Forget poison ivy
March 27, 2015 7:41 AM   Subscribe

The Gympie Gympie is an Australian plant with spindly stems and heart-shaped light green leaves. Brushing your hand against it can make you throw up from the pain. Using it as toilet paper has made people shoot themselves. (SLio9)
posted by Chrysostom (58 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
Australia, where even the insects want to murder you and the plants will make you wish they had.
posted by Foosnark at 8:02 AM on March 27, 2015 [9 favorites]


Ah great. Even the plants in Australia are trying to kill us.


Although no one is entirely sure what causes the overwhelming sting, scientists believe that it's a peptide called moroidin.


Fascinating that we haven't quite figured out the mechanism of pain. I wonder what secrets it could contain as a fix for something. It seems like every time we discover some new toxin or poison, it can be synthesized into an antidote. Like with the recently discovered poisonous cuttlefish.
posted by Twain Device at 8:03 AM on March 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


I feel like Asutralia's biomass is overcompensating for something.
posted by The Whelk at 8:06 AM on March 27, 2015 [22 favorites]


A pleasant small town in Queensland's Mary River Valley takes its name from the plant.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:08 AM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


Was there mention in the article of someone using it as toilet paper and then committing suicide? I didn't see any but maybe I missed it?
posted by dogwalker at 8:08 AM on March 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Just in the lead, dogwalker.
posted by Etrigan at 8:10 AM on March 27, 2015


The io9 article seems to be a clumsy rewrite of this one from 2009 in Australian Geographic magazine. It has all the same anecdotes but the 2009 one, er, fleshes them out a bit.
posted by chavenet at 8:11 AM on March 27, 2015 [13 favorites]


Stings from the Gympie cause the lymphatic system to go into overdrive. A person's throat, armpits, and groin swell up and ladle on the pain as the lymph nodes expand.

If it can activate the immune system that much, it probably has a starring role waiting for it in a cancer immunotherapy regimen in the not too distant future if we don't exterminate it first.
posted by jamjam at 8:11 AM on March 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


Is this an interrogation tool, or a prison threat in Australia? C'mon, spill it!
posted by Oyéah at 8:11 AM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is just the worst of family of Australian stinging trees, a lesser (but larger) cousin being Dendrocnide excelsa,
a medium to large-sized tree that has hairs that can cause a severe reaction when in contact with human skin, so it is a hazard to livestock, travelers and campers. Minor stings can last for an hour or two. However, severe stinging can last for months. First aid for the sting is to apply wax hair-removal strips and then yank them off to remove the hairs. Dendrocnide stings have been known to kill dogs and horses that have brushed against them.
This Australian Geographic article on the Gympie-Gympie includes the anecdote about a TP-related suicide, along with other tales of misery and woe.

These plants aren't particularly good at warning people and animals to stay away. The flowers are even rather pretty. Australia is the land of Terry Pratchett-level absurdities in flora and fauna, except it's all real.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:12 AM on March 27, 2015 [15 favorites]


Serious Question:

HOW could someone hold it long enough to wipe their bum with it???
posted by JenThePro at 8:15 AM on March 27, 2015 [23 favorites]


I use the sticky tape technique on opuntia glochids as well. Nowhere near as severe though - you sometimes don't even realize you are stung until later when you notice the spot is really itchy.
posted by srboisvert at 8:18 AM on March 27, 2015


It reads a bit like the Monty Python WW2 joke-so-funny-it-causes-death sketch.
posted by colie at 8:20 AM on March 27, 2015


It is interesting that they have found non-stinging Gympie Gympie trees. It reminds me of the rattlesnake losing its rattle. Something that once helped it survive now gets it killed, so the ones without this feature are the ones that live on to breed.
posted by eye of newt at 8:22 AM on March 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


Australia: Best enjoyed by viewing photographs taken by others.
posted by tommasz at 8:25 AM on March 27, 2015 [17 favorites]


Botanists working in the field go into sneezing fits and get nose bleeds from standing near the plant. Botanists who handle hundred-year-old specimens of Gympie still get stung.

