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Views and opinions: Stinging nettles by any other name are still painful

“Itch weed” was the bane of my existence when I was a fun-loving, creek-hiking kid. And it has come back to haunt me in my late fifties, as I try to recapture my youth and the lovely times I remember spending at the creek.

You probably know what I’m talking about – stinging nettles, also called common nettles. We called it itch weed when I was growing up. I didn’t even know it had another name until much later in life.

For a kid in the Midwest who loved creeks, itch weed was a way of life, as the plant loves to grow near water. Itch weed was the first plant I learned to identify so I could avoid it. Most people first learn of the plant when they walk through it without realizing, and suddenly find their legs and arms burning up; the pain can be intense.

The stinging nettle is well-suited to causing pain in several ways. First, the plant has hollow, stinging hairs on the leaves and stems, which act like hypodermic needles and inject histamine into you. The hairs come off when touched, so you are taking them with you in your skin – you are impaled by a needle containing chemicals such as histamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, leukotrienes, and moroidin.

If you rub the irritant (and it is difficult not to), you push it deeper into your skin and spread the chemical process.

I pondered itch weed this week because I have a favorite place I like to take my dogs to swim along the Little Blue River. There is a beautiful sandbar and a fallen tree that is still alive, where I can sit and comfortably read my book while the dogs play in the creek.

I have always loved creek-hiking and I don’t let being in my late fifties stop me from the joy of splashing and running in water; however, to get to this lovely spot, I have to go through 150 feet of stinging nettles. Had I been smart, I would have marked the shortest route from the edge of a field to my sandbar when it was winter and started clearing a path then. Now the plant is shoulder-height.

There are also wild rose bushes hidden in the nettles, causing even more issues to getting from the edge of a field to the beautiful creekside. Add that it was 95 degrees, and you get the picture of pure misery.

I tried going through a month ago and ended up running the last few feet and getting into the creek, and just falling backward into the water and letting the creek flow over me until the itching stopped. This time I brought along a weed-cutting tool. I was determined I was going to make a path through this stuff.

It was a bit daunting seeing the plants were now up to my shoulders. Plus, my dogs kept getting in the way and I was terrified I was going to end up slicing into them. I did manage to clear a path through, but by the time I got to the creek I was miserable and ended up flat out in the creek again, letting the water run over me.

This does concern my youngest dog, who then feels the need to stand over me and lick my face. I just hope no one has game cameras out in this area, as I can’t imagine what that person would think upon reviewing their footage.

I did spend an enjoyable two hours at the creek playing in the water or reading my book while the dogs played. There was a brief moment of panic in the end when I discovered I could not find my glasses. It turned out Falcon had buried them in a sand pit he was digging.

Sadly, my path wasn’t as clear as I thought it would be once I was ready to go home. I also wanted to find a shorter way back to the field. So, I cleared a new path. I ended up still getting stung a lot.

I contemplated cutting some jewel weed to help with the itching. Jewel weed often grows in the same areas as stinging nettles and its sap definitely calms the itching – however, I was hot and miserable, and decided I just wanted to hike back to the car as quickly as possible, rush home, and take a long shower.

It turns out creek-hiking sounds a lot more fun when I am sitting on my couch in the air-conditioned living room than it actually is on a 95-degree day, although I am sure I will go back again. I just need to do a better job of flagging my path in and out, and spending time clearing it.