When I set foot in a new forest I always request, ‘Show me the nettles first'. The worst one in my experience so far is called Devil Nettle, Fever Nettle or Elephant Nettle, and its scientific name is Dendrocnide sinuata (meaning ‘tree nettle' with ‘wavy leaf margin' in Greek). It is found in the forests of the Western Ghats, the Northeast and onwards into Southeast Asia.
I was first introduced to this plant in Manjolai near the Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (Tamil Nadu) where they call it Anaimeratti (‘that which threatens elephants'). The leaves of most nettles have a distinctive shape and hairy texture, but not the Devil Nettle. It looks like any other innocuous plant with dark green oval leaves and nothing outstanding to set it apart. The minute irritating hairs covering the leaves are visible when you are about two inches from it. Wherever there is a forest opening with lots of sunlight, one is likely to see this plant which can grow to the size of a small tree. I tried hard to memorise its plant-next-door features, but even today I cannot identify it with certainty. That's because I've never been stung by it!
When Rom first visited Agumbe in the early 1970s he had some peculiar hippie ideas. He felt that all the trappings of the human world interfered with his ability to find king cobras. So, he discarded his watch and shoes, and stripped down to his loin cloth. Not the best attire for his first brush with the Devil Nettle!
He got it on his arms, chest, stomach and legs. “It was itchy painful,” he recalls. Hives erupted, and to alleviate the pain he dove into a pool. It became doubly horrendous and he jumped out again. That night he shivered uncontrollably. By the next morning, the hives had become depressions and the affected area was constantly clammy. For the following six months, any contact with water was enough to set off the ‘itchy pain' again.
In the mid 1990s, we were working in Vellimalai in Periyar Tiger Reserve. On one of our treks looking for reptiles, our then-young friend, Gerry spotted a skink and dove headlong after it. Rom warned him not to move while he yanked the nettle out of the way, but it was too late. Gerry had already brushed against it and suffered the consequences.
Two days later, accident-prone Gerry slipped off a fallen log right into a whole bed of Devil Nettles. His ears, neck, arms and legs were afire with the screaming itches! Surprisingly, despite the severity of exposure, the worst of the effects didn't last longer than 10 days.
About 1820, Jean Baptiste Louis Claude Theodore Leschenault de la Tour, the French botanist, compared the pain induced by the nettle to ‘rubbing my fingers with hot iron'. He also suffered contraction of jaw muscles so severe that he feared he had tetanus. It's not clear what toxin the plant injects to cause such severe reactions. Formic acid, serotonin, histamine, oxalic acid, tartaric acid are some of the suspects.
Col. Richard Henry Beddome, however, didn't find the symptoms so extreme. It's possible that the irritation varies with seasons or perhaps some people are allergic to it. Despite the terror it arouses, there is still so little known about this weed!
Recently when Rom and Gerry were walking in Agumbe they came upon a whole host of Devil Nettles, and they both said their hair stood on end. The plant was so memorably traumatic they seemed to physically sense the presence of the plant! Quietly, as if they had seen a ghost, the two of them backed away.
I asked Ramchandrappa, a botanical encyclopedia who works for the Forest Department in Agumbe, about this plant. He called it Malai Murugan in Kannada and said the antidote is lime juice or turmeric smeared on the affected areas and apparently the symptoms immediately subside. One more definite addition to my jungle apothecary!
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