Beware of the Stinging Nettle
By now, most every garden club has held programs on butterflies and host plants that attract them. Those living jewels that flutter from flower to bud, down to the muddy pools they drink from, seem worth anything to bring into the landscape. I thought so, too. But now, I’m refining my approach after tangling with an herb that should be strictly left out of any garden. “Beware of the Stinging Nettle” should be a refrain that echoes through the mind of any gardener.
“Burning” or “Stinging Nettle” is advertised as a butterfly attracting weed, an herbal hair rinse, an “energizing nettle bath”, or even as a tea served with elderflowers, lemon balm or a slice of citrus. Don’t do it. Be wise: stay strictly away. I share this advice after nearly three years of burning pain in my hands and arms that will not go away, and for which there is no cure.
This is the back-story. Three summers ago, I moved back to Connecticut. The house I bought had a landscaped, but neglected yard on the edge of a wood. The garden beds, if you could call them that, were full of a 10-14 inch green plant with oval, hairy leaves with serrated edges, arranged along the stem like a mint. Seedlings were liberally represented beneath them.
Did I look them up in a book? No. Eager to start my perennial garden, I plunged my hands in and began clearing them out. They are quite juicy when crushed, and the liquid flowed up my arms and on my legs as I kneeled. I spent hours pulling. They were ubiquitous after a moist spring and early summer.
The day after my first weeding, I woke up with arms, legs, and hands bright red and burning. No water, ice, soap, lotion or other emolument would quiet the burning. I treated it like poison ivy. No change.
At that point, I went on the internet and identified the nasty weed that had attacked me. In German, it’s called “Brennnessel” (burning nettle), and in English, “Stinging Nettle.”
Several months later, after three trips to the doctor, multiple heavy-duty cortisone shots, lotions, medications and soothing baths, the redness and oozing sores disappeared. The burning did not. Three years later, the burning still crops up when my hands get dry. Apparently, the tiny hairs embedded themselves and will not come out. As I move, they burn.
Herbals will tell you that nettle can be found in any lot with moisture, disturbed, nitrogen-rich soil. Woodland clearings, fertile fields, riverbanks, gardens and meadows are their favorite spots.
I say, “Leave them there!” Do not introduce them into your yard under the misguided impression that you are aiding butterflies. Otherwise, for your efforts, your children, grandchildren, friends, pets, and visitors may brush up against them and suffer for years to come. Let the butterflies use the ones in nature!
So how do you deal with nettle?
A gardening friend, who is also a medical doctor, devised a safe way to remove nettle, if you find it in your yard.
Liberally apply hand cream to your hands and arms as a protectant. Find two of the oblong plastic bags newspapers are wrapped in. Slide one up each arm, sticking your fingers through the plastic at the closed end of the bag. Your fingers will go through and anchor the bag. Put on two pairs of medical gloves (latex or plastic), one over the other, on each hand. Then don your gardening gloves.
Watching that the nettle, or its juices, do not touch any skin on your arms or legs, start pulling. Check your gloves periodically to make sure they are holding up. Change them if you find punctures. Seal the nettle in a plastic garbage bag and dispose of it in the dump. Do not put it in compost, as the hairs continue to infect any soil they come in touch with.
After removing all nettle from an area, always garden with the plastic glove/garden glove combination on your hands. The hairs remain for years in your soil, and can be just as damaging when bare hands come in contact with the dirt as they were on the plants. And please, please remember, “Always…beware of the Stinging Nettle.” Never be so foolish as to share it with a friend.
Disclaimer: These thoughts and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of this organization.