightful children’s book, Grow Home, Little Seeds, about seeds that are raised together in a greenhouse and decide that when they are dispersed, they will all try to stay together. However, they learn along the way that they each need they own special place to put down roots, to grow up to be strong trees; but they remain good friends–as neighbors.