I don't feel overly sad that it's endangered.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:26 AM on March 27, 2015 [14 favorites]


I thought stinging nettles were awful enough... This is going to give me nightmares.
posted by Gordafarin at 8:34 AM on March 27, 2015


I confess to a certain perverse pride in Australian flora. As an isolated island continent, evolutionarily divergent to the rest of the world, Australia's plants and animals are vulnerable to all sorts of invaders. Our feathered and furred fauna fall prey to feral cats, cane toads and anything else that wanders onto the continent. Introduced weeds choke the land and waterways, and new fungi, diseases and parasites continue to play merry havoc whenever something new makes it past quarantine.

So when I see an Australian plant messing up someone else's ecosystem, I can't help but feel a touch of schaudenfreude.
posted by zamboni at 8:34 AM on March 27, 2015 [11 favorites]


As someone who reacts badly to poison ivy, reading this gives me the terrors.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:35 AM on March 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


I was curious if anyone has attempted a synthesis of moroidin, the putative cause of the pain response. Mostly because I would be curious if it or any of its synthetic precursors pose particular difficulties in handling. It looks like no one has yet completed moroidin, but there are a few synthetic studies, and a close relative (celogentin C) has been made. Unfortunately I don't have access to the papers to see if the celogentins also cause a similar pain response.

In Strategies and Tactics in Organic Synthesis, Vol. 9 (2013), there's a chapter written by Steven Castle and Bing Ma. Here are some excerpts from Google Books:

Since its discovery in 1986, moroidin had largely escaped the attention of organic chemists, with Moody's construction of the tryptophan-histidine cross-link representing the only synthetic studies that were published prior to Kobayashi's paper describing the celogentins. Biological assays of moroidin and celogentins A-C conducted by the Kobayashi group revealed that these peptides inhibit tubulin polymerization. Significantly, celogentin C is a more potent antimiotic agent than the well-known anticancer drug vinblastine (IC50 of 0.8 uM vs. 3.0 uM). [...] We were able to synthesize a batch of [celogentin C] that was large enough for screening against the 60-cell-line of the National Cancer Institute. Unfortunately, the overall result was disappointing, as celogentin C did not significantly impact the growth of most of the cell lines at 10 uM concentration.
posted by Peter J. Prufrock at 8:44 AM on March 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


The orchid seems much nicer.
posted by TedW at 9:07 AM on March 27, 2015


Interesting read on your last link about California eucalypts, zamboni. Its closing sentence isn't quite right, though ("This is the only place outside of Australia where eucalypts — like them or not — remind people of home"): they're also an introduced feature of the landscape in Madagascar, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Sri Lanka, Hawaii, Brazil and Uruguay. There's also a couple of eucalyptus species that aren't found in Australia but are endemic in the Philippines and New Guinea. So, not quite only.
posted by rory at 9:13 AM on March 27, 2015


These plants remind me of a comment I can't seem to find, I think it was from one of the ant colony threads, about ancient places where people knew that if you go there, you don't come back out again, places people were scared to go.
I think a forest with Gympies is a good example of a place we should just say, "Don't go in there. It's bad news."
posted by Mister Moofoo at 9:14 AM on March 27, 2015


Amusing to learn that the town of Gympie changed its name to advertise its infestation with itchy death trees. Though it appears that the locals changed it a year after gold was discovered in the area, so there may have been a method to their madness. "Nothing to see here, only ITCHY STINGING DEATH... certainly no gold, oh no no no. Stinging trees, it's all stinging trees as far as the eye can see."
posted by rory at 9:21 AM on March 27, 2015 [15 favorites]


TedW: The orchid seems much nicer.

That's because you're not a fungi.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:21 AM on March 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


From Wikipedia: The recommended treatment for skin exposure to the hairs is applying diluted hydrochloric acid (1:10) and pulling them out with a hair removal strip.

Applying diluted hydrochloric acid - on purpose - is preferable to the sting.
posted by rory at 9:26 AM on March 27, 2015 [10 favorites]


MetaFilter: it's all stinging trees as far as the eye can see.

For old time's sake.
posted by Splunge at 9:31 AM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was curious if anyone has attempted a synthesis of moroidin, the putative cause of the pain response. Mostly because I would be curious if it or any of its synthetic precursors pose particular difficulties in handling.

