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The Gympie: Stinging Trees Make People Kill Themselves

Medical History | March 26, 2020

The leaves of the gympie plant in the dark. (Marina Hurley)

We're gonna say it: Plants are jerks. Considering that we need them to live, they don't even have the decency to taste good, and sometimes, they flat-out kill us. Some are simply poisonous, but others—like Dendrocnide moroides, A.K.A. the gympie, stinger, or suicide plants—take their sweet time in torturing us to death. Native to Australia, because of course it is, the sting of the gympie is so painful that British intelligence tried to research it to learn its ways. And yes, this excruciating yet sumptuous plant has racked up a body count. 

Marina Hurley wearing a particle face mask and gloves. (Marina Hurley)

What Is The Gympie?

The gympie is a stinging shrub that usually grows to about 3–10 feet tall mainly found in the rainforests of Queensland. (It's considered endangered in New South Wales, but depending on your perspective, it's not nearly endangered enough.) Its broad, heart-shaped leaves stretch out on long stems, and everything but the roots is covered in fine, translucent, toxic hair. Its fuchsia flowers are hermaphroditic, and it bears edible fruit. The fruit is the only part of the plant that isn't toxic to humans, but thankfully, it's nasty enough that you wouldn't risk your life to pluck it.

The gympie is a member of the nettle family Urticaceae, but unlike the common nettle, it can sting you without ever being touched. It's so effective that even 100-year old specimens have managed to sting people. We can only hope to be such sprightly centenarians.

Close-up of the silvery hairs on the suicide plant. (Blogspot)

How Does The Gympie Sting?

Each hair is made like an arrow, with a tip, shaft, and bulb made of silica, calcium carbonate, and calcium phosphate. The tip of the hair penetrates your skin "like a hypodermic needle" and breaks off inside of you, where it continues to release toxin. Dr. Hugh Spencer, who co-founded the Cape Tribulation Tropical Research Station with Brigitta Flick, thinks the sting is caused by a peptide called moroidin. This toxin is both stable and heat-resistant, which is why centuries-old gympie foliage can still sting as well as any baby murder tree.

A finger brushing the serrated edge of gympie. (Australian Geographic)

What Happens To Victims Of The Gympie?

As soon as the hair of the gympie hits your skin, it releases toxins that raise hives. These hives blend together into large, painful welts, compounded by body aches and swollen lymph nodes. They also itch intensely, just for fun. Dr. Spencer describes the sting as:

... initially like being attacked by wasps, then you get whitening and swelling at the site, and then, if it's really bad, you get sweating—liquid just drips out of your skin.

Entomologist and ecologist Marina Hurley elaborates:

Being stung is the worst kind of pain that you can imagine—like being burnt with hot acid and electrocuted at the same time.

Just standing near the plant is enough to feel its effects. Respiratory distress—including sniffling, coughing, runny noses, and nosebleeds—begin within minutes, and some cases of bloody nasal discharge with pus have continued for nearly two weeks after exposure. Horses and men alike have killed themselves after exposure to this plant.

Les Moore with the gympie plant. (GlobalSpec)

What Were The Worst Gympie Stings?

The first reported "suicide plant" event was recorded by surveyor A.C. Macmillan, whose horse "was stung, got mad, and died within two hours" in 1866. Over 100 years later, in 1994, ex-serviceman Cyril Bromley had the terrible misfortune to fall into a stinging nettle tree during military training. He was strapped screaming to a hospital bed for the next three weeks, "mad as a snake." Another officer committed suicide after disastrously choosing the gympie's broad, cushy leaves to use as toilet paper.

One scientific officer with the CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology in Queensland, Les Moore, described himself as looking like Mr. Potato Head after being stung in the face.

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.

A senior conservation officer with Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, Ernie Rider, has received a few stings, but top in his mind was the one he sustained in 1963. He was slapped in the face, arms, and chest, and though the unbearable pain subsided after a few weeks, it returned every time he took a cold shower. "There’s nothing to rival it," Rider has said. "It's 10 times worse than anything else—scrub ticks, scrub itch, and itchy-jack included." Rider isn't alone; victims have reported feeling the pain at strange times even years later. 

Gympie gympie leaves and fruit (The Conversation)

Is There A Cure For Gympie Stings?

If you get stung by one of these, you're out of luck when it comes to a true cure. Dr. Spencer warns against rubbing the area, which drives the hairs deeper into the skin, and instead recommends pouring a diluted mixture of hydrochloric acid on the area and then using an adhesive—tape, Band-Aids, even a home waxing kit—to remove the hairs and allow your body to heal faster. However, getting stung isn't technically dangerous in the same way as, say, a snake bite. Aside from the risk of suicide or anaphylaxis, the gympie isn't deadly. It's just a world of pain.

Tags: death | pain | plants | suicide

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Wynne Flint

Staff

Wynne Flint is a student of history and the internet, and considers themselves a very, very serious writer. They specialize in true crime, an arrangement of powerful unsung heroes throughout history, and cryptid lore.