A Perfect Relationship

Nettles and Dock Leaves

Today has been a lovely warm, sunny day here in the UK – at least in the small part of it where I live in Nottinghamshire. While I was out on my walk this morning, I was reminded of a couple of photos I took last week. I was actually taking photos of the local cereal crops (another post I need to do!) when I spotted clumps of stinging nettles and, of course, growing alongside them were clumps of dock leaves.

As children we grow up knowing that if we get stung by a nasty old nettle, we immediately get a dock leaf and rub it on the affected area, which by now will have started coming up in horrid little lumps and not feel very nice at all. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stung by nettles – even fallen into a patch or two as a child. And thank goodness for the good old dock leaf!

1200px-Nettle_Sting

A large nettle sting. Ouch. Author: Wilbysuffolk. Creative Commons

Well, today I started thinking about three things: exactly why do nettles sting in the first place, why are dock leaves the perfect antidote for the sting and how come these two plants are always found growing together anyway?

Like many of us, I knew a little about this, and thought I’d look up a bit more once I got home. So here it is.

Most of us will have guessed that nettles contain some kind of chemical that seriously irritates the skin. We may also have thought that dock leaves contain another chemical which, when released as the leaf is crushed by being rubbed against the skin, will neutralise the painful sting of the nettle – an idea that is no longer accepted (as mentioned later on).

Dock Leaves

But, to gain any relief from the dock leaf, old folk lore tells us we should cite this rhyme during the rubbing process. (Personally. I don’t think this will help at all, but you’re welcome to try for yourself! Lol)

Nettle in, Dock
Dock in, Nettle out
Dock rub, Nettle out

The stinging nettle is native to Europe, Asia, northern North Africa and western North America. It has also been introduced elsewhere due to its many beneficial uses, which I won’t go into in this post. It is an herbaceous perennial, meaning that it grows back in the same areas year after year. As for why nettles sting, chemists aren’t exactly sure which chemicals are in the venom, but histamine, acetylchlorine and serotonin are present, and possibly formic acid.

Brennnessel_1

Brennnessel_1 (Species: Urtica dioica.) Creative Commons

Nettle leaves are covered in tiny needle-like hairs called trichomes. When we brush against them them, they break off and penetrate the skin, releasing a cocktail of chemicals into the base of the hair, so causing the sting:

Urtica_dioica38_ies

Urtica dioica close-up. Author: Frank Vincentz. Creative Commons

It stands to reason, then, that something containing an alkaline substance would neutralise the effect of the sting. It was previously thought that dock leaves worked for that very reason but now we know there is no scientific evidence that they work by neutralising acids. Dock leaves are not alkaline, as proven by simple Litmus tests.

Dock leaves may soothe nettle stings for a few other reasons. Firstly, simply by rubbing the dock leaf over the sting we spread the acid over a bigger area which reduces its effects. Secondly, rubbing the area releases sap from the leaf, which also produces a soothing effect. Thirdly, it is thought that actually rubbing the area causes other nerves to lessen the signals of the pain-sensing nerves, which may reduce the pain sensation further.

However, there are some species of dock leaf that don’t work, including yellow dock and red dock. This is yellow, or crispy dock:

Rumex_crispus_vallee-de-grace-amiens_80_12062007_3

A plant of the Rumex crispus showing the curled edges of the leaves. Author: Oliver Prichard. Creative Commons

Unfortunately, I can’t find any copyright-free images of red dock to show so here’s a link to Google images: Red Dock

Dock leaves have helped many generations of people to counter the effects of nettle stings, and there is little doubt that they do. But it is now thought possible that rubbing the skin with any kind of leaf will have the same effect.

In the past, dock leaves were often called Butter Dock, simply because farm-made butter was wrapped in long, broad leaves to keep it cool while it was being transported to market. In Chapter 8 of her novel, Adam Bede, published in 1859, George Eliot refers to this through the words of Mrs Poysner:

” Molly,” she said, rather languidly, “just run out and get me a bunch of dock leaves; the butter’s ready to pack now”.

