GARDENING

The sting of winter


The burning nettle weed, if allowed to seed, is capable of colonizing an entire area the following winter. (Courtesy of David Holmes)

Published: Saturday, January 19, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 1:02 p.m.

Recently, I had three large sweet gum trees removed from my farm. One near the property line had a large branch, about 80 feet up, leaning toward a neighbor's house. Another had a large branch leaning toward the roof on my horse barn. The third was cut simply because it was a sweetgum that was only going to get bigger. In checking on the work about to begin, I was approached by the tree contractor who complained of pain in his arm and wondered what had stung him when he leaned on the top board of the fence.

I went over to look at the scene of the incident, and noted the presence of a puss-moth caterpillar. One of the stinging caterpillars, the insect is unlikely to be noticed unless you touch it.

The furry covering contains poison that results in a painful burning sensation lasting for several hours. Most people are not severely allergic, and the consequence is limited to swelling and burning.

The insect is the larval stage of the flannel moth, a nocturnal moth that is unlikely to be encountered. However, a run-in with the larval stage will make one vigilant to observe for it in the future. It grows to about 1 inch in length, and is somewhat pear-shaped, tapering toward the back end.

Furry in appearance, the caterpillar is covered with thick, tan-colored hairs that completely hide the head or legs. The tree contractor went on with his work, but his arm was noticeably red and swollen in the area where contact was made.

Another item appearing in the winter landscape is the burning nettle, an annual weed that is capable of taking over disturbed areas, particularly under shade trees where there is little competition from dense turf. When the weed comes in contact with bare skin — hands, forearms, bare feet and legs, it leaves an unpleasant sensation that might be described as more of a numbing of the area than burning. My personal experience is that this lasts about one day. Upon close examination of the weed, one notes fine hairs on leaves and on the stem; these I believe are the culprits of the numbing sensation. The time to remove this (with gloved hands) is when you observe the first one; for if allowed to seed, this plant is capable of colonizing an entire area the following winter.

A plant that performs during the cool season, the weed disappears when the warm weather arrives, then emerges again in fall as new seedlings, when the soil temperatures begin to cool. Should you have an encounter with this weed, I have been told by some of the old-time farmers that "udder balm" works fairly effectively as an antidote.

A third item that can result in unpleasant burning sensations is the bull nettle. This plant grows fairly low to the ground and has a distinct leaf shape I would describe as similar to the shape of a sweetgum leaf. The plant has many fine, white hairs that are the purveyors of poison.

As the plant matures, it develops a mound-shaped growth habit and white flowers appear with five petals. Sometimes called "tread softly," the name is a very good recommendation for what should be done — tread softly or better yet, tread not at all.

If one touches the hairs of the plant, a rash accompanied by a burning sensation occurs which lasts up to several hours. It can be observed in the understory of forested areas, and I often have noted its appearance in pastures. Unlike the burning nettle, bull nettle is a perennial plant, which means it has a lifecycle that exists over more than one season.

This is another weed that I scout for in my landscape and pastures, and if observed, receives an immediate removal. It has a prominent tap root, and I have learned to slide a shovel parallel to the plant stem in an effort to remove as much of the root as possible. Remember to return to the site a couple months later to determine if any new bull nettles have emerged; if one does not remove all of the root, often a new shoot will appear and this should be removed before it has a chance to seed.

Unless a person has severe allergies, none of these irritants are life-threatening, but an encounter with any one of them can turn a winter day into a most unpleasant and long-lasting experience.

David Holmes is Marion County extension director. Contact him at david.holmes@marioncountyfl.org.

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