Anaiveratti – ‘The one who drives away elephants’
I was walking around in Edmonton, Canada (where I am writing up my PhD) a few days ago, when I came across some stinging nettles. Now I am usually curious about things in the field that can hurt – basically so that I know how much to respect them. And I usually have great respect (bordering on awe) for stinging plants – I have a complicated relationship with my old friend the Anaiveratti (Dendrocnide sinuate, aka ‘the one who drives away elephants’) in the Kerala Western Ghats. So I tried touching the stinging nettles here, delicately at first and then more forcefully, but I found that try as I might, I could induce no reaction in my body.
I was slightly disappointed/ relieved, because I had expected something similar to the anaiveratti. My first encounter (of many) with this wonderful plant was in November 2008, in Achenkovil Forest Division, Kerala. We were struggling up a steep, slippery stream, and I was unfortunate enough to fall into a thicket of anaiverattis that were clearly placed there for the specific purpose of ambushing clumsy researchers like me.
Now when you touch the plant with a fairly rough part of your body – say, your palm –all is well. You can even hold it tight and nothing happens. Presumably the hairs cant get through the skin. But touch it with a more delicate part – such as the back of your hand, or say your cheek – and all hell breaks loose. It feels like an electric shock has passed through you, and you’re on fire. The area gets swollen in a few minutes, and it feels like you lose some control over it. The pain almost seems to be muscular, that’s how deep it goes. The worst part is that if you touch water, you get a free repeat experience of the original pain. And that makes it particularly challenging if you get stung in the monsoon, or if you sweat a lot in the humid forests.
Before this, I had once been accidentally shocked by a solar-powered electric fence meant to keep out elephants, and I thought that hurt. But I would almost prefer that experience to being stung by an anaiveratti. I wonder if elephants would feel the same? In fact could the name of the plant be based on sound natural history observations? Could this plant be used to guard crops from elephants? This could be an interesting area of research (Paul & Kumar 2009), although I am not sure if anyone has actually experimented with it.
Anyway, my Kani field assistants had a simple remedy to being stung: coconut oil. You basically rub this over the affected part, and I guess this limits the pain by forming a barrier between water/ other environmental factors and your skin. It definitely helped for me, although it took about 2 weeks for my hand to get back to normal. But even a month after the incident, I could still feel twinges of pain once in a while. There is an interesting article by Janaki Lenin here on this plant, which brought back some vivid memories.
Things came a full circle a couple of years ago when one of my field assistants planted an anaiveratti plant in our field station, in a nice moist location where the water overflowed from the tank. His plan was to introduce unsuspecting new research assistants to this wonder of the Western Ghats. Luckily his diabolical plan did not materialise, as the plant dried up during the summer of 2011.