As for my last question about why nettles and dock leaves always grow together, it seems to be just a coincidence. Both plants are early colonisers and will quickly move in and spread in any area of waste or neglected ground.

To finish, here’s the first few lines of a poem by William Barnes (!801-1886). Note how he makes use of that odd little rhyme I quoted above:

Dock Leaves

The dock-leaves that do spread so wide
Up yonder zunny bank’s green zide,
Do bring to mind what we did do
At plaÿ wi’ dock-leaves years agoo:
How we,–when nettles had a-stung
Our little hands, when we wer young,–
Did rub em wi’ a dock, an’ zing
“_Out nettl’, in dock. In dock, out sting._”

*

Nettle tea, just one of the many, varied uses of nettles:

shutterstock_59082529

References:

Ask a Guru:  http://gurumagazine.org/askaguru/why-do-dock-leaves-cure-nettle-stings/

http://herbs-treatandtaste.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/dock-leaf-antidote-for-nettle-stings.html

Mail Online: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3112201/Why-stinging-nettles-hurt-Chemist-shows-tiny-hairs-inject-venom-produce-pain-dock-leaves-WON-T-help.html

About milliethom

I am a reader and writer of historical fiction with a keen interest in the Earth's history and all it involves, both physically and socially. I like nothing better than to be outdoors, especially in faraway places, and baking is something I do when my eyes need respite from my computer screen.
This entry was posted in Incidental and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to A Perfect Relationship

  1. Springtime in Romania means that fresh nettles can be found in forrests and we just love cooking with them. By far, our favourite dishes are nettle soup and a sort of dip that can be eaten with bread. They both taste divine and are nutritious and healthy.
    Mum is a great nettle picker, she rarely gets to experience their ouchie sting, l don’t know how she does it tough 😊

    • milliethom says:

      Yes, I looked up lots of different recipes using nettles, Daniela. Nettle soup seems to many people’s favourite. I also saw a German recipe for a dip, like the one you describe. Nettles are a really healthy food and it’s a pity we don’t make more of them in England. There are so many other uses for nettles, too, and I had originally intended to include them in this post – but it would have made it far too long.
      Thank you for telling me all about Romania, Daniela. Your mum has evidently developed a very clever technique of how not to get stung! 😀

  2. Joy Pixley says:

    Interesting! I had never heard about rubbing with dock leaves for nettle stings; I wonder if dock leaves don’t grow in Michigan, or if we called them something else. Your post inspired me to look up more about nettles. I had no idea people made textiles from them! I knew about nettle tea, but not that you could use the leaves for pesto and other foods. Hm, I’m going to have to figure out where in Eneana they do that…

  3. milliethom says:

    From what I read, dock leaves grow in the west of North America, which doesn’t include Michigan, if my geography is correct. So I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of them, Joy. They are used a fair bit in fabric making and it all looks very interesting stuff! I’m sure that you could make good use of that in Eneana. Other than wool or flax, medieval communities could well have used the fibrous nettles, as cotton and silk didn’t grow in north-western Europe. But even if you’ve set Eneana somewhere with a warme.climate, nettles could still grow there. They grow in North Africa, after all. I may do a second post about uses of nettles. It’s interesting but would have made this post far too long. Thanks for the interesting comment. 😀

  4. I’ve heard of stinging nettles but never saw them or experienced a sting. Looking at that photo I’ll stay away from them. That looks horrible.

    • milliethom says:

      You’re lucky not to have nettles in your part of the US. The sting is quite nasty, but it soon lessens and just becomes itchy. Dock leaves do really work, for whatever reason. Nettles are used in a lot of recipes and the nutritional value is high. I’m not sure I’d like the job of collecting them, though. 😦 Nettle tea and nettle soup are probably the best known recipes. Thanks, Suzanne.

