John and I had to postpone bot-projects until tomorrow, but no problem, I visited the Jupiter, Florida, Solid Waste Authority Transfer Station to drop off unused paint. A trip to the dump reinforces a truth: everywhere you go there’s botanical adventure to discover. The interesting Solid Waste Authority weed is nettles, or to be exact West Indian wood nettles, as I just read, a weed of “Waste places.” Sure enough.
The plant manual at my elbow sez the species is not native, but with weeds, well, often you don’t really know, and the Flora of North America, one of my favorite go-to authorities, leaves the question open. The species is in Florida, Tropical America, Africa, and into Asia.
That this locally unusual nettle was at the Solid Waste Authority was not coincidental. Nettles reputedly like nitrogen and phosphorus in high doses, including places where livestock or human manure have enriched moist, semi-shaded disturbed soils. The colony at the waste transfer station spreads across a moist slope just downhill from where garbage trucks tip their soggy loads for transfer to larger trucks…with a lot of stinky organic juice escaping. You can smell it while photographing nettles. The only other spot nearby where I’ve seen the same species was at the margin of a plant nursery where similarly N- and P- enriched water drains away.
Around here, this is our only species of stinging nettle in the true Nettle Family, although several non-stinging relatives are abundant. But today’s feature attraction is the stinger, whose identity is confirmed by my right ankle and right forearm smarting as I type. How the sting happens is old hat for this blog. CLICK
For simplicity I’m going to now speak of “nettles” lumping the related genera Laportea (alternate leaves) and Urtica (opposite leaves). A local poser, false nettle Boehmeria cylindrica, is no threat to ankle safety.
You could scarcely find plants with more historical uses in human medicine. Nettles have a hundred attributed benefits, some of my favorites being abating hair loss, boosting memory, stopping nosebleeds when inhaled as snuff, and, as noted by former local botanist Dan Austin, to “counteract love medicine.” (Should that need arise, run to the Solid Waste Authority, stand in the nettle patch, and breath deeply…love medicine will wear off abruptly.) Not my cup of tea, nettles, especially young ones, have long uses as potherbs, as tonics, and in beverages, probably not a great idea given the calcium oxalate and other toxins they bring to the table.
In a comment below Pat Bowman added an important old use for nettles: as a source of vegetable rennt for cheese making.
Related closely to the commercial fiber species ramie, which has escaped cultivation here in Florida, nettles are ancient sources of textile fibers, intertwined historically with flax and hemp. Tibetan giant nettle (Giardinia diversifolia) is a cultivated nettle fiber in Nepal and beyond.
Now for the best part. The flowers are separately male and female, in today’s species on the same plant. Pollination is by wind, and the blossoms don’t merely drop their precious pollen passively onto the breeze. Instead, they pop it out like little firecrackers.
You better enjoy this little video now, because I had to get down on my belly in the sting zone, in the garbage leachate, with a Roseate Spoonbill and a Wood Stork as quiet witnesses to make this all possible. So VIEW THIS…CLICK
And to wrap it up, nettles from a different angle, added in a comment by Leonore Alalniz:
claims again that earthen-rich plot
and asks that I focus on re-emerging,
Aware of the initial sting
my mind and harvest bare-handed
first chlorophyll of Spring.
Into tissue beyond my skin
brings on summer’s heat ‘n pleasure
I longed for all Winter.