Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 426-A   September 25, 1971
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

People don't seem to get it through their heads that they should be appropriately clothed when they visit our forest preserves and expect to enjoy a walk through the woodlands. Woolens, tweeds, or soft-textured garments will be covered with burs, stick-tights and "begger Lice". Denims are perfect. Bare-legged people will suffer not only from mosquitoes, flies, thorns, briars, and possible poison ivy, but also from the stings of nettles. Alistaire Cooke, writing about the American summer, said that out of ten people he polled, only three had even a remote idea of what a nettle is, It is a plant you seldom notice but you sure feel it, particularly among the luxuriant waist-high undergrowth in woodlands on rich black moist soil.

Wading through this vegetation, you may experience a stinging burning sensation on your legs and arms but it's hard to find the miscreant because its poison is not felt immediately. That poison contains the formic acid also present in the stings of bees and ants. The quickest relief is obtained by mashing the leaves of sourdock or other acid plant into a pulp and smearing that over your skin. The slimy juice of the jewelweed is another remedy.

The stinging nettle has thousands of poison-loaded hairs which antedated, by millions of years, the hypodermic needle and syringe invented by a French physician in 1853. These hairs are tiny hollow tubes stiffened with silica and lime taken from the soil. Their curved tips are closed but the walls are very thin and snap off, when touched, leaving a sharp slanting point which easily punctures your skin. At the base of the hair is a soft bulb containing a poison which is squirted out by the same pressure which snapped off the point when you brushed the hair.

That burning sensation, caused by our common nettles, lasts only about 20 minutes and is not serious but some of the tropical species are far more dangerous. Their stings vary in severity from those produced by bees and wasps to what happens when bit by a venomous snake. One nettle, on Timor, causes a condition like lockjaw which may last for weeks or months. Another, in Java, is frequently fatal.

The Nettle Family -- and this is surprising -- includes the elms, hackberries, mulberries, osage orange, hops and Indian hemp or marijuana. However, in America, the true nettles are all herbs with elm- like leaves. They range in height up to several feet but are quite variable. Some are perennials and some are annuals; some have opposite leaves but others have alternate leaves; some have those pesky stinging hairs but some do not. Nearly every part of the United States has one or more kinds of nettles and the Chicago region has four, two of which are common.

Few of you who read this are botanists. It would be difficult and foolish to name, described and distinguish between the different kinds of nettles and plants that are called nettles. Some of the latter belong to the Mint Family; others belong to the Nightshade Family which includes the "Irish" potato. In fact, one of the so-called nettles -- really a nightshade -- was the original food of the devastating potato beetle.

The Indians and the Europeans have many uses for nettles. In spring, the young shoots are used like spinach greens or boiled in soup. Medicines for various ailments are concocted from parts of nettles. They used to be one of the most important sources of fiber for sewing and for weaving coarse linen.

Remember this, when you do run into them: don't worry about it.

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