Will the Real Stinging Nettle Please Stand Down!

By Steven Foster |

Most of us go into the fields and forests, and absent a flower, a fruit, a nut,, essentially we see abstract green. Some plants capture our attention when we are not focused on them. That’s how I discovered a very common woodland plant in the Ozarks, particularly common in wooded river bottoms. I was walking through forests along the Bryan Creek watershed in Ozark County, Missouri. Ouch. . .what the _____ is that, I said aloud as I strolled through undifferentiated, non-descript greenery in the river bottom. I had shorts and discovering the source of the pain, I found myself in the middle of a giant population of Laportea canadensis, a member of the Urticaceae (stinging nettle family). The plant had captured more than my attention. It caught my curiosity.

Wood Nettle - Laportea canadensis
Wood Nettle – Laportea canadensis

Interestingly, if you search the USDA Plants database  for stinging nettle Urtica dioica, it is striking to click on the map of the U.S. and see that only one state of the lower 48 does not have a record for stinging nettle and that is Arkansas.  Ah, hah, I thought, it will be in the recently published Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Arkansas. Not there either. OK, so maybe we don’t have the common stringing nettle Urtica dioica in Arkansas (or no botanist wanted to collect specimens of it), but we have plenty of wood nettle Laportea canadensis to make up for the absence of common stinging nettle. It serves the same purposes, as the root and leaves were used as a diuretic, spring green, and a fiber plant.

The wood nettle alarmed Thomas Jefferson. A Scottish immigrant, Charles Whitlaw (1771-1850) described variously as “celebrated botanist” and “an itinerant quack”, patented the use of our lowly wood nettle as a fiber plant in 1812, even coaxing a colleague to name it for himself — Urtica whitlowii.

Thomas Jefferson in a letter to William Thornton, Superintendent of the Patent Office, April 24, 1812,  “Your description of the plant, a substitute for hemp & flax for the exclusive use of which mr Whitlow has a patent, has thrown all the boys of our neighborhood into great alarm, lest they should not be allowed hereafter to make their trap strings from what they call Indian hemp, which, boys have been in the practice from time immemorial, of applying to their purposes. . . “

And so, just when you think you’ve discovered something new, you find that you only observe what other humans did before.

Adapted from “Eureka Nature” column in the 14 May 2014 Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper.

Published by

Steven Foster

Describing her first visit with Steven Foster in 1977, Harvard University botanist, Dr. Shiu Ying Hu (1908-2012), wrote, “Our conversation reminded me of something that Confucius said two thousand years ago. ‘In any company of three persons, there must be one who can be my teacher’. . . I found in Steven Foster a teacher who could share a profound knowledge of economic botany, particularly in the cultivation and uses of herbs.” In 1974, at age 17, Steven Foster, began his career at the Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shaker Community Herb Department —America's oldest herb business, dating to 1799. There he established three acres of production gardens and managed 1700 acres for the commercial harvest of botanicals. For forty-three years, Steven has photographed and researched herbs from the Amazon rainforest to the highlands of Vietnam. Foster has over 900 photo-illustrated articles published in a wide range of media. Steven also served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Botanical Council, and a Contributing Editor to the organization's journal, HerbalGram. Steven is the author, co-author and photographer of eighteen books, including the NEW 2014 Third Edition of A Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants: Eastern and Central North America (with James A. Duke), along with National Geographic’s Complete Guide to Medicinal Herbs (2010), and A Desk Reference to Nature’s Medicine (2006, with Rebecca Johnson), awarded a 2007 New York Public Library “Best of Reference.” He is senior author of three other Peterson Field Guides, including A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs (with Dr. James A. Duke), 1st & 2nd editions, 1990, 2000; A Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs with Dr. Christopher Hobbs, (2002); and A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants of North America (with Roger Caras, 1995). Other titles include Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West (with Prof. Yue Chongxi, 1992); Herbal Renaissance (1994); among others. Foster makes his home in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.