Touch This Tree and You’ll Want to Die

Touch This Tree and You’ll Want to Die April 4, 2022


We were walking on the pathway next to the road headed for the visitors’ center in the Bunya Mountain National Park in Queensland, Australia.  We walked next to a shrubby tree with large, raggedy leaves. Meg, our host, said, “You don’t want to touch that tree.  It’s a gympie-gympie, an aboriginal word for ‘stinging tree.’  If you touch the leaves, the pain will be so great and so long-lasting that people have killed themselves to make it stop.”

Later, I looked up the details:  A scientist studying the plant, Marina Hurley, who made the mistake of touching it, described it as “the worst kind of pain you can imagine – like being burnt with hot acid and electrocuted at the same time.”  The pain begins with the slightest touch and then intensifies for 20 to 30 minutes.  The initial shot of pain lasts for 4 hours or so, but the agony continues.

“Not only do you feel pain from where you are stung,” says Dr. Hurley, “if it is a really bad sting, within about 20 minutes your lymph nodes under your arms swell and throb painfully and feel like they are being slammed between two blocks of wood.”

As if this weren’t bad enough, this excruciating ago can keep recurring for years!  This is because the tiny hairs on the surface of the leaf are still imbedded in the skin.  If something touches the affected area or if the skin is exposed to cold water, the hairs release more venom and it all starts over again!  The Wikipedia article on the gympie-gympie  (dendrocnide moroides) quotes a park ranger, Ernie Rider, who was slapped in the face with the foliage:

For two or three days the pain was almost unbearable; I couldn’t work or sleep… I remember it feeling like there were giant hands trying to squash my chest… 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.

Those toxic hairs can also break off from the leaves and get into the air, which means that you can breathe them in!

Despite the horrific strength of this venom, the stinging tree won’t kill you.  There has only been one fatality directly attributed to the gympie-gympie.  It doesn’t even harm human tissue, as other toxins do.  But there have been reports of people killing themselves to stop the pain.  The gympie-gympie is sometimes called the “suicide plant.”

And yet it does not always affect people the same way.  Our other host, Noel, had once touched the plant accidentally.  He said the pain was bad, but not as bad as I had been reading.  He was able to remove the hairs with sticky-tape and an anti-sting salve was effective in taking away the pain.

Also, one feature of the leaves, which are five to nine inches long, is that they are shot with holes.  Something eats these leaves!  The unfortunately stung Dr. Hurley found that the holes are caused by “a nocturnal leaf-eating chrysomelid beetle.”  Not only that, red-legged pademelons, which look like a small kangaroo, eat the things, sometimes stripping off all their leaves!  Other animals, though, such as dogs and horses, experience the full torments.

The photograph that illustrates this post is of the stinging tree we saw.  It was right by the heavily-travelled footpath.  There were no fences around it, no warning signs, no attempts to protect or even to alert the general public, as one would expect in the litigious United States.  Locals just learn to recognize the gympie-gympie and know not to touch it.

But Meg, who was telling us about the plant, pointed out the venomous hairs on the leaves, her finger hovering just a centimeter away from the surface.  And we were well-within the range within which, I learned later, we could have breathed them in.  Australians are absolutely fearless when it comes to their dangerous flora and fauna.

The stinging tree (a.k.a., gympie-gympie; a.k.a., suicide plant) is a marvel of nature.  Those who have a romanticized view of nature might wonder why such a thing exists.  Christians might wonder why God created something so horrible to human beings.  But I see it as a sign.

There are other things that, if we so much as touch them, can cause horrible pain, not only to ourselves but also to others, and that can lead us to hate our lives.  Adultery.  Heroin.  Crime.  Abuse.  The whole array of sins that result in shame, guilt, and despair.

The stinging tree recalls not only sin but, even more directly, the primal sin.

The Bunya rainforest is a paradise.  The towering trees, impenetrable vines, and lush undergrowth have an unearthly beauty, and the coolness of the air, due to the altitude, so different from the heat of tropical jungles, is exhilarating.  But in this paradise is a tree that we must not touch.

This recalls our original paradise, in which “God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die'” (Genesis 3:2-3).

If you touch the gympie-gympie tree or eat its fruit, also covered with the little hairs, you will not die.  You will just want to die.

We made that trek by the stinging tree again after I had researched it.  And when we came to the tree, even though I knew what the consequences would be, I felt the impulse to reach out and touch it.

Now I know what Adam felt.


Photo:  Stinging Tree in the Bunya Mountains by Jackquelyn Veith, who releases it into the Public Domain.


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