Though it has many names — tread softly, bull nettle, spurge and even finger-rot — the stinging nettle’s showy little white, trumpet-shaped flowers can result in a painful encounter if not careful.
The flowers of this normally shin-high plant typically have five petals and bloom throughout the spring, summer and sometimes into fall.
The plants flowers, leaves and stems are covered with tiny stinging hairs. If they are touched, or even brushed slightly, the stinging hairs can cause a somewhat painful sensation and often a reddish rash. The venomous hairs are full of toxic formic acid.
Therefore, this southeastern native weedy perennial is one to be aware of and not taken lightly.
Depending on each individual’s allergic inflammatory reaction, the effects are not serious – the stinging pain may persist for up to an hour. Antihistamines are recommended if treatment is required, but usually the pain, inflammation and swelling will subside on its own.
The stems of this plant are stout and sheathed in these spiny, toxic hairs. The leaves are simple, alternately arranged and shaped with three to five deep, toothed lobes. Their shape is similar to that of a maple or oak leaf, but with white veins. The fruit is a spiny, spherical or cylindrical capsule with three chambers that open to release dark brown seeds.
Stinging nettle is a widespread plant found in the coastal plain as far north as Virginia to southern Florida and west through Louisiana and into Texas, and north into Oklahoma. This nettle grows in dry pine forests, scrub and beach dunes with sandy soils. They also do well in old fields, roadsides and other disturbed wooded areas. It can present a challenge along fence rows and sometimes rural yards.
Quail and several species of songbirds seek out the seeds for food. These birds and possibly other wildlife are the main dispersers of the seeds.
Once, I personally observed a tough, leathery-jawed gopher tortoise voraciously eating the leaves, like a salad, in a longleaf pine forest.
Mowing does not get rid of the nettles; they just grow back again. But the plants can easily re-grow from the fleshy, persistent tap root. In fact, mowing probably helps to scatter the seeds and promote a larger population in the future. If nettle is mowed and bailed as part of a hay operation, once incorporated into hay, the plants could easily be spread into previously unaffected areas.
They are sometimes grown for landscaping, mostly in restorations and natural settings. They are certainly not grown for their cut flowers. The tubers or roots of the plant are edible, but the upper portions should be avoided. Some say this tap root can be used as an excellent potato substitute, tasting like pasta.
You should learn to recognize this plant, admire it and avoid contact with the exception of the roots, if you’re bold.
To contact Mike Adams, email email@example.com.