Encounters of the itchy kind: Learning about Maine’s toxic plants the hard way

Pushing aside tall leafy plants with our forearms, we waded through the underbrush, picking up our knees to prevent our legs from becoming tangled.

Innocent vegetation? Think again.

Innocent vegetation? Think again.

Crap. Another bug bite, I thought as my shin began to itch. Or was it my thigh? My left knee? Both of my legs were itching. No. They were on fire!

“Um, Derek?” I called out to my boyfriend hiking in front of me.

“Yeah?” he replied.

“Are your legs itching?”


“Walk faster,” I said, starting to panic.

The itch had magnified to a maddening burning sensation by the time we emerged from the vegetation to climb a hill shaded by evergreens.

“What the heck?” I said as we turned to face each other on the trail. “Is it the plants?”

“Look at your legs,” Derek said, pointing at my bare knees and shins, which were covered with groups of tiny welts.

Right after I came out of the stinging nettle bushes. The rash got a bit worse, but you get the idea.

Right after I came out of the stinging nettle bushes. The rash got a bit worse, but you get the idea.

While Derek was also wearing shorts, he hadn’t developed the rash. Nonetheless, his legs itched like crazy, he said, pulling a water bottle out of his pack and dousing his legs. As I took the bottle from him to pour water over my burning legs and arms, I noticed my hands were shaking.

The water instantly soothed my skin, but as my it dried, the itch slowly returned. It took about 15 minutes for the sensation to subside entirely, and by then, we were back at the trailhead of the Connor Mill Trail in Unity, sitting on a bench, defeated.

Our dog Oreo, who we had with us on leash, seemed to be fine. No scratching and no rash. Lucky pup.

Before heading to another trail in Unity (of which there are several), we decided to backtrack and take some photos of the plants we suspected were the cause of our pain. In comparing these photos to plant guides later, I found that we had stumbled upon a patch of stinging nettle, latin name Urtica dioica, which indeed can cause extreme itching or stinging, as its name implies.

A close-up of the stinging nettle we ran into.

A close-up of the stinging nettle we ran into.

The plants are covered with small hairs that release toxins.

“Each hair is made up of a narrow, tapering, closed cell and a sac-like base filled with fluid. When you bump into Urtica, the tip breaks off, producing a sharp point that can penetrate the skin. This also compresses the sac-like base and forces the fluid under the skin,” wrote Arthur Haines in “Ancestral Plants: A Primitive Skills Guide to Important Edible, Medicinal, and Useful Plants.”

The fluid contains histamines and acetylcholines, chemicals that create a painful, itchy sensation, according to Haines.

Native to Maine, stinging nettle is common and usually grows in forests by rivers, so it would make sense that we found a patch of it by Unity’s Sandy Stream.

If you want to watch out for it, I’d study photographs. Though it’s tall, it’s not flashy. Its green teardrop-shaped leaves have jagged edges and grow opposite of each other up one central stem. The plant also grows strings of small white flowers, which mature as small, dry, seed-like fruits. And if you look close, the small white hairs on the plant are certainly visible.

While these plants can cause temporary irritation, they have a history of being used to treat a variety of ailments. In fact, many Native American tribes used stinging nettle as a medicinal plant, according to Haines.

Stinging nettle, looking down at the top.

Stinging nettle, looking down at the top.

“There are actually some people with arthritis that get relief from the arthritis by getting stung by stinging nettle,” says Glen Mittelhauser, director of the Maine Natural History Observatory in Gouldsboro and author of “Sedges of Maine – A Field Guide to Cyperaceae” and “The Plants of Acadia National Park.”

“One of the reasons I know about this plant is I have hay fever — grass pollen mostly sets me off — and stinging nettle offers some relief to people with hay fever if brewed as a tea,” Mittelhauser said.

According to Haines, the plant can also be used to help combat gingivitis and halitosis. Taken for prolonged periods, it can also be useful for treating eczema, hemorrhaging and diarrhea, kidney infections and kidney stones, bronchitis and asthma. And stinging nettle teas are known to strengthen and support the body and promote relaxation.

In addition, stinging nettle is an ideal plant to make cordage, such as bow-drill strings for friction fires, according to Haines. Strong cordage can be made from its dried stems in the fall.

“You can cook it up as a green as well,” said Mittelhauser. “When you boil it, the needles, the sharp hairs that the toxin is in, get broken down.

Stinging nettle from the side.

Stinging nettle from the side.

So in the end, it seems that stinging nettle, as troublesome as it can be, has the potential to do a lot more good than bad.

The bumps it caused on my legs disappeared after about an hour, and now that I actually know what happened, the whole debacle is actually a bit comical.

While stinging nettle is annoying, it’s not as bad as poison ivy, which can leave a painful rash that’s been known to leave scars. Also in Maine is a plant called cow parsnip, which can cause skin to blister.

“Cow parsnip is actually phototoxic, which means it actually needs the sun to activate,” says Mittelhauser, who is currently working on a Maine island where cow parsnip is growing. “So if you get its sap on your hands or anywhere, it can react and raise some major welts that for some folks last for years.”

Fortunately, Mittelhauser hasn’t had any bad reactions to cow parsnip. Some people are more sensitive to certain toxins than others. That explains why my skin developed bumps from the stinging nettle while Derek’s skin did not. (His leg hair may have also helped protect him.)

Oreo and I playing in Triplet Park.

Oreo and I playing in Triplet Park.

To recover from our run-in with stinging nettle, Derek, Oreo and I visited the nearby Triplet Park on Wood Lane in Unity, where we basked in the sun and enjoyed the flower gardens. We’d had enough of the woods for the day.

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.