Pain is a physical and emotional sensation which every living being experiences at least once in their lifetime. This feeling is uncomfortable, but extremely important because it can point out the dangerous situations. Luckily, most of the pain we experience is acute and temporary. But did you know that there is a plant that the intense pain caused by its prick makes people consider suicide?
Let’s meet Gympie-gympie
Gympie gympie, “Gympie Stinger”, stinging tree or shrub, are all names for a plant of latin name Dendrocnide moroides. It got its name from an Australian city named Gympie. It characteristically grows in northeast part of Australia and in Indonesia. This plant is considered the most poisonous Australian plant. Besides the Dendrocnide moroides, on the Australian territory are found three other species of the genus Dendrocnide. Those four plants from the nettle family (lat. Urticaceae) are also called the “stinging trees”.
This plant is mostly found in the forests, or rather in sunny places sheltered from wind. They’re characterized by big heart-shaped leaves with toothed margins. The fruit is a globular achene in a white or light-purple color. It grows as a shrub up to 1 meter tall. Especially notable are the little hairs, 0.1 to 2 mm long. A big leaf can contain 15 000 of these hairs on each side. Apart from the leaf, they can also grow on the petiole and the fruits. The tips of these hairs contain a little head filled with toxins which tears off when touched and penetrates the skin.
What happens when we’re poisoned?
Immediately after the plant contacts the skin, the person starts feeling immense pain which reaches its peak in 20 to 30 minutes after poisoning. The skin swells and pales, while the lymph nodes start to swell as well. Initial pain most closely resembles the one of a wasp sting. The severity of the poisoning depends on the surface of the skin that met the leaf and the number of hairs on that leaf. Only 5 minutes later, there is significant pain in the throat, the face, the groin, and the axillary area. The surface of skin that was poisoned develops tiny red rash. After weeks, and in some cases years, the pain completely subsides. Some people describe this pain as so intense when poisoned, that they felt like they were simultaneously burned by hot acid and electrocuted. Because of the unbearable intensity of the pain, there are cases in which people committed suicide.
The hairs that embed themselves in the skin can stay there up to 6 months after the contact. This can cause great problems. If that part of the skin is pushed or encounters water of any temperature, the person can feel an intense pain. Medical professionals advise that the poisoned area shouldn’t be touched because the hair can penetrate deeper into the skin.
Considering that the hairs are transferred by wind, the direct contact with the plant isn’t necessarily required. The problem can also arise if you breathe them in, because that causes a runny nose, bleeding, and throat irritation.
The Gympie toxin
Out of the toxin on the hair, a protein called moroidin was found, where the Latin name of the plant comes from. Supposedly, this protein causes prolonged hyperalgesia, which means it heightens the pain sensitivity. But the use of pure moroidin resulted in a less intense pain than the one caused by the Gympie plant, which concludes that more than one compound is responsible for the hyperalgesia. Although a definitive chemical composition of the toxin remains unknown, we know that it is very thermally and chemically stable and can show its effect even after the death of the plant. It is known that the toxin in the body induces production of different inflammatory molecules, which include histamine, acetylcholine and 5-hydroxytryptamine, but it is also possible that the toxin only imitates the effect of these molecules. Incapability of scientists to replicate the activity of this toxin, considering the intensity and the duration, suggests that there are unidentified neurotoxins at play.
Therapy and treatment
Since the toxin isn’t fully researched, there isn’t a real antidote. Therapy for this condition consists of various methods and agents. Some consider that the antidote for the poisoning by Gympie could be the plant Cunjevoi (lat. Alocasia brisbanensis), but there is no strong evidence to confirm this.
In most cases the poisoned surface is treated by a 10% solution of hydrochloric acid. This achieves neutralization of the peptide layer of the hair. The pain itself can be treated with analgesics, and in more extreme cases with opioids. Lidocaine creams are also often used in this instance.
Apart from the cosmetic purpose, the depilatory wax can be used in therapy of poisoning by this plant. As it can be assumed, the wax can be used to remove the leftover hairs from the contact with the leaf. It should be kept in mind that the wax has to be gently applied to the skin so the tops of the hairs would not break, in which case their removal is impossible.
Another way of treating the poisoning, which we find in traditional medicine, includes solutions of ammonia, urine, rubbing the affected are of skin with sand or the meaty part of the plum.
What is gympie-gympie, https://www.zmescience.com, visited on 20/1/2022
Stinging plants, https://www.healthdirect.gov.au , visited on 20/1/2022
Gympie-gympie, once stung never forgotten, https://www.australiangeographic.com.au , visited on 20/1/2022
Gympie-gympie, https://www.australiangeographic.com.au, visited on 20/1/2022
Stinging trees and new treatment http://capetribresearchstation.blogspot.com, visited on 20/1/2022