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Pesky plant has a painful natural defense mechanism

This stinging nettle plant, known as the “heartleaf nettle,” has a natural defense mechanism: When touched, tiny hairs deposit burning toxins into the skin.

Photo by Gail Diederich

This stinging nettle plant, known as the “heartleaf nettle,” has a natural defense mechanism: When touched, tiny hairs deposit burning toxins into the skin.

If you've lived in Florida for more than a short time you've likely encountered some things in nature that you'd prefer to pass right on by. Fire ants, yellow jackets and deer flies come to mind. They're in my "critter" category. Until a few Sundays ago, I didn't have anything in the "plant" category, except maybe bougainvillea when I'm dodging thorns while trimming it. But after a painful encounter, the plant category now has one solid entry: the stinging nettle.

A sunny day drew me to our deck, where I have a few potted plants and herbs. In one pot with a large jade plant, a weed had sprung up, growing with gusto, so I decided it needed to go. I quickly discovered it has its own defense mechanism built right into the green stems. I'd no sooner grabbed hold and yanked it out when the pain sunk into my hand. I let go quickly, but before dashing for the faucet I took a quick look to make sure I hadn't reached into fire ants or bees. Nope! Only the plant was there.

Most of my hand was burning and stinging intensely and I had no idea why. Cold water brought some relief, and soon the stinging settled into a steady throbbing accompanied by a ticklish sensation.

I grew up in rural western North Carolina, wandering the woods and creek banks, with a grandma who had a good sense of wild crafting — using herbs and plants found in the woods to treat different ailments, most with success, fortunately, since trips to the doctor were reserved for extreme illness or an accident that required stitches.

From those days I recalled nettles, plants with stems or leaves containing toxins that cause the skin to sting painfully. So I opened up my trusty laptop and searched for "Florida stinging nettles."

Didn't take long! Found a picture that matched exactly to the thing I'd tried to yank out of the plant container. I felt some relief knowing what it was, though I was dismayed to read the stinging sensation could possibly last several days.

There are several stinging nettles found in Florida. The one I encountered was Urtica Chamaedryoides Pursh, sometimes called "heartleaf nettle" due to the shape of the leaves, according to information from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. I thought the leaves also looked a bit like those on a strawberry plant, both in shape and color. Unlike a strawberry plant, however, the leaves and stems have tiny stinging hairs. When touched, they break off at an angle, creating a perfect sharp point for piercing the skin, in hypodermic needle fashion, depositing toxins that cause intense burning and much discomfort.

I've lived at the same place for 33 years and have never seen this nettle before, so I wondered where it came from. I could only guess that perhaps birds dropped seeds or perhaps a seed could have been in potting soil. That's a far stretch, but after doing an amount of research online I found that others have reported nettles "coming from out of nowhere."

I will be on a close watch for more of it since it appears to be hearty, hard to control and is being found more frequently in pastures and yards, appearing to like the rich, well maintained soil of groomed lawns. Mowing doesn't kill the nettle, and can even increase its growth through the spreading of seeds. Also, mowing forces the plant to be smaller and closer to the ground, thereby harder to detect. On the positive side, the plant tends to die back with heat.

Being one who is fairly tolerant of pain, the stinging I've experienced is not unbearable, but I think it would be very difficult if a small child or pet encountered this nasty stinging weed. The discomfort lasted a few days.

My sister in Indianapolis did some research and found the plant in a trusty book we both have, The Healing Garden. Apparently stinging nettle is edible and packed with vitamins and minerals. If it's sauteed, it loses its toxins and is reported to taste much like kale or spinach.

After my encounter, though, I don't plan to mess with this stuff in the garden — much less the kitchen.

Pesky plant has a painful natural defense mechanism 02/17/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 17, 2011 8:18pm]
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