The ‘Suicide Plant’: A Sting That Feels Like Electrocution & Fire

Imagine being stung by a plant that feels like you’re being “electrocuted and set on fire at the same time”. That’s the reality for those unfortunate enough to brush up against the Dendrocnide moroides, also known as the gympie-gympie or “suicide plant”.

This notorious Australian plant is considered the most painful stinging plant in the world, and for good reason.

A Sting Like No Other

Image Credit: Jakub Maculewicz/Shutterstock

The gympie-gympie is covered in fine, silica-based stinging hairs that act like hypodermic needles, injecting a potent neurotoxin when touched. The pain is immediate and intense, reaching a peak after 20-30 minutes. Victims describe it as feeling like being burned with hot acid and electrocuted simultaneously ¹.

But the agony doesn’t stop there. The stinging hairs can remain embedded in the skin for up to six months, causing intermittent painful flares whenever the area is pressed or exposed to temperature changes.

In severe cases, the pain can last for weeks or even months, leading some to contemplate suicide, hence the plant’s ominous nickname.

And a Toxin Like No Other

gympie-gympie
Image Credit: GMY Timezone/Shutterstock

What makes the gympie-gympie’s sting so uniquely excruciating? In 2020, researchers identified the specific peptide compounds in the toxin responsible for the long-lasting pain. Named gympietides (ref), these unique disulfide-rich peptides have a complex, stable structure that allows them to persist in the body and repeatedly activate pain receptors.

Unlike most toxins that directly target sodium channels in sensory neurons, gympietides require a partner protein called TMEM233 ² to exert their effects. This novel pain pathway may explain the sting’s unparalleled potency and could potentially lead to the development of new types of painkillers ³.

Historical Encounters with the Gympie-Gympie

Image Credit: Davin Eberhardt

The gympie-gympie’s notorious reputation is not just a modern phenomenon. Tales of its agonizing sting have been circulating for over a century. One of the most infamous incidents involves an officer during the early 1900s who, according to legend, unknowingly used a gympie-gympie leaf as toilet paper while on patrol in the Australian rainforest .

The resulting pain was so unbearable that he allegedly shot himself to escape the torment. While the veracity of this story is difficult to confirm, it highlights the plant’s fearsome reputation and the lengths some may go to find relief from its sting.

Another historical account from the 1960s describes a forestry worker who fell into a gympie-gympie and was reportedly “barely able to walk for weeks” due to the excruciating pain . These stories, along with countless others, have solidified the gympie-gympie’s status as one of the most notorious and feared plants in Australia’s natural history.

Here’s a recent video of a guy stinging himself with the Suicide plant:

No Escape from the Pain

There is currently no effective treatment for gympie-gympie stings. Recommended first-aid involves using wax strips to remove the embedded hairs and applying dilute hydrochloric acid to neutralize the toxin. However, this only reduces the severity – it does not eliminate the pain, which can recur for months or years in some cases.

Even without direct contact, simply inhaling the fine hairs can cause sneezing, rashes, and nosebleeds. An allergy may develop over time with repeated exposure.

The only surefire way to avoid the gympie-gympie’s wrath is to steer clear of it altogether.

Despite its notoriety, the gympie-gympie plays an important ecological role, providing food and shelter for some native animals that seem to be unaffected by its sting. For humans though, this plant is best admired from a very safe distance.

Its excruciatingly painful sting is truly in a league of its own – one that no one would ever want to experience firsthand.

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Did you know that in 2021, plants were the culprits in over 21,400 poisoning cases ¹, making up 3.6% of all reported poison exposures?

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Davin is a jack-of-all-trades but has professional training and experience in various home and garden subjects. He leans on other experts when needed and edits and fact-checks all articles.