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.