Beware of pretty little members of Urtica family
Published: Monday, February 11, 2013 at 7:14 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 11, 2013 at 7:14 p.m.
Two forms of an unassuming nettle look as innocuous as any weed pushing its way through a driveway crack or appearing unexpectedly in a manicured flowerbed like a party crasher. But the innocence of the herbaceous perennial flowering plants belonging to the Urticaceae family stops there.
There are as many as 39 species of the plant, three of which are found in Florida, with two of those in Marion County: Urtica urens and Urtica chamaedryoides, often called heart-leaf nettle, weak nettle or ortiguilla, according to the University of Florida IFAS website.
The plant is found throughout the United States, Northern Europe and Asia. The two species that grow in Marion County are indistinguishable to most people, said Kent Perkins, the herbarium collections manager at the University of Florida's Florida Museum of Natural History.
The Urtica variations growing in Marion County may not have a threatening appearance, but people who have had a brush with the unassuming plant tell a different story. They convey tales of how the plant's tiny hair-like barbs along its leaves and stems pierced their skin, burned like the bites of angry fire ants and kept hurting for as long as a day.
As cooling temperatures prevail each year, the pesky, low-lying plant will become more abundant, Perkins said.
The plant does best in mild temperatures and rich, moist soils or disturbed earth. Although most often associated with rural settings, Perkins warned that the flowering and seeding plant can also make its home in parks and backyards. It grows from a few inches tall to about 1 1/2 feet in height and tends to grow in colonies, spreading out from a central location, he said.
Laurie Wilson's encounter with the nettle is one she won't soon forget.
Wilson, a professional photographer, was taking family pictures of a mother and father and their 4-year-old son at Sholom Park in Ocala about 10 days ago. She staged them on a patch of especially green grass.
"As I was backing away, they stared screaming. I thought it was an ant pile we didn't see," Wilson said.
She ran to the family and her left foot brushed against one of the nettle plants growing low to the ground and embedded in the grass all around the site.
"It just brushed the top of my foot … and it hurt all night," she recalled.
The irritants that sent Wilson's clients screaming and left her foot burning were the compounds histamines and acetocholines, Perkins said.
"You can easily overlook them," he said of the nettles. "There's nothing that makes them stand out until you touch them. Washing the affected area and applying baking soda paste typically helps sooth the stinging for most people. Other anti-itch crèmes also can help."
Doing nothing to the affected area and letting the burning run its course also is an option, Perkins added.
Some people are allergic to the plant and should seek medical attention.
To say the plant is good for nothing but inflicting pain would be untrue, Perkins added.
Literature shows that some species can be boiled to become a spinach-like food and also can be used in the treatment of arthritis.
According to UF/IFAS, the unrelated Cnidoscolus stimulosus, a common Florida plant that also has stinging hairs, is characterized by white flowers and large leaves and is often referred to as "stinging nettle" or "bull nettle."
Perkins predicts that none of the stinging nettles will be leaving Marion County anytime soon and will be found in more pastures and yards when it begins raining.
His own first encounter with the Urtica nettle was not a positive one, he said.
"I was gardening and I grabbed a handful of it," he said, recalling the episode of about 10 years ago. "The redness went from my hand to my elbow. I got worried I was having some kind of allergic reaction."
A trip to a doctor and a treatment of steroids alleviated the condition, he said.
As for avoiding the plant, Perkins laughed about his encounter, saying that if he couldn't spot it digging in his garden, most people probably wouldn't have much more luck than he did.
To learn more about the nettles, visit http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/hb002.
In Marion County, the UF/IFAS office is located at 2232 NE Jacksonville Road and the telephone number is 671-8400.
Contact Fred Hiers at 867-4157 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.