May 22, 2015
By: Kathy Kinsey
So appropriately named, heartleaf nettle “fireweed” (Urtica chamaedryoides) is as unassuming as any other weed you may encounter on your property. But the side effects are truly painful and that is probably putting it mildly. I honestly feel like I learn a whole new language with every painful experience I encounter. But I garden and no weed or insect for that matter will ever put an end to that! I just wear gloves now when pulling weeds…..and I wear my shoes more now!
Fireweed has square stems and small green flowers. The hairs are found on these square stems, petioles and leaves which is basically the whole plant. When this plant is grabbed, your hand feels like it has been set on fire or placed in a nest of hornets. It is beyond anything I can describe to you. Honestly, I think it was worse than the Yellow Jacket encounter. But, there is a remedy that will help you get through this. Wash the area with a scrubby sponge and then you need to make a baking soda paste which is baking soda and a little bit of water, apply to the affected area and wrap a wet towel around it. This will keep the paste from drying out and the coolness of the towel will help with the pain as well. This pain will last for several hours so don’t get upset, just remain calm, say a few choice words and keep the paste coming. Benadryl would be good if you have it. If nothing more, it will help you relax as there is not much more you are going to be able to do. A word here – my pain lasted close to 14 hours – I kid you not….. If you have allergies, you may want to seek medical assistance from your physician.
The reason this sting is so painful is that it has stinging hairs that are easily embedded in the skin when pulling it barehanded. By doing this, you encourage venomous hairs to become embedded in the skin thus increasing the agony that is pending and it is a pain that will last for hours. The leaves resemble that of a strawberry plant but the plant itself does not. It has an upright growing manner and is usually found in bare areas, under fences and along tree lines where grasses are less dense and is commonly found in North and Central Florida. It’s not bad enough we have stinging insects, we also have stinging plants!
The plant itself does not look like it could cause all this pain and to this date, I have only found a few on my property. With horses next door, I feel extremely lucky. Though avoided by cattle, horses are more likely to browse on it causing stress symptoms such as weight loss, difficulty in swallowing and breathing for many days following the consumption of the plant. In rare cases, younger horses have died after rolling in fireweed because they have become over exposed to the toxins in the leaf hairs. So if you have horses, you may want to check your bare areas for this weed. Mowing it is not recommended as it will only grow outward with more leaves thus more hairs. Then by mowing, there is a chance you will spread the plant with the seeds that will adhere to the mower blades. Please check the IFAS website for the appropriate ways to rid your property of fireweed. It is comforting to know it usually disappears with the heat of summer, but it is out now, so be careful.
Fireweed – WOW – What a wicked plant but appropriately named. After my pain subsided that day, the plant was pulled and as the name suggests, was set on fire! But thanks to this wonderful experience, I now have plenty of gloves in my greenhouse and I will never ever pull another weed without them on.
Kathy Kinsey is a Master Gardener volunteer with the UF/Leon County Cooperative Extension Service. You may also email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov with any gardening questions you may have.