A Most Dangerous Plant – The Sandbox Tree

There are plants and trees found scattered across the world which can maim, cause violent gut-wrenching illnesses, and in some instance even kill a human being.  Some of these deadly plants look innocuous; some colorful and beautiful, and yet deadly all the same. The sandbox tree, however isn’t one of those; it has a nice sounding name but that’s all.  These trees are wicked looking and extremely dangerous.  The trunk is covered in closely spaced razor-sharp spikes from the base to the crown.  Underneath the bark runs a poisonous sap, while overhead, red seeds invite someone to eat them, just so they can inflict violent cramping and nausea.  Worse, without warning the ripened fruit explodes in a terrifying mess, sending seeds flying at lethal speeds, as far as 100 feet away. It’s like something developed in the mind of a horror story writer; a tree that can kill under the right circumstances.

This dangerous tree is an evergreen, part of the spurge family.  There are two species; Hura crepitans and H. polyandra.   They are native primarily to the tropical parts of South America, Mexico and the Amazonian rain forest; occasionally found in tropical parts of North America. In addition, the sandbox tree was introduced into Tanzania in Eastern Africa, where it is now considered an invasive species.  The sandbox tree can only grow in frost-free areas and needs a moist sandy loam soil.  It does well in zones 10 and 11.  Long ago, colonists in the British West Indies would use the empty seed capsules as sandboxes for blotting ink; thus the origin of the tree’s name.

Sandbox trees are easily identified by their unique and terrifying appearance.  They have smooth, dark brown or greenish bark which is covered with small spikes.  It’s almost as if the tree is broadcasting a message of danger to anyone approaching.  Plus, sandbox trees are massive in size.  Fully developed, they can reach towering heights of two-hundred feet tall with trunks nearly two feet wide at the base, making them one of the largest tropical trees in the Americas.  The leaves are thick, egg-shaped, with a tapering point and have their widest portion near the petiole.  Unlike most other trees, sandbox trees are monoecious, meaning they have both male and female flowers. Male flowers grow on a long spike, as seen in the leading photograph.  Female flowers grow on axils.  The female flowers produce the pods which contain the sandbox tree’s exploding seeds.

The Exploding Seed Capsules

The seed capsules are so loud when they explode, that the Sandbox tree is referred to as the ‘Dynamite Tree.’  The pumpkin-shaped fruit let’s out a tremendous roar; splitting apart and launching flat, hard seeds in every direction with lethal speed.  The tree isn’t really out to get anyone.  It spreads through a unique method known as explosive dihisence.  In simpler terms, it means that the seed capsules, which are grooved into 15 sections and are approximately 3 inches in diameter, split apart with such a force that the seeds are propelled a great distance.

The Good With the Bad

Despite the scary outer image, the sandbox tree does have some redeeming qualities.  Oil extracted from seeds is used as a purgative.  Tinctures are used to treat intestinal worms and rheumatism and the leaves are used as an eczema cure.

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  • Saw a stand in Mexico on our way from Puerto Vallarta to San Sebastian. Before he let us out of the tour bus the guide made sure if was safe (no pods ready to blow). Definitely a wicked-looking tree, and legend has it the indigenous included some of the processed sap in food given to the conquerors for their trip home. Thus the famous ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’.

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