Melissa Hernández ’22: Book X, Chapter IV (Of the Fruit or Hazelnut of the Manchineel Tree, Which Is Used to Purge)

Book X, Chapter IV

Of the fruit or hazelnut of the manchineel tree, which is used to purge.

Translated by Melissa Hernández ’22

It seems a notorious contradiction to call this a manchineel tree[1] that bears hazelnuts, since neither the tree nor its name corresponds with the fruit—but these are mistakes of the common people. The first Christians who came to these parts called them manzanillos (from the Spanish manzanilla or little apple), and they have retained the unsuitable name, but they produce hazelnuts or a fruit that looks a lot like a peeled hazelnut. Speaking more to the truth, I do not consider it a tree, but a plant, with the largest of them growing to fourteen or fifteen spans, more or less. It is among the ben bushes, according to our apothecaries or herbalists, and this is the name given to it here by medical doctors and Christian herbalists. Their leaves are somewhat like hemp leaves, but bigger and fresher; between them grow fringes like fennel but red, where they carry the seed, and in those they produce round buds, and for this reason they called them manzanillo. These buds are divided and covered with a light or thin skin, inside which are some white grains, three or four in each bud, which in taste and whiteness are like good hazelnuts, and even better, but in their effects they are as follows. They are suited to all stomachs, for I saw a woman in this city who wanted to purged herself with this fruit but could not, even after eating nine of these hazelnuts, and there was no change in her belly, and I heard her swear to it. I will say more, as in Valladolid, in the year 1513, I saw a man named Juan de la Vega, overseer on this island of Cuba (he had come to these parts with the first admiral in 1493), who had gone to negotiate with the Catholic King; as he was one of the first settlers, he was very experienced in the use of this fruit for himself and others, and he had brought these hazelnuts because he said that he did very well with them and used them whenever he needed to purge—whoever he would give these hazelnuts to, he would present them as if they were a very precious thing. It so happened that he gave half of one of these hazelnuts to a young man, his nephew or relative, who de la Vega wanted to bring here—and the young man was emptied out in such a way that there were no guts left in his belly, and in less than twenty hours he was dead. I saw Juan de la Vega cry for his nephew, gravely regretting what he had learned or experienced from these hazelnuts.

I want to clarify what I said about these hazelnuts in the previous chapter: I say that some stomachs or people are not affected by these hazelnuts, but others purge so well that it kills them or causes so much injury that they are brought to the end of their life; I have also seen many others purge moderately, and they benefit greatly from them. But because this medicine is violent, one has to be very careful and prudent when using it, which is why those who take these hazelnuts eat a good hen first and gorge themselves, and then after an hour or more they take a hazelnut or half, according to what suits each one. In short, this purge or way of purging men was learned from the Indians, and for this purpose they keep these plants in their gardens and estates, and even today in this city they are found in many Christian houses. However, I will never keep them in my house, because in the year 1520, taking my wife and children to the Mainland (from where I had come for them), I passed through this city, and in a lodging where I was staying there were some of these manchineel trees in a corral—and because children are rapacious and eat everything they can get their hands on (the oldest of them was barely eight years old), they ate as many of these hazelnuts as they could reach or found on the ground (after they are ripe, they easily break from those sticks or stems from which they hang and fall on the ground, though they can hold for two or three years without breaking). And in short time the boys began to purge so much that they fell on the ground, passed out as if dead, and so I believed that I had become childless and that they would not live—but they were saved by God, and they were given oil to vomit and other remedies which promptly helped them, and our Lord wanted them to escape with only a little fatigue and weakness for a few days.

To bring this matter to a conclusion, I say that Christians began to test and experiment with these hazelnuts on themselves until they were able to measure the amount their stomachs could take of this fruit, with many being unaffected and others benefitting from them, because our doctors did not know them or knew how to apply them. But now, many ask for them and value them, and even from Spain they send for them.

[1] Hippomane mancinella [EE]

Image: Illustration of Hippomane mancinella or Manchineel tree, by Descourtilz in 1833.