Given that it's a peptide and extremely potent, my guess is that it's highly selective, which generally implies a strong dependence on structure. So I'm guessing the precursors would not have significant activity at whatever the target turns out to be. Honestly, though, I'm surprised the thing manages to be systemically available, given its size and lipophilicity. It wouldn't be expected to cross the skin very well without the aid of the spines.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:33 AM on March 27, 2015


unexplained change in ryanshepard's wikipedia link posted above :

1867 James Nash discovers gold in the state (or whatever it was then) of Queensland; the resulting gold rush rescues Queensland region from economic depression ; town of Nashville (presumably local to Nash's mining discovery) named in his honour
1868 Nashville name changed to Gympie, the name of a truly horrific poisonous stinging plant local to the area


?!?!?!?

Nash still honoured post-1868 and in various ways today in the region so it doesn't seem like he became suddenly disgraced in 1868
posted by Bwithh at 9:38 AM on March 27, 2015


Given that it's a peptide and extremely potent, my guess is that it's highly selective, which generally implies a strong dependence on structure. So I'm guessing the precursors would not have significant activity at whatever the target turns out to be.

Ah, interesting. I think I had in mind some stories I'd heard about the syntheses of marine polycyclic ether toxins -- supposedly even the intermediates were toxic enough to cause health problems for the people making them. But maybe that's just some synthetic chemistry folklore.
posted by Peter J. Prufrock at 9:51 AM on March 27, 2015


Isn't like the world's only inedible grass found in big fields in Australia? And it's civered in razor sharp spines?

That just seems like sheer spite.
posted by The Whelk at 9:58 AM on March 27, 2015


What happens when you throw a blue ringed octopus into a patch of gympie gympie?

Seriously, Australia between those, the insects, the snakes and Cassowaries, and the box jellyfish, how do you survive?
posted by plinth at 9:59 AM on March 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Nash still honoured post-1868 and in various ways today in the region so it doesn't seem like he became suddenly disgraced in 1868.

Yep - Gympie's high school is named for him, and there's a monument to him there. "Nashville" appears to have been an early name, before the town was officially incorporated, with Gympie adopted at incorporation to avoid confusion with a Nashville just outside of nearby Brisbane.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:59 AM on March 27, 2015


I imagine this must be one of the drop bear's natural foods. As they die out its seeds aren't spread as easily. Sad.
posted by wyndham at 10:10 AM on March 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


I am now critically re-evaluating my lifelong dream of visiting Australia.

New Zealand is free of all the crocodiles, octopi, spiders, plants, etc., etc. etc. Right?
posted by wenestvedt at 11:24 AM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


One of the most puzzling things to me about evolution is why so many things are orders of magnitude more deadly than they need to be for adequate self-defense.
posted by Flexagon at 11:42 AM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


One of the most puzzling things to me about evolution is why so many things are orders of magnitude more deadly than they need to be for adequate self-defense.

Nature was really drunk?

Or maybe, no extra cost for the added deadliness, so why not? Once you have this exotic molecule synthesized, and it's keeping all the grazers away from you, no need to de-evolve it to something less deadly? Just guessing here...
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:05 PM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


Late at night, when you're sleeping
Gympie Gympie comes along to horribly torture and murder you in your sleep and then piss on your grave before burning down your house.

Or something like that. According to wikipedia, there is a small rodent like-marsupial that eats this thing. I'm at work and don't have time to search the web, but if anyone knows of any work on how these things are not effected, it'd be great to see it.
posted by Hactar at 12:28 PM on March 27, 2015


... okay, I have seldom seen a wikipedia page that was quite *so* obviously entirely someone pasting in a school paper they wrote.
posted by tavella at 12:45 PM on March 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


A long time ago, my Dad managed to touch the leaf of a stinging tree. He said the pain was the worst he has ever felt in his life (worse than when he broke his jaw) and would still hurt over a year later when he held his hand under running water.

I will admit I thought you only got things like this in the tropics, so fascinating to read they are found a bit further south.
posted by Megami at 1:08 PM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I loathe a sunburnt country,
A land of murder plains,
Of absurdly deadly spiders
Of droughts and flooding rains
I loathe her harsh environs
I loathe her poison trees
Her cruelty and her terror -
This country's killing me.
posted by langtonsant at 1:17 PM on March 27, 2015 [12 favorites]


For further reading, Mefites might enjoy the entry on gympie gympie in "Australia's Poisonous Animals, Plants, Minerals, and Sheep, Vol. XVII".
posted by IAmBroom at 1:43 PM on March 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


You know, after a while, this all starts to become just too much. If every single living thing in Australia was really as insanely over the top deadly and horrific as we're told, I find it hard to imagine how there could be any human habitation whatsoever. I mean it's supposed to be worse than freaking Deathworld down there!

