Gympie-Gympie: The Stinging Plant Which Can Inflict Pain For Months

Jun 24, 2021 1 comments

Gympie-Gympie sounds adorable, but if you pay any attention to its scientific name Dendrocnide moroides, you would know its to be avoided. Dendrocnide is derived from the Ancient Greek word déndron, meaning “tree”, and knídē, which means “stinging needle.” Indeed, Dendrocnide moroides, with its soft and fuzzy heart shaped leaves, is believed to be Australia’s most poisonous plant. The plant’s fuzzy appearance is due to it being covered by thousand of small hair-like stingers which carry a toxin so potent that victims have writhed in pain for weeks.

Dendrocnide moroides

Photo: Steve & Alison1/Flickr

Botanist Marina Hurley who studied the plant for three years in the rainforests of Queensland describes its sting as “being burnt with hot acid and electrocuted at the same time.”

Hurley was stung several times during the course of her study, despite wearing protective gear like particle masks and welding gloves. She needed hospitalization once.

Dendrocnide moroides, which grows near rainforests in eastern Australia from Cape York Peninsula to northern New South Wales, is one of six stinging-tree species found in Australia. But Gympie-Gympie is the worst of its kind. The entire plant is covered in small needle-like hairs. Similar to hypodermic needles, these hairs are sharply pointed and hollow and are designed to breakoff near the tip so that it can inject venom into the victim’s tissues. The needles are so tiny that they are hard to remove from the skin, but unless it is done so, the needles continue to release toxins into the body causing writhing pain whenever the affected areas are touched or they come in contact with water, or temperature changes. Researchers have reported that even dried leaves can have their hairs full of toxin.

Dendrocnide moroides

An electron micrograph of stinging hairs. Photo: Marina Hurley

Dendrocnide moroides

Leaves of Gympie-Gympie. Photo: Steve Fitzgerald/Wikimedia Commons 

Ernie Rider, a senior conservation officer with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, who was slapped in the face and torso with the foliage in 1963, recalled:

For two or three days the pain was almost unbearable; I couldn't work or sleep, then it was pretty bad pain for another fortnight or so. The stinging persisted for two years and recurred every time I had a cold shower...There's nothing to rival it; it's ten times worse than anything else.

Worse still, the plant constantly sheds its needles like a cat shedding fur. The needles remain suspended in the air near the plant’s vicinity, where it can be inhaled by an unsuspecting victim causing respiratory complications. Marina Hurley was exposed to airborne hairs over a long period of time. She suffered sneezing fits, watery eyes and nose, and eventually developed an allergy that required medical attention. She recalled:

The allergic reaction developed over time, causing extreme itching and huge hives that eventually required steroid treatment. At that point my doctor advised that I should have no further contact with the plant and I didn’t object.

W.V. MacFarlane, Professorial Fellow in Physiology at the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University, observed the effects of inhaling the trichomes (or hairs). He reported:

The plucking of hairs from the leaves invariably produces sneezing in the operator within 10 or 15 minutes. During early attempts to separate stinging hairs from dried leaves, dust and presumably some hairs were inhaled. Initially they produced sneezing, but within three hours there was diffuse nasopharyngeal pain, and after 26 hours a sensation of an acute sore throat like tonsillitis was experienced.

Les Moore, a scientific officer with the CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology in Queensland, was studying cassowaries when he was stung across the face. His face swelled up immediately:

Within minutes the initial stinging and burning intensified and the pain in my eyes was like someone had poured acid on them. My mouth and tongue swelled up so much that I had trouble breathing. It was debilitating and I had to blunder my way out of the bush.

I think I went into anaphylactic shock and it took days for my sight to recover.

Dendrocnide moroides

Marina Hurley wearing a particle face mask and welding gloves works with stinging trees. Photo: Marina Hurley

Tales of the Gympie-Gympie’s encounter with humans are fascinating. Road surveyor A.C. Macmillan, who was among the the first to document the effects of a stinging tree, reported to his boss in 1866 that his packhorse “was stung, got mad, and died within two hours”. Local folklore is abound with similar tales about horses jumping in agony off cliffs and forestry workers drinking themselves silly to dull the intractable pain. There is one apocryphal story about a World War 2 officer who unknowingly used the killer plant’s leaves as toilet paper. The pain was so terrible that he ended up shooting himself. Another story involved an ex-serviceman, who fell into one of the plants during WWII training exercises, and he ended up strapped to a hospital bed for three weeks, "as mad as a cut snake."

Surprisingly, despite being such a toxic plant, Gympie-Gympie is also food for some animals. Marina Hurley discovered during her study that Gympie-Gympie’s leaves are eaten by a nocturnal leaf-eating chrysomelid beetle and many other leaf-chewing insects and sap-suckers. They are also consumed voraciously by the red-legged pademelons that can strips entire plants of their leaves overnight.

Tasmanian Pademelon

A Tasmanian pademelon. Photo: Caroline Marschner | Dreamstime.com

References:
# Amanda Burdon, Gympie Gympie: Once stung, never forgotten, Australian Geographic
# Marina Hurley, ‘The worst kind of pain you can imagine’ – what it’s like to be stung by a stinging tree, The Conversation
# Wikipedia

Comments

  1. I actually used Stinging Nettles as toilet paper here in the states when I was a little kid. Once.
    Not coincidentally, that was the very day I learned how to identify Stinging Nettles.

    ReplyDelete

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