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Touching this plant doesn’t cause suicide, but is extremely painful to touch

Will touching an Australian plant cause so much pain that animals and humans have killed themselves as a result?

A meme going around on Facebook, in South Africa, has made this claim: “The suicide plant. The world’s most poisonous plant is Gimpy Gimpy. It is found in Australia. Merely touching it is so painful that it has led many animals as well as humans kill themselves. The pain is described as a mixture of an acid burn and electric shock. Mostly anyone who touches it prefer to commit suicide, than bear the pain.” 

We checked to see if this is true.

Plant called ‘Gympie-Gympie’

A factsheet by the Australian Geographic says that the plant is well-known as ‘Gympie-Gympie’ and is part of the Dendrocnide moroides species.

The Gympie-Gympie plant is one of four species of stinging trees in Australia, the factsheet says.

It has broad, oval or heart-shaped leaves (which appear furry due to a dense covering of stinging hairs) with saw-tooth edges, and white or purple-red fruit, the factsheet continues, and the stems and fruit are also covered in the stinging hairs.

According to another factsheetthis plant can inflict a painful sting “which can last for months”. 

If someone receives a sting over a wide area of a limb, from being hit hard by the plant, “little or no sleep will be obtained the first night following the sting”, says the factsheet.

It continues to say that working among these plants and disturbing them “cause fits of sneezing and copious production of mucous from the nasal membrane”.

The world’s most poisonous plant?

When it comes to the poisonous vs. venomous debate, Britannica says this becomes very fuzzy when speaking about plants. 

The article says that plants whose leaves and stems have bulbous tips that break off when touched, revealing needlelike tubes that pierce the skin, are deemed venomous. 

This is because, as the article explains, venomous animals always posses a fang like structure that gives off the venom and although Gympie-Gympie’s needle-like structures aren’t technically fangs, they do provide a very similar defensive function.

Australian Geographic notes that Gympie-Gympie is “one of the most venomous plants in the world”, however they do not note that the plant is the most venomous or poisonous in the world, as the claim states.

We also could not find proof that it is the most venomous or poisonous in the world.

Pain once described as mixture of acid burn and electric shock

Dr Marina Hurley, a scientist with a background in entomology recounts her memory of being stung by Gympie-Gympie: “I once described as the worst kind of pain you can imagine – like being burnt with hot acid and electrocuted at the same time”. 

The sting is caused by stinging hairs that contain toxins that densely cover the leaves, stems and fruit, she says. 

Even the slightest touch of this plant “can cause excruciating pain,'' she says, an intense stinging, burning pain is felt immediately, then intensifies, reaching a peak after 20 – 30 minutes, she says.

“The hairs can remain in the skin for up to six months”, she continues, with stings recurring “if the skin is pressed hard or washed with hot or cold water”.

Only one death

A journal article about painful stings after exposure to different types of stinging plants, including Gympie-Gympie, notes that there had only been one human death reported as a result of coming in contact with a stinging plant.

“The only human death was reported in 1922, after the sting of Laportea condata in New Guinea”.

In terms of animals, several cases of “deaths of horses and dogs have also been reported”.

Africa Check could find no proof that humans and animals are turning to suicide rather than bearing the pain of touching any stinging plant.

Tips on what to do if stinging occurs

Australia’s health advice website, Health Direct, provides some tips on what one can do when stung by Gympie-Gympie, or any other stinging plant: 

  • the most important thing is that you do not rub the area, as this can break off the hairs and make them very difficult to remove

  • remove visible hairs with tweezers

  • apply and remove adhesive tape or hair-removal wax strip to the area to remove the finer hairs

  • do not scratch or rub the area, this may cause the hairs to penetrate deeper into the skin

Dr Hurley also advises that if one is ever out and about in the rainforest, “stay on the designated paths, and wear closed shoes and long pants”. - Taryn Willows


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