And, considering their not terribly friendly views about foreign visitors, I'm beginning to suspect it's all a snipe hunt spun up by Australians so they can have a good laugh at putting one over on us, and incidentally scare off dirty foreigners.
posted by Naberius at 1:59 PM on March 27, 2015


Oh shit they're onto us. Okay guys, next plan: Australia is located somewhere in the North Atlantic okay?
posted by langtonsant at 2:07 PM on March 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


This is a question I've always wondered about.

Biologically, environmentally, evolutionarily -- is there a good explanation for why Australia is so exceptionally hostile?

I suppose it is mostly a desert climate, and deserts have always bred painful plants and animals. But this thing's in Queensland.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 2:41 PM on March 27, 2015


Australians are perfectly friendly towards foreign visitors, Naberius. Some Australians, though, aren't so friendly towards the idea of foreigners moving there. Ironically, many of these same Australians will be perfectly friendly towards the foreigners who've moved there that they actually know. Just not, y'know, them other ones. Australian xenophobia is pretty hard to tell apart from British xenophobia, that I can tell as someone with a foot in both places. As a tourist you'd find most people perfectly welcoming.

As a tourist you'd also be extremely unlucky to come across one of these trees. I spent the first 33 years of my life in Oz and have travelled all over it apart from WA. Walked through jungles in northern Queensland. Visited relatives in southern Queensland. Watched lots of nature documentaries there. And until today, I'd never even heard of the stinging tree. My strategy going forward is to avoid visiting Gympie, or at least not to go walking in any of its leafy surroundings. That should do it.

Also, I think I've seen about two or three snakes there, despite growing up next to the bush and going bushwalking and camping all the time; they slither off as soon as they hear you coming. And despite many childhood visits to my grandparents' home in bush surroundings in a leafy part of Sydney, I've never seen a funnelweb in the wild. Nor a shark. Nor a croc. Sure, they're a risk, but you're much more at risk crossing a busy road.

Meanwhile, on my visits to the U.S. I enjoy asking Americans about the threat from grizzlies, cougars and wolves.
posted by rory at 2:41 PM on March 27, 2015 [5 favorites]


Harvey Kilobit: "This is a question I've always wondered about.

Biologically, environmentally, evolutionarily -- is there a good explanation for why Australia is so exceptionally hostile?

I suppose it is mostly a desert climate, and deserts have always bred painful plants and animals. But this thing's in Queensland.
"

If you have read any Harry Harrison or David Drake the answer is simple. There is an intelligent and actively hostile central intelligence directing the flora and fauna. Duh.
posted by Splunge at 2:52 PM on March 27, 2015


A pleasant small town in Queensland's Mary River Valley takes its name from the plant.

You may be the first person in the world to describe Gympie - the perineum of the Sunshine Coast - as "pleasant". It's a hole in the ground, rife with mosquitoes and the thickest of bogans, freezing cold in winter and boiling hot in summer.

Gympie Stinger, as we know them, are a feature of my childhood. I must say, I find shit like this fairly hyperbolic. They regularly spring up through the loamy temperate rainforest of the blackall ranges where I grew up, and I've sunk my hand into them a few times - latchin on unthinking when scrambling down a sandstone cliff, or extricating myself from the equally annoying though marginally less painful "lawyer vine".

Don't get me wrong, it hurts, quite a lot. But, well let me put it this way: I never turned around and went home.

I can imagine the searing agony that would entail from misusing the broad leaves as toilet paper, however. Interestingly, folklore has it that the sap of the poisonous Cunjevoi is a good antidote to the sting. But given the sap of the cunjevoi is also poisonous I was never inclined to test it.
posted by smoke at 3:41 PM on March 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Oops, on further research, I see that I was thinking of a different stinger native to the temperate rainforests, the Giant stinging tree, also, confusingly referred to as a Gympie Gympie or Gympie Stinger. I never got stung by the shrub-like gympie stinger, that shit was notorious, yo.
posted by smoke at 3:52 PM on March 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Hey, is this thing pronounced gym-pea or gim-pea? I really need to know.
posted by kinnakeet at 5:16 PM on March 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


smoke went Full Australian there and even I am unable to detect whether he was taking this piss or not.