  5. In the Florida Keys, we have the poisonwood tree, which also causes blisters and rash. You can always find a gumbo limbo growing nearby which provides the antidote. In the Smoky Mountains (where Big Creek is) jewelweed is the antidote for poison ivy rash. I think there are other examples of this phenomenon, but these are the two that I am familiar with. It is fascinating that these poison/antidote plants grow together. I wonder how that came about and if there is any benefit to the plants themselves. I never heard of dock, but now have looked it up. Interesting post, as usual.

    • milliethom says:

      It always amazes me, too, to hear of so many natural antidotes to nature’s poisons, as well as the fact that they do grow so close to each other. Your examples are really interesting. I’ve heard of poison Ivy, although it doesn’t grow in the UK. I’ve never heard of the poisonwood tree, so I’ll have to look that one up. As for poisonous plants and their antidotes growing together, it still seems a bit of a mystery. According to one of the sources I read about nettles and dock, it’s simply a coincidence as they’re both early colonisers.But perhaps that explanation needs more investigation.
      Thanks, Dinata. Lovely to hear from you.

  6. Great information. I am not familiar to the nettle here, but it certainly sounds fascinating. I know nettle as in the tea, is supposed to be loaded with nutrients ! Hope you are well, and have a great weekend.

    • milliethom says:

      No. it seems that nettles only grow in the northern parts of Africa, and you’re a long way from there, Lynne. Nettles are certainly full of nutrients, as you say, and have been used all over Europe – and probably other areas, too – for centuries. The Vikings I write about made nettle soup. Some nettle dips are said to be really delicious. But as they don’t sell nettles at the market or in supermarkets, I suppose you’d have to collect them yourself – and that part, I don’t fancy at all! 🙂

  7. draliman says:

    It’s ‘cos dock leaves are magical. Obviously scientists are unable to measure that 🙂
    It’s years since I last had a nettle sting. I guess I’m more careful that I was as a kid (and I rarely play in meadows any more!).

    • milliethom says:

      I’m kicking myself now for not thinking of that obvious answer! 🙂 It makes sense, doesn’t it? Fairies simply sprinkle dock leaves with their magic dust. Who needs scientists to interfere?
      I still get stung quite often down our lanes, usually on my hands or arms. There are really tall ones around the place and when I step onto the verges out of the way of cars, they take great delight in attacking me. They can even sting through clothing, if the material is fine really and thin.
      You should play in meadows from time to time, Ali. However will you meet the fairies, if you don’t? 🙂

  8. We get nettles here too. Not many in gardens but they are more in the rural areas. Interesting information.

    • milliethom says:

      Yes, nettles are only in gardens here that have been neglected, Ineke. Most grow down the lanes and in the meadows. But they do grow profusely, often in huge patches, so it’s not very pleasant to fall into one, as our grandson, Kieran did when he was about four. He was covered in lumps – legs, arms, face. Poor lad. Nettles are interesting, and have lots of environmental benefits as well as nutritional ones.
      Thanks, Ineke. Hope you are well. 🙂

      • Have not seen much of them here. Never came across them in South Africa. Sounds that they are well used. I am full steam doing before + after school care- no time for writing.
        Hope you are still enjoying your last summer days! Ours are on the way.

  9. irinadim says:

    Very interesting post, Millie. I was often a victim of the Stinging Nettle back home in Slovenia, but never knew of the dock plant, although if it’s a common weed in England, it should also grow on the Continent. But I’m quite sure dock grows in my garden as I just found on Google that Curly dock is invasive in North America, South America, New Zealand and Australia, and is good forage for humans, though such is not the case for livestock. I’ll be looking for this weed and hopefully find it so I can cook up a storm for dinner! 🙂

    • milliethom says:

      Dock is common throughout Europe, as far as I know Irina, so I imagine it would have been growing in Slovenia, especially as there are stinging nettles there. I think curly dock and yellow/crispy dock are the same plant, so perhaps you have other dock species, too.
      I’ve never heard of anyone cooking dock leaves, but nettles are quite popular across Europe for a variety of dishes. Nettle soup is very well known, as is nettle tea, but there are lots of other recipes for nettles – dips, for example.
      I hope the winter down there isn’t getting you down, although I know you don’t like the extreme heat of your summers. I also hope your writing is doing well. Winter’s a good time for writing. Take care, Millie. 🙂

      • irinadim says:

        I’m back after a long time and I’ve finally posted something today. I read on Google somewhere that dock is edible and full of nutrients. I might be wrong, should check it out again. Today is a lovely sunny day, cold, but as you already know, I like it. The writing about my father and my early life has stalled. Must go back to it as soon as possible while memories are still available in my mind. Hope you are enjoying summer, Millie. Cheers 🙂 Irina.

