The plant that can drive humans mad

Also known as the stinging brush, mulberry-leaved stinger, gympie, gympie gympie, gympie stinger, stinger, the suicide plant or the moonlighter, the Dendrocnide moroides is notorious for delivering a potent neurotoxin when touched.

As if venomous snakes and spiders aren’t enough, this deadly plant is commonly found in the rainforest areas in the north east of Australia, and is the most toxic of the Australian species of stinging trees.

Stinging hairs cover the whole plant, even the fruit. However, the fruit is edible if the stinging hairs are removed.

Gympie gympie grows as a single-stemmed plant reaching 1-3 metres in height, and consists of large, heart-shaped leaves about 12-22 cm long and 11-18 cm wide, with finely toothed margins.

Human contact with the leaves or twigs is a total nightmare. The hollow, silica-tipped hairs penetrate the skin upon contact. This causes excruciating stinging sensation that can last for weeks, months or even years. The injured area becomes covered with tiny, red spots joining together to form a gross, red, swollen welt.

If left untreated, these hairs are known to break off at the ends, and because it is impossible to remove them, they only end up increasing the level of pain.

Chemical structure of moroidin, the bicyclic octapeptide responsible for the long-lasting pain caused by Dendrocnide moroides’ sting There has been anecdotal evidence of some plants having no sting, but still possessing the hairs, suggesting a chemical change to the toxin.

However, this does not deter several small marsupial species, including the red-legged pademelon, insects and birds from eating the leaves.

Here are some chilling accounts of agonizing experiences:

  • Marina Hurley, a postgraduate student at James Cook University and a research scientist, spent three years studying the stinging trees in the Atherton Tableland (Queensland), wearing protective clothing. In spite of these precautions she suffered an allergic response to exposure, her initial symptoms lasting for hours and involving sneezing fits, watering eyes and a runny nose. The reaction became more severe with repeated exposure. In one incident she had to be hospitalized. Her extreme itching and urticaria required steroid treatment.

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

-Marina Hurley

  • North Queensland road surveyor A.C. Macmillan was among the first to document the effects of a stinging tree, reporting to his boss in 1866 that his packhorse “was stung, got mad, and died within two hours”.
  • Australian ex-serviceman Cyril Bromley described falling into a stinging tree during military training on the Atherton tableland in World War II. Strapped to a hospital bed for three weeks and administered all manner of unsuccessful treatments, he was sent “as mad as a cut snake” by the pain.
  • The Dutch Botanist H. J. Winkler made an official recording of Death By Stinging Tree in New Guinea, back in the early 1920s. There have been other anecdotal stories from soldiers in WW II suffering intense pain, and of an officer shooting himself because of the unrelenting pain for using the leaf of the plant for ‘toilet purposes’.
  • Ernie Rider, a senior conservation officer with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, was slapped in the face and torso with the foliage in 1963.

I remember it feeling like there were giant hands trying to squash my chest. 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.”

-Ernie Rider

  • Les Moore, a scientific officer with the CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology in Queensland said, he looked more like Mr Potato Head after being stung.

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

-Les Moore

One can only imagine the amount of pain the victim ensures, especially when it has been described as burning in acid!


So, what is the recommended treatment for skin exposed to the hairs.

Applying diluted (1:10) hydrocholoric acid!

And trying to remove the hairs with a hair removal strip may also help to some extent. If this is unavailable, a strip of adhesive tape and/or tweezers are viable alternatives. However, it must be ensured that the hairs while removing are intact. Because breaking them will make it harder or even impossible to remove them and make the intense pain even worse.

When the best treatment option available to you is something like, “try applying some acid”, you simply don’t take a gympie gympie for granted.



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