Nettled by Nature

Nascent Bull Nettle buds

Another name for Texas Bull-nettle (Cnidoscolus texanus) is ‘Tread Softly,’ and there’s no question that treading softly and carefully is good advice if Bull-nettle’s in the neighborhood. The inattentive or inexperienced risk discovering why the plant sometimes is called Mala Mujer, or ‘bad woman.’ Its stem, branches, leaves, and seed pods are covered in stinging hairs; when the hairs come into contact with human skin, the results can include intense pain, burning, itching, or cellulitis.

Several years ago, entranced by the sight of a field of white prickly poppies and eager to photograph them, I met my first bull-nettle by sitting on one. I don’t recommend the experience, any more than I recommend kneeling in a spot where the highway department has mowed them down, leaving invisible hairs strewn across the land.

A member of the Spurge family, bull-nettles produce several stems from a single taproot; the plant thrives even in the hottest and driest parts of the summer. Its lovely flowers, five to seven white, petal-like sepals surrounding ten or more stamens and a three-lobed pistil, bloom from early March through July across a large swath of the state.

Aransas Wildlife Refuge

Oddly, the stinging hairs don’t seems to bother the plant’s many non-human visitors. Here, a common green bottle fly (Lucilia spp.) pauses on bull-nettle flowers mixed with colorful Indian Blankets.

Willow City Loop, Fredericksburg

A Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) sips nectar, heedless of the hairs.

El Capote Ranch ~ Guadalupe County

Perhaps sensing an opportunity for camouflage, this Green Lynx Spider (Peucetia viridans) holds its hairy legs next to the plant’s hairs, while it assumes its characteristic prey-catching posture and awaits its next meal.

Tres Palacios Bay

The number and variety of creatures that can be found on and around the Bull-nettles is remarkable. Just don’t get too close while admiring them!


Comments always are welcome.

83 thoughts on “Nettled by Nature

    1. Mala Mujer seems more descriptive to me than sexist: perfectly suited to a plant whose lovely flowers belie its ability to cause discomfort. It’s interesting to ponder the fact that Bull-nettle bears both male and female flowers on the same plant. Perhaps the Spanish speakers who encountered it knew that it would take a mala mujer to stand up to the plant’s bullishness.

        1. Oh, heavens! There’s no need for an apology. There are times when I think this site ought to be called “Thinkos-R-Us.” I’ve had more than a few myself, although my specialties are erroneously doubled consonants and inattention to closing html tags. The beauty of a ‘think-o’ is the way it can open a path to something that otherwise wouldn’t have been considered. I certainly never thought of Goya while I was writing the post!

    2. Derrick: As someone who often enough commits thinkos myself, I’m guessing that’s what happened in your comment. As you went to type mala mujer, your mind would have been thinking ahead to the second word while you were still typing the first, so the j in mujer would have gotten carried forward and replaced the l in mala mujer.

      Interestingly, the word maja exists in Spanish. It’s the female of majo. Wikipedia describes both as “people from the lower classes of Spanish society, especially in Madrid, who distinguished themselves by their elaborate outfits and sense of style in dress and manners, as well as by their cheeky behavior. They flourished from the late 18th to early 19th century, and to some extent later. Majos and majas were one of the favorite subjects of some 19th-century Spanish painters.”

      Speaking of which, Goya did a famous pair of paintings of a maja.

        1. Sure thing. As for the sexism you suspected in mala mujer, it’s possible. On the other hand, the Spanish words planta ‘plant’ and flor ‘flower’ are both of feminine gender, so maybe nothing more than grammar’s involved. If you”d like to balance that name, you can listen to the song “Mal Hombre,” popularized by Lydia Mendoza.

          1. I had an interesting conversation at work this morning with a couple of native Spanish speakers on the dock. It surprised me to learn that the use of ‘bad’ to mean ‘good’ is common for them, too. To say, for example, that a boat, a band, or a motorcycle is ‘bad’ simply means that the boat is fast, the band puts on a good show, and the motorcyle’s tricked out. A ‘bad dude’ may be a villain like the subject of Mal Hombre, or he may be a guy who’s so competent he can do anything that needs doing.

