Any hiker who’s brushed against poison ivy may think that experience is as bad as it gets. Yet, one touch from a gympie-gympie, and things can get much, much worse.
The gympie-gympie may sound funny, but the plant is serious business. Contact with the heart-shaped “guardian of the rainforest” can pain so excruciating, it has been known to drive its victims to suicide.
The gympie-gympie, native to Australia, produced a toxin called moroidine, which creates a stinging sensation described as like being sprayed with hot acid and electrocuted simultaneously. Every part of the plant, with the exception of its roots, are covered in fine hairs, which even lightly brushing against can embed into the skin and inflict agony.
From the first contact with the innocent-looking plant, pain grows steadily for a half hour. Joints may also ache and swelling can occur under the armpits. Even breathing the air near the gympie can cause uncontrollable sneezing and nosebleeds.
That’s too much torture to take for some people and animals. Local folk tales tell of animals that become enraged after brushing against the plant and later die. Horses that touch the gympie-gympie have supposedly been known to hurl themselves off cliffs. One man was even reported to have shot himself after using the leaves of the gympie-gympie as toilet paper.
The plant’s notoriety inspired this National Geographic host to try his luck with the plant for a nature documentary. While the host initially approached the foreboding plant with coveralls and a respirator mask, he eventually decided to intentionally touch its leaf with his bare hand. The results were immediate. He cried out in pain, and clutching his shaking hand, crouched on the forest floor and vomited.
Those unlucky enough to touch the gympie-gympie must immediately seek treatment to have the hairs removed from their skin. A small relief the locals swear by is a waxing strip using by woman to remove hair from their legs, which can be re-purposed to rip out some of the gympie-gympie’s microscopic stingers. Medical treatment can also involve steroid treatment or applying diluted hydrochloric acid to the sting area.
If the gympie-gympie’s hairs are left in the skin, they can continue to deliver the pain-inducing toxin for up to a year or longer. One man who was slapped in the face and torso by a gympie-gympie plant said the pain persisted for two years, returning every time he had a cold shower.
Australia is notorious for it deadly animals, but visitors Down Under should be aware that even some of the plants pose a threat. So if you ever find yourself on a hike through an Australian forest, keep an eye out for the gympie-gympie, and just in case, bring a waxing strip along.