Never encountered a gympie, but one morning after camping underneath a tarp I awoke to find a huntsman spider nestled in the palm of my hand. I've also come across the so-called 'migraine tree' although I suspect the resulting headache could easily have been dehydration and/or psychosomatic.
posted by um at 5:22 PM on March 27, 2015


kinnakeet: If it's pronounced the same as the city it's gim-pea.
posted by divabat at 6:34 PM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I read this last night and then, linked in the comments, this really good piece by Maciej Cegłowski about the Daintree Rainforest:
It turns out that this is one of the oldest ecosystems on the planet. I remember marveling when I visited Poland's last stretch of primeval forest that the patch had existed uninterrupted since the glaciers retreated from Central Europe 12,000 years ago. But the Daintree rain forest has been around for 180 million years, about ten thousand times as long. Before there was an Australia, before there were flowering plants, or cassowaries to eat their fruit, this forest was already growing. Through a fluke of geology and climate it has persisted all the way into our era, along with a selection of giant ferns and other relic plants found in no other part of the world. It is humbling to be in a place that predates not only your species, but your genus, family, and order, and remembers your class when they were just a bunch of scurrying, trembling little dinosaur treats. Given its incredible antiquity, it doesn't seem fair that we should now have the power to decide this forest's fate, but here we are.
That link to his older essay on his visit to the Białowieża Forest is very much worth reading, too. (Oh, and his most recent essay was about his trip to Yemen last summer, which is also pretty great.)
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:48 PM on March 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


When visiting FNQ I was warned about these by every local. Later we went on a Daintree tour with an Aboriginal local. He'd tell us the tribal stories about the forest's fauna, the practical uses of the plants, stories about how they were named or amusing tourist mispronunciations. We tried the face paint plants and the soap leaves and swam in a beautiful icy-cold river. And in-between he'd point at this or that plant and say "See that one, with the spikes/dots/fanned out leaves? If you eat it, it'll kill ya." Finally someone asked how the tribes survived, and he said through being tough, and quite a lot of trial and error.

When we got to the heart-leafed gympie, he said "If you eat it, or even touch it..." And we all chimed in "...it'll kill ya." He replied "Nope. But you'll fucking wish it had."
posted by harriet vane at 9:33 PM on March 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


I am now critically re-evaluating my lifelong dream of visiting Australia.

New Zealand is free of all the crocodiles, octopi, spiders, plants, etc., etc. etc. Right?

posted by wenestvedt at 3:54 AM on March 28

Well, there are three types of poisonous spiders - the red back, katipo and the white tail but I've only ever seen white tails there. But compared to Australia that's nothing.

Also, I think I've seen about two or three snakes there, despite growing up next to the bush and going bushwalking and camping all the time; they slither off as soon as they hear you coming. And despite many childhood visits to my grandparents' home in bush surroundings in a leafy part of Sydney, I've never seen a funnelweb in the wild. Nor a shark. Nor a croc. Sure, they're a risk, but you're much more at risk crossing a busy road.
posted by rory at 7:11 AM on March 28

Since moving to Australia 4 years ago from New Zealand I've had a snake on my first floor apartment balcony in the CBD (admittedly Darwin's CBD but still), seen many crocodiles in the wild in the local rivers, had a Cassawerry mock charge at me and now I've moved to Queensland I have redbacks living in my garage.

I'm going camping next weekend and the national park website has warnings about ticks and the giant stinging trees...
posted by poxandplague at 10:25 PM on March 27, 2015


Interesting, I was just reading about urticating hairs earlier and earlier still, about Giant Huntsman Spiders (which don't have urticating hairs, but many tarantula do).

These look very much like stinging nettles which are plants with urticating hairs, and are in the same family, Urticaceae and the Giant Gympie Tree and Gympie Gympie bush are both in the same genus.
posted by aydeejones at 1:25 AM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


When I visited New Zealand it took a while to sink in that I didn't have to instantly evaluate every bug that landed on my arm in case it was a redback or white tail spider. Wasn't keen on the earthquakes though.
posted by harriet vane at 2:40 AM on March 28, 2015


Quinn: Happy Funtime Island? Who the hell named this place?

Shanks: ...Rambo.
posted by ostranenie at 8:30 PM on March 28, 2015


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