            Obviously the common name of the plant doesn’t carry that kind of meaning, but it was interesting to find the same idiom in Spanish. It reminded me of the surfing term — bitchin’ — that was so common in California back in the 70s. There’s a neat audio Q&A about it here.

            1. I wonder how much of the bad-for-good usage you found among those native Spanish speakers came from English or was enhanced by contact with English. The Spanish spoken here has been heavily influenced by English, as when a truck becomes a troca.

  1. Two additional things about the beautiful flowers: 1) Unlike the other parts of the plant that your pictures reveal, the flowers aren’t covered with pain-inflicting needles. 2) The flowers have a mild but quite pleasant fragrance; just make sure you’re well-balanced when you lean in close enough to sniff one.

    I wonder if the fly, butterfly, and spider are so light in weight that even if they did touch one of the needle tips it wouldn’t release its toxin.

    1. Somewhere, I read that the hairs on the plant function much like a hypodermic needle; pressure causes certain internal changes that send the toxin upward. So, your supposition about the lightweight insects makes perfect sense.

      I’ve never noticed the flowers’ fragrance, but I’ll put that on my “to be explored” list for next year. As for the absence of those stinging hairs on the flowers, it’s a wise plant that accomodates pollinators.

    2. Speaking of fragrance, when I looked to see if Eliza Griffin Johnston had included bull-nettle in her watercolors, I found she had, and she included this note: “Nettle, a flower resembling Jasmine, with the same odour, covered with nettles, grows equally well in poor as rich soil, blooms from April till November. Perennial and said to have a very large tuberous root.”

      The next time I detect jasmine on the air in an area where no jasmine seems to exist, I’ll look to see if nettles are around.

      1. I’ve never come across a bull nettle flower with a fragrance strong enough for me to detect it at a distance. I’ve always had to lean my nose in close to smell the aroma. Maybe someone with a keener sense of smell would do better.

  2. I am pretty sure that I have not had personal experience with Bull Nettle, but I can attest to the severe discomfort caused by other stinging nettles. The mere name, “Bull Nettle” makes it sound especially aggressive. The beautiful flowers have perhaps lured many an unsuspecting admirer a little too close!

    1. Once the plant has grown, it’s fairly easy to recognize, even without its flowers. But learning to spot emerging leaves is important, since even the young plants can cause equal distress. Bull-nettle’s confined to the south, but accounts of the various stinging nettles in your area make them sound just as bothersome. It’s said that the seeds of this plant are quite tasty, but the effort needed to collect and roast them is more than I’m willing to put forth.

  3. Despite their pretty flowers, I’m glad that we just have ordinary nettles rather than these! They sound a bit too fierce and a nasty trap for flower-admirers!

    1. On the other hand, it only takes one encounter for the plant to make its point: it wants to be left alone. I did read an account of a woman who intentionally planted them beneath some of her windows to deter intruders. It sounded silly at first, but there’s no question that encountering a patch of these could slow someone down.

    1. You’re right about those legs; they do tend toward transparency. Given the spider’s size and their tendency to lurk around waiting for prey, they can be easy to spot, and easier than many to photograph.

    1. As I mentioned to Derrick, mala mujer seems perfectly descriptive to me. I’ve never thought of it as sexist. Apparently some Portuguese view the plant in the same way as the Spanish. Someone from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil wrote in a forum that their common name means “spiny kiss.” That’s fairly descriptive, too!

        1. That thread wtih Derrick got expanded, and I think you’ll find it intriguing, given your interest in words. Not only that, the audio clip I linked mentioned the use of ‘wicked’ as a term of approval: a reversal in meaning from bad to good. I believe I might have come across ‘wicked’ in your blog!

          1. Yes, wicked often means “good” or “excellent” in Maine. However, when describing a woman (or a man!) it would mean quite the opposite. Not a compliment, that’s for sure. At least in Maine.

            1. There was that Wicked Witch of the West! In retrospect, it seems my mother took a little too much pleasure in bring up her name from time to time — We knew about ‘wicked’ in that nasty sense, too. I suspect the Wizard of Oz had to be my introduction to that reality.

