Conservation Corner

Stinger vs. the Jewel

By Dan Zarlenga, Missouri Department of Conservation

This is the story of two plants: a nettle not to touch, and a weed you may want to.

If you spend time in summer exploring moist, thick, forests and lowlands, or along wooded creeks and streambanks, it might get you before you know it! Stinging nettle. 

The plant certainly lives up to its name.

Also known as wood nettle, you can recognize stinging nettle when it blooms May through August from its very small, yellowish-grey/green flower clusters. The plant often grows in large, low clumps. The edges of its leaves are highly serrated, or toothed, a suggestion of the “bite” it can give you.

Underneath stinging nettle leaves and along its stems are tiny hairs that when touched, turn into miniature hypodermic needles. These needles inject an alkaloid that immediately begins to cause irritation. You may feel burning, itching, or both. The feeling can be quite intense and unpleasant on exposed arms and legs. An encounter with stinging nettles is an especially good reason not to go off trail. Fortunately, the irritation is short-lived and usually goes away in an hour or so all on its own.

However, if you don’t want to wait that long for relief, try looking for jewelweed, a real diamond in the rough! It grows in the very same places that stinging nettle does.

Two types of jewelweed are found in Missouri; pale, which is yellowish, and spotted, which is orange with reddish-brown spots. Both flowers are small and delicate, with a beautiful, three-lobed shape. They bloom from June through September. For some reason, another name for these plants is touch-me-nots. But in this case, you might want to ignore that advice. It turns out that jewelweeds may possess a special power.

Many believe that rubbing the juice from touch-me-nots onto your skin will take the sting out of stinging nettle. Some will also tell you that they cure poison ivy, and the itch from chigger bites. Native Americans had many medicinal uses for these plants. How convenient for nature to provide the solution right in the same place as the problem!

Still, the best cure is prevention. When hiking during summer in low lying, wet areas, especially along creeks and streams, it’s a good idea to avoid stinging nettle. Stay on the trail as much as possible, and wearing lightweight, long pants will help protect your skin from encountering the tiny needles.

The moral of the story? Don’t get “stung” by stinging nettle, but feel free to touch the touch-me-nots. That way, you can admire the beauty and avoid the bite.