'HORRIFIC PAIN': Ballina woman ‘burned’ by dangerous tree

DANGER LURKING: This pretty tree, the Norfolk Island hibiscus or cow itch tree, hides a painful secret. Photo: Margaret Donald
DANGER LURKING: This pretty tree, the Norfolk Island hibiscus or cow itch tree, hides a painful secret. Photo: Margaret Donald

 

IT MAY look beautiful, but for one Ballina woman, the touch of a plant has caused a lot of pain.

Shanti van der Wall said she had been relaxing under a tree on New Year's Day, near the Shaws Bay caravan park entrance, when she accidentally came into contact with the plant's seed pods.

"I was lying on a plastic mat, with a beach towel on it, under this tree towering over the picnic table," she said.

"I've wiped my face with my towel after a swim, and felt nothing.

"But the next morning a rash began with pimple-like pain and no head to squeeze."

Ms van der Wall said within a very short period of time the pain increased, and a burn-like wound spread across her face, arms and fingers.

"Millions of fibreglass-like fibres from the plant's seeds have penetrated my skin," she said.

"Trying to pull them out just makes them inflamed.

"I've been in horrific pain... it feels like I've gone through a windscreen of a car."

 

 

Ballina resident Shanti van der Wall, 53, has suffered burn-like wounds caused by contact with a Norfolk Island hibiscus. Pictured is her wounds 15 days since contact with the plant.
Ballina resident Shanti van der Wall, 53, has suffered burn-like wounds caused by contact with a Norfolk Island hibiscus. Pictured is her wounds 15 days since contact with the plant.

 

She said after plenty of research, she discovered it was a Norfolk Island hibiscus and was horrified to discover how dangerous it could be.

"If I'd known what it was, if there'd been a sign warning me what the tree could do, there's no way I would have ever sat there," she said.

Lagunaria patersonii, more commonly known as the Norfolk Island hibiscus or Cow Itch tree, is a native plant endemic to Lord Howe Island, Norfolk Island, parts of coastal Queensland and northern parts of NSW.

American gardening information website Dave's Garden lists the plant as "potentially dangerous" and said contact with the plant's seed pods can cause "skin irritation or allergic reaction". Seeds of the plant are poisonous if ingested.

 

FILE PHOTO: Councillor Roy Bendall shows the Norfolk Island hibiscus tree or Cow Itch tree. The pods have fibreglass-like fibres and are very painful after contact with skin. Photo: Annika Enderborg
FILE PHOTO: Councillor Roy Bendall shows the Norfolk Island hibiscus tree or Cow Itch tree. The pods have fibreglass-like fibres and are very painful after contact with skin. Photo: Annika Enderborg

 

Ms van der Wall said in the past two weeks, she has pulled "thousands" of fibres out of her skin.

She has been to her doctor three times since it happened and was referred to a dermatologist.

"The doctor and nurses don't know what to do," she said.

"I've been on antibiotics and using creams and nothing is really helping.

"To be told there's no one who can help me is very frightening."

Ms van der Wall said she had contacted Ballina Shire Council about pruning the branches with seed pods or erecting a sign warning people of the tree's dangers, but has been disappointed by the lack of response.

Ballina Shire Council's open spaces manager Cheyne Willebrands said the council was "aware of this tree and has been consulting with the impacted community member".

"Council's open spaces section are now investigating the tree," he said.

Mr Willebrands said the council had not received any previous reports regarding these trees.



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