    1. It was memorable, that’s for sure. In fact, it was so memorable I can tell you exactly where it happened: on the southwest corner of the intersection of FM 1693 and St. Hwy 71, just north of Garwood. The prickly poppy photos were great, though.

  4. Ouch! What a rude introduction to this plant for you! It reminds me of an experience I had in Zambia (it’s #9 on the list here).

    I enjoyed the photos though, and learning about the plant. My favorite photo is the one with the spider!

    1. Now, that’s a tale that made me quiver. In Liberia we had some different, equally nasty parasites. Clean water’s such a blessing! It does look like your larvae were easier to get out than bull nettle hairs, though. I carry duct tape in the car now, just in case. That seems to be the recommended method for getting them out — just like cactus glochids.

      Isn’t that spider great? Here’s a different view of one. The spider isn’t quite as clear, but I really like the colors.

  5. You are doing a fabulous job with not just the flowers but the insects…that green lynx spider is not one I have ever heard of before. Interesting example .Most of my insects caught on flowers seem to get blurred out by unpredictable wind episodes. Generally reliably calm days involve sweltering heat and I confess to a strong proclivity to heat avoidance these days. We certainly have plenty of insects here in Florida to go with our plentiful amount of lizards.

    1. The green lynx spider’s fairly common here. It really is a cutie; I can’t help talking to them when I come across one. Here’s another view of one. They do blend in.

      You’re not the only one trying to avoid the heat. I’ve not been out running the country on weekends recently; I get my fill of the heat at work during the week, and am inclined to stay in when I get the chance. We do have some rain and cooler temperatures coming, but unfortunately it may turn into rain-with-a-name. If it stays Cat 3 or below, I’ll stay put. I’m just not up for the hassle of evacuating.

      The lizards around here — Anoles, geckos, and such — have been slow in appearing this year, but they’re suddenly everywhere. The working theory seems to be that the February freeze got their schedule out of whack. I’ve seen all sizes the past two weeks — and fewer mosquitoes!

  6. Eeek! Don’t think I’d want to be anywhere near that thing with its prickles! (Especially if Monkey were with me — his long coat would be covered in those spiny hairs, and I’d play heck brushing them all out!) Thanks for showing me what NOT to approach, Linda.

    1. I suspect Monkey would give the plant a wide berth, Debbie. One sniff would put a few spines in his nose, and that would be the end of that. Livestock leave them alone, and the deer avoid them, too. In fact, it seems as though the insects are the only things that dare to approach them, and they do it very, very carefully!

    1. The flowers are pretty. I actually saw a photo of a wrist corsage made of the flowers. I’m not sure why someone would go to that trouble, but it certainly was unusual.

    1. In the process of browsing around, I came across some (painfully) entertaining accounts of people’s first encounters with the plants, as well as some ways of dealing with the sting and the pain. It was interesting to learn that both fire ants and nettles cause our pain through the use of formic acid. When I knelt on the invisible nettle hairs that were left after mowing, I thought for some time that I’d been bitten by fire ants. The red spots looked and felt exactly the same — and then I realized the pain wasn’t receding like it does with the ants.

      I’m sure you’re keeping an eye on the Gulf. Here’s hoping whatever forms leaves us both in peace.

        1. There won’t be any issues for us except for higher tides and rip currents. We have some rain in the forecast, but it’s essentially unrelated to Ida. She may pull in some extra humidity, but the farther east she travels, the fewer effects we’ll have.

  7. Ooh! Ouch! Sitting on a bull nettle! Lovely little flowers though and such a good wildlife plant, but keep yer distance!! Really great shots, Linda.

    1. I think we call that ‘experiential learning,’ Tina! To be honest, I was afraid I’d been bitten by some critter, and it took me a few minutes to find the source of the pain. Even when I spotted the nettle, I wasn’t completely sure that was it. Live and learn, as they say.

  8. As someone who has experienced our Stinging Nettles-Urtica dioica, which are apparently not as nettley as yours, I would still not want to sit or kneel on one or a bunch. Ours raises painful white welts that last a bit too long. Cold water helps. I guess the secret is to be very tiny and be sure to plop down on the bloom only which is not nearly as large and lovely as you have shown your Bull Nettle to be.

