The stinging tree can be found growing in the Far North’s rainforests.  PICTURE: STEWART McLEAN
The stinging tree can be found growing in the Far North’s rainforests. PICTURE: STEWART McLEAN

Man’s agonising brush with nature’s hidden danger

YOU wouldn't think a humble green plant growing in the Far North's rainforests would pose much of a danger to humans.

But the stinging tree is a plant Murray Freeman never wants to get up close and personal with, ever again.

He has spoken to the Cairns Post as part of a series about people who have survived encounters with some of the most fearsome creatures and conditions..

The 61-year-old training and safety officer, from Kuranda's Rainforestation, first encountered the infamous native tropical plant while walking through the forest about 40 years ago.

He felt something brush up against, and then stick to, the skin of his left ankle, provoking a burning sensation.

Murray had been wearing thongs at the time - not the wisest choice of footwear for venturing into dense vegetation.

An older colleague had urged Murray to stick his throbbing feet under cold, flowing water in a nearby creek - a suggestion he now believes was his friend's form of a practical joke.

"You've got no idea how much the sting hurt then," Murray said.

"It went from a mild, burning pain to immediately 'let's give a bit of a yell' like pain, when the water hit it.

"That particular sting only lasted a matter of weeks."

A few years later, Murray had been four-wheel driving through the rainforest at Julatten.

Venturing out of his vehicle, into the greenery, he encountered another stinging tree.

"I brushed my forearm against a plant I just didn't notice, because of all the undergrowth," he said.

"Within seconds, I felt it - and that's normally a bad sign.

"When it hits fast, you know it's going to be bad."

Having the foresight to contact his doctor, shortly after arriving home, Murray obtained painkillers before the real agony kicked in.

He said it was like nothing he had ever experienced.

"I would describe the pain as somewhere between burning and stabbing," he said.

"The first couple of seconds, it felt like a burn. And then the pain just built.

"It took about 9-10 hours until I was up to the maximum pain level.

"And if I got it wet, every time, it would manage to hurt that little bit extra."

He estimated that on the pain scale, it had rated near the maximum limit, around 9/10.

"I've had gall stones, kidney stones, and they're all rated as fairly painful things," he said.

"I've also spoken to a woman who's had a stinging tree sting, and she said it was right up there with childbirth, the pain."

Juvenile stinging tree growing in the rainforest at Rainforestation, Kuranda. Photo: Daniel Bateman
Juvenile stinging tree growing in the rainforest at Rainforestation, Kuranda. Photo: Daniel Bateman

The stinging tree, also known as Gympie Gympie - or by its scientific name Dendrocnide cordifolia - is regarded as one of the unsung natural dangers of the Far North.

Its propensity to sting hikers walking past has also earned it the nickname of the rainforest "anklebiter."

With its heart-shaped, serrated edge leaves, the Wet Tropics shrub is a fast-growing pioneer species, found in recently cleared areas - such as along trails - where there is plenty of sunlight.

The stinging tree can grow up to 2m high, with its large, dark green coloured leaves spanning up to 30cm long.

Its leaves are lined with tiny, almost invisible hairs that deliver the powerful neurotoxin into anything that touches it.

Cardwell-based former forestry ranger Max Bell found out the hard way that these hairs are still able to deliver the toxin into human skin, long after the tree has died.

Max still remembers the day he accidentally brushed up against the head of a dead stinging tree that had fallen over a survey line, on the Kirrima Range, about 40 years ago.

"It came down across my back, so I got stung on my shoulder, and all down my left arm," he said.

"It wasn't the great many needles that went in.

"There was probably three spots, about the size of a 10-20 cent piece, where the needles actually went through my long-sleeved shirt.

"I pulled the shirt off, and that probably pulled a lot of the needles out, but in that particular case, I had to go to the doctor, and he gave me a needle to make me sleep.

"I basically slept for 24 hours."

An average of 10 people per year seeking treatment for stinging tree stings at Cairns Hospital's emergency department, according to health figures obtained from the Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service.

The recommended first aid for a sting is removing visible stinging tree hairs with tweezers, then applying and removing adhesive tape or a hair-removal wax strip to remove finer stinging hairs.

Max, who worked for the forestry department for 20 years between Paluma, Tully and the Atherton Tablelands, said people should not underestimate the hazard the finer hairs presented.

The hairs from dead stinging trees can slew off, when the plant is disturbed, forming a "dust".

"If you're brushing through the trees, you can actually breathe the hairs in, and then get stung to the point where your nose will start to bleed," Max said.

"It hasn't happened to me, but I've seen it happen to other people.

"When you're cutting through (the trees), if you get the sunlight the right way, you can actually see a mist-like thing, where the needles are coming off the bloody thing, just coming down through the air."

He said he has been amazed by the persistence of the toxin, which had potential to keep on stinging for many years.

"You get in the bloody shower, and then suddenly remember, oh yeah, I got stung there the year before," he said.

"It does get less each year, and it doesn't necessarily happen with every sting - I'm told it's got something to do with the depth of the needles, which break off in the skin and stay there."

HOW TO TREAT A STINGING TREE STING

- 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

- Occasionally some people have a severe allergic reaction to being stung by a plant. If symptoms such as difficult or noisy breathing, a swollen tongue, persistent dizziness, swelling or tightness in the throat, or a persistent cough or wheeze are experienced, contact an ambulance immediately by calling triple-0 (000).