Monday, December 15