If you want to laugh and cry all at the same time, just get a conversation going or read a few blogs about folks who have had a run-in with Texas Bull Nettle! If it’s ever happened to you, I dare say you will have difficulty seeing any humor in your own experience with Bull Nettle. I developed a healthy respect at about 12 years old for any and all things called “nettle” when playing with a girlfriend in her front yard and she stepped into a patch of stinging nettles. To this day I can still recall her shock, her cries and feel her pain.
Texas Bull Nettle, Cnidoscolus texanus, is one of more than 70 spurge nettles worldwide, a perennial from the plant family Euphorbiceae, and also known as Bullnettle, Tread-softly, or Mala Mujer.
Mala Mujer means ‘bad woman’ and is said to come from a story about a guy getting drunk and his wife beating him with this plant! Another guy said that hell is a pit filled with Texas Bull nettle, and yet another called it Satan’s Dandelion! I’m sure if the Devil has a bouquet, Bull Nettle would be in it. Do you have a nickname or personal encounter story to tell about this Texas native?
Bull Nettle prefers loose/sandy soils, woods, old fields, dry pastures, flood plains, river banks and even dunes. It is found in Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas and is also native to the northern Mexican state Tamaulipas.
In Texas it is found primarily in eastern Texas and sporadically further west. My friend Eileen and I found several healthy specimens at the Southwest Preserve in Arlington nestled among the trees, mostly on sunny downslopes.
And like my girlfriend, Bull Nettle is usually encountered during summer months accidentally while hunting, playing golf, ATV’ing, camping, hiking, even mowing fields or yards. In days gone by it was the bane of cotton fields and I’m sure other cropland.
Nettle is not actually a weed; it is a herbaceous plant that contains histamine and other chemicals, including folic acid. These chemicals can cause mild to severe irritation of the skin, itching, burning and swelling, and these stiff bristly spines can penetrate clothing if enough pressure is present.
Be it animal or human, it delivers a toxin causing intense burning and the itching/burning can last for days. If the animal had oral contact they will usually salivate and/or rub their mouth.
Bull Nettle has a deep tap root, and grows 1 to 3 feet tall and 3 feet across. It blooms in early spring and last through mid-summer. Green seed pods will follow in about a month. It is fairly drought tolerant.
Each plant has separate male & female flowers together on the same inflorescence. The round white flowers consist of 5–7 white, petal-like sepals, no petals. The sepals are lobed, and covered with hispid hairs. Each flower has 10 or more stamens and a 3-lobed pistil.
Bull Nettle’s crinkly looking leaves actually make this a rather attractive “look don’t touch” plant. That’s why it should be important to know and recognize this native and realize the pain it can deliver. The leaves are simple, 2 to 4 inches long, and are alternately arranged on the stem, and each leaf is divided into 3 to 5 leaflets. If any part of the stem is broken milky sap will emerge. Some people are allergic to this as well as the stinging hairs.
The fruits are 3-4 seeded compartments in almost round prickly seedpods; when mature the outside skin shrivels and exposes the tough shell that holds the seed compartments.
Many folks say the seed and root are edible and the root can be boiled like potatoes or boiled twice like poke salad. I found many suggested medicinal uses, even tea, for nettle, but none for bull nettle.
Bull Nettle is attractive to honeybees/bees and butterflies, beetles, quail, doves and other songbirds, as well as other insects. The pollen is quite large and fragile and can be found in honey in areas where it grows. It seems that fragrance and pollen are most intense from dusk to dawn.
Remedies or what to do if you are ‘kissed’ by Bull Nettle – the number one most tried remedy seems to be urinating on it. They say if you’re suffering with the Bull Nettle sting, you’ll try anything! Some try tobacco and/or spit, but most recommend a mix of baking soda and water paste. Usually hikers carry some kind of insect sting-relief pads, wipes or liquid, and these may help. A little jumping up and down and moderate cussin’ might also help a little.
To remove the little needle-hairs, everyone recommends duct/masking tape.
An immediate alternative while you are in the same spot as your encounter is to look around and see if you can find curled dock or jewelweed. These plants often grow in close proximity to stinging nettles. Either of these plants may be rubbed on the affected area to soothe the itching or burning of the sting.
When you get back to civilization, you should wash the area with warm water and then apply an antihistamine cream to reduce swelling and redness.