    1. There’s another interesting difference between our nettles. The leaves of stinging nettle are edible, and often are used for teas, but only the seeds and taproot of bull nettle are considered edible. All of the foraging sites make clear that bull nettle leaves are not to be consumed. Personally, I wouldn’t mess with the seeds, either: no matter how tasty they are. Like prickly pear tunas, some things are more trouble than they’re worth.

      I did read on a reliable foraging site that nettle sting can be eased by rubbing curly dock, plantain, or other astringent leaves on the area.

      1. There are a few mushrooms that are basically toxic, some fatally so as you know, but with multiple boilings are edible with caution. Just not worth it just like you mention with nettles. I guess some folks are so enthusiastic about foraging they will go to lengths.

        Good to know about curly dock. We have it growing in the garden as well as stinging nettle. I wonder….spotted touch me not is a “cure” for poison ivy rash and they often grow in the same locations. Maybe that is the case with curly dock and stinging nettles. Time for some research.

      2. I can confirm about (a spit-poultice of) Plantain being soothing after encounters with Urtica (and also Poison Ivy). The juice from Jewelweed (aka Touch-Me-Not) stems is also good for neutralisation (lovely for soothing and cooling).

        1. I don’t forage so eating spotted touch-me-not isn’t an issue. We have a lot of it in the yard but even at that have not tried using it to soothe PI rash which sadly we also have in the yard. Thanks for sharing that link. The seed pods are fun as projectiles. :)

    1. One of my favorite wildflower books, published in 1900, focuses not only on the plants but also on the insects that surround them. It’s a fascinating exploration of the relationship. As so often happens, we’re catching up with the past. The book, Nature’s Garden: An Aid to Knowledge of our Wild Flowers and their Insect Visitors by Neltje Blanchan, has been reprinted and is available in paperback.

    1. Getting too close to these would be akin to falling into Brer Rabbit’s briar patch — or worse. Still, after the week of being nettled you’ve had, I suspect an encounter with the plant would be preferable.

  9. Beautiful but not something I want to run into, especially how they are liked by such big spiders.

    1. To be honest, those green lynx spiders are among the shyest and most reticent I’ve come across. It seems as though the ones who think they’re well camouflaged will stay put, but if they’re out in the open, they usually run and hide behind a stem or under a leaf. They can make short work of another insect, but they’re considered harmless to humans, and rarely bite. In any case, you don’t have to worry about coming across one, because they’re found in more southern parts of the country.

  10. This plant’s extremely well-armed like our own tree nettle Urtica ferox with very similar defense. It is also the main food for our own red admiral butterfly larvae which get the benefit of both food and protection from the leaves. We tread very carefully if we spot these in the bush, they’re absolute horrors!

    1. We have a few Urtica species here, too. Some, like U. chamaedryoides are favored by serious foragers, but bull-nettle needs to be left to the insects: at least, as far as food is concerned. I laughed at a comment on this foraging page: “These plants are easy to identify by their hairy, square stems and the burning sensation they cause when grabbed with the bare hand. Sidenote: don’t grab them with your bare hand, it really hurts!”

    1. I suppose in the end (!) it was the price of impulsiveness. Still, no real harm was done, and at least I can recognize the plant now. I do enjoy seeing the various insects that visit, but I realized over the past few days that I have no photos of bees or hoverflies visiting, and don’t remember seeing them. Interesting.

    1. But at least I learned. I think in a forced choice I’d still take the bull-nettle over fire ants. The sting (and other effects) of the ants last much longer.

  11. I’m all too familiar with nettle (ow!), though not this species. The one I know has a lingering sting that last an hour or two. Pretty flowers, though, and lots of fine insect portraits. Red Admiral uses nettle as the food plant for its caterpillars. You might see a female laying an egg on one.

    1. I was surprised to learn that both fire ants and this plant utilize formic acid to launch their attacks. I never saw a caterpillar on the bull-nettles, but there were plenty of them for the butterflies this year. After the freeze, certain plants seemed to really thrive, and this was one. Despite the prickles, a field filled with their flowers is lovely.

      1. Absolutely! Between the ‘invisibility’ of the legs themselves and the strong, black lines of those hairs cutting across them, the eye is quite distracted from seeing their outline (at least mine is, anyway; )

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