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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 26th July 2011

I’ve been conducting a wholly unscientific test of a remedy for nettle sting caused by contact with Urtica dioica. I would usually add the common name but I’m guessing you know the name of the plant that causes nettle sting.

If this were a TV programme, I’d, probably, have to say at this point ‘Don’t try this at home’. Since it’s just a blog I’m going to assume that you have the sense to decide for yourself without being nannied.

Urtica dioica, stinging nettle

Urtica dioica, stinging nettle

There are quite a few alleged remedies for nettle sting though the best known is, of course, to use a leaf from Rumex obtusifolius, the broad-leaved dock or docken, in Scotland. So well-known is this ‘remedy’ that I often use it as the introduction to my talks. It’s about the one piece of plant folklore that you can be sure everyone will know so I use it to say that there are many other stories that were passed on but aren’t today. It meets my definition of what folklore is because it gets told by one generation to the next but has never been verified by science.

Like a lot of folklore it isn’t universally accepted. I’ve met quite a few people who say, based on personal experience, that the dock has no value in treating the sting of the nettle. Quite a few of them will go on to say what is a remedy but, for most, the failure of the dock to work for them means they accept that getting stung by a nettle means a couple of hours or more of discomfort.

I also use Urtica dioica to get into the subject of substance abuse. Everyone knows that touching a stinging nettle will be unpleasant but that doesn’t stop, probably, millions of people doing it every year. Knowing that something could be harmful doesn’t always stop us from exposing ourselves to that harm.

Rumex obtusifolius, broad-leaved dock

Rumex obtusifolius, dock

With the nettle, though, there is another common name that, I think, may explain why so many of us get stung whether we are gardening, walking in the country or retrieving our football from a patch of rough ground next to the pitch. In some parts of the UK, Urtica dioica is known as the naughty man’s plaything. ‘Naughty man’, in this context is a euphemism for the devil and the name comes from the idea that the devil himself, or one of his demons, hides behind the plant and pushes it towards you so that, no matter how careful you are being to avoid it, you will still get stung.  

That does seem to be my experience whenever I come across it. I may be working in the garden and taking care to avoid skin contact as I remove an offending plant and it will be sure to flip around and rub against my arm or I may be out walking and step carefully to avoid a nettle only to find that, for no apparent reason, I have stumbled into it.

There are those who say that you will always find nettle and dock together as if some benign power has taken care to provide the cure close to the cause of the injury. Personally, if such a benign power existed I’d just as soon it removed the nettle in the first place. In any case, that theory breaks down when it comes to nettles growing in the garden. After years of reasonably diligent attention to them, I now have very few Rumex obtusifolius in the garden and never see them when I’ve been stung.

That’s what led me to try one of the alternatives people have told me about. Some people say that any leaf will ease the sting; it doesn’t have to be dock. Others claim that simply rubbing the skin with your hand will suffice. Yet others, amongst them the TV outdoorsman, Ray Mears, say that rubbing the top side of a nettle leaf, the side without the stinging hairs, onto a fresh sting will neutralise the toxins causing the pain. I haven’t tried that one because I don’t see how you are supposed to handle the leaf to apply the smooth side without getting hold of the prickly underside and giving yourself another sting.

Nettle sting on a leg

Nettle sting on a leg

So, today when I was out in the garden and a nettle I was trying to remove managed to find a gap between my shirt and my gardening glove and sting me on the wrist I thought I’d try the strangest remedy I’ve ever heard. It was told to me by someone, several years ago, on a tour of the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden but the visitor concerned said he’d been told it by a friend but had never tried it himself.

It’s really quite simple; as soon as you know you’ve been stung eat a few young leaves of Urtica dioica taken from the top of the plant.

Simple to say, that is, but convincing yourself to put fresh nettle leaves in your mouth and picking them without getting another sting is not so easy. I did try this a couple of years ago and found that you need to chew the leaves up very quickly to minimise the sting in your mouth. But, I’ve never managed to pick the leaves without getting a fresh sting because, of course, you don’t want to use your dirty gardening gloves to do the picking.

So, sting on the wrist, find the top of the plant, pick off a couple of leaves and pop them in just as the sting in the picking fingers is starting to add to the sting on the wrist. And, you’ll have to take my word for it, the stings disappeared almost immediately and didn’t return. But, that doesn’t mean I’m saying this is a proven remedy. As I said at the start, this was a very unscientific trial and all sorts of things might have made the sting go away.

To do this properly, you’d have to deliberately sting a number of people and try different techniques for dealing with it. Perhaps, chewing any plant would be a cure. Perhaps, it’s just the placebo effect at work. To confirm this as an actual remedy for nettle sting would mean someone enduring a lot of stings over a long period. Any volunteers?