When The Scarecrow, the Tin-man, and the Cowardly Lion finally got to the witch’s castle to rescue Dorothy, they probably had to crawl through this stuff. It is perfect for a witch’s garden.
This is one of the various sorts of plants called “nettles,” most of which have achieved their notoriety from their ability to sting. The majority of the plants commonly known as stinging nettles are members of the nettle family, whose botanical name is Urticaceae (although maybe they should change it to “HURTicaceae”), and it is due to the presence of stinging hairs that they get their name. These hairs may clothe the stems and foliage, and depending on the nettle species, may be quite abundant…and quite effective. Such stinging hairs are actually needle-pointed hollow tubes, most often with a rounded or bulbous base, and sometimes up to nearly 1/8” in length. When an unprotected arm or ankle brushes against one of these hairs, the sharp tip easily penetrates the skin, breaking open, and releasing an array of rather complicated compounds which cause itching and burning, sometimes severe. The stinging hairs may be of sufficient size to go through clothing, too. Finding yourself in a large patch of these plants can be a sobering experience. The rash and burning acquired from unhappy contact with them may be rather long-lasting, and can really put a hurting on a field trip. For this reason, and others, it’s a good idea to know the plants that you are going to closely encounter in natural settings. Know your plants or take a botanist along!
This nettle is a common, native species from southern Canada, south to Louisiana, and northern Florida. It’s typically about knee-high, from thick roots, but often gets taller, over your waist. Despite its fearsome sting, the plants are quite beautiful, developing deep green, scalloped or toothy-margined leaves on long stalks. The male and female flowers are very small, and yellowish. Female flowers ultimately produce tiny grain-like fruits, each containing a single seed. The plants grow in a variety of moist forested systems, and here in the Southeast, are known mostly from the mountains and piedmont counties. Dense strands of it are often seen in the higher elevations, especially in rich mountain coves, where it may dominate the local herbaceous layer. On the piedmont, the plants tend to prefer river bottoms, and often show up on the rich soil of floodplains just behind natural levees. The plants do well in dense shade, and they don’t seem to like being in too much brightness.
Now there is a different, much more widespread plant that is called “stinging nettle,” and outside the southern USA, this usually means a plant called Urtica dioica. It’s easy to separate our mystery plant from Urtica dioica. Although they both sting like crazy, our mystery plant has alternate leaves (one at a time on the stem), while Urtica always has opposite leaves (two at a time). But if you’re trying to escape from a thicket of these plants, you may not notice.
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196.
[Answer: “Wood nettle,” Laportea Canadensis]