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Flora Fact: Tread Softly

Bullnettle’s a useful plant that packs a mean sting.

By Jason Singhurst

Most people raised in East Texas keep an eye out for Texas bullnettle. The sting is so memorable, you’ll try hard to never touch it again.

The first time I encountered Cnidoscolus texanus was during a field trip to the Angelina National Forest with the late Elray Nixon’s plant ecology class at Stephen F. Austin State University. We were walking through a majestic longleaf pine savanna near Boykin Springs with dense bracken fern in the understory to visit a pitcher plant bog. When I brushed my legs against a Texas bullnettle growing between some of the ferns, I found out quickly that this plant means business! The stinging sensation lasted for 30 to 45 minutes. (Some cases can take several days for the affected area to fully heal.)

bullnettle

Texas bullnettle, or tread-softly, is a showy white-flowered perennial herb, native to the U.S. and most abundant in the sandy or sandy loam soils in savannas, old fields, dry pastures, floodplains, riverbanks and even dunes. Stiff, bristly hairs release an allergenic toxin upon contact. The fruits are prickly three-seeded capsules; Rio Grande wild turkeys, mourning doves and humans consume the seeds.

If you’re brave enough to harvest those edible seeds, gather the capsules when they’re turning brown. Pluck them off the top of the plant with a pair of tongs and drop them into a large paper bag. Put them in a dry spot. As the fruit ripens, the capsules explode, releasing the seeds. Pick out the seeds and throw away the stinging capsules. A thin shell covers the seed, so crack the shell before you eat the tasty nuts within.

Texas bullnettle is a drought-tolerant plant and therefore is utilized in xeriscaping. This plant is also attractive to bees, butterflies and many other insects and birds.

Exposure to the plant by contact can result in intense pain, burning and itching. If not treated promptly, problems can range from skin infection to allergic reactions. The milky sap can also be an allergen to some people.

Even though Texas bullnettle should have a big, yellow, blinking caution sign to warn you, this Texas wildflower warrants respect, as it’s quite useful.

Common Name
Texas bullnettle

Scientific Name
Cnidoscolus texanus

Size
Up to 31 inches tall and 3 feet across

Did you know?
The plant is also colloquially known as mala mujer (Spanish for “wicked woman”), which gives a hint of its nastiness.

 

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