      • milliethom says:

        Welcome back, Irina -alhough, I’ve not been on my blog much either, until the last few weeks. Sometimes we need to step back and take time to do do other things, or just for ourselves. I hope you do continue to write about your father. I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read so far. I’ll check your new post as soon as I can.
        I’ll have to check up on the uses of dock, too. Although I’ve never seen any recipes for it, there may well be some about. Nettle recipes are just so well known. Our summer has been very changeable this year – I mean, even more so than usual! The last few days have been ridiculously windy in this area, and we’ve had some lovely sunny days but only a few at a time. We soon go back to rain. Who’d want to live in areas of a maritime climate, I ask? Take care. 🙂

      • irinadim says:

        Thanks for encouragement to continue writing about my father. Maritime climate in your part of the world seems more problematic than in Australia. 🙂

      • milliethom says:

        It makes every day a surprise. Apart from a few exceptional years, we rarely have consistently hot weather (or freezing weather) for long. We get an awful lot of rain, due to the prevailing south-westerly winds coming over the Atlantic, and kindly dropping their load on us. It’s why Ireland is called the Emerald Isle, too. Lots of rain makes nice green grass and trees. There’s an old hymn which includes a line about England’s ‘Green and pleasant land’, too.

      • irinadim says:

        When I see on TV the green landscape of England and Ireland I long to be there on a long hike.

      • milliethom says:

        Yes, it’s perfect here for hiking, Irina, but we must still remember to pack a cagoule, just in case. 🙂

  10. Singledust says:

    How long does it take to settle down after applying the dock? It looks really nasty. Hope you are better now. Was interesting reading about the cure.

    • milliethom says:

      Dock leaves ease the awful stinging but the lumps can take a day or two to go down. I find nettle stings more of an irritation than being really sore. The picture isn’t of me, Singledust. It’s a Wikipedia image I used just to show the rash caused by nettles. It’s a good picture. I know, because I’ve had many nettle stings in my time. Lol Thank you for commenting! 🙂

  11. Had the same experience growing up with nettles and dock here in Arkansas, milliethom.

    • milliethom says:

      Then it seems we were both children who loved to run free outdoors. That’s what we did in those days, though, wasn’t it – played out with our friends enjoying not being cooped up in the house. I suppose I got used to being stung so often that I hardly noticed it. But, I knew all about using dock leaves from a very early age. Thank you Jack.

  12. oh what a wonderfully informative post. I walked into a bunch of nettles in Scotland last trip but didn’t know about Dock! I’m sure the ryhme helps!

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you, Cybele. It’s a great pity you didn’t know about dock leaves. There must have been some growing very close by – there always are. Most people agree that dock leaves really do work, although one source I read suggested it could be down to the placebo effect. Who knows? But they’ve always eased the sting for me, and I’ve had plenty of them! Next time you’re over in Scotland, you’ll have to look out for them. I’m going to try the rhyme out myself, too. 🙂

  13. PS: *rhyme!! I’m getting addled with the packing and moving!

    • milliethom says:

      It must be very exciting in your house. I absolutely love moving! We’ve been in the same house now for nine years, so it’s time for a change. I hope you’re moving to somewhere wonderful, where you can write about Selkies and such like to your heart’s content. 🙂

      • love to move – hate to pack!!! such chaos lately! Thanks so much for your enthusiasm! It will have to be Naiads as I’m closer to the lake now than the seashore! 😀

  14. inesephoto says:

    Love this post! It brought back many childhood memories 🙂 Nettle is such a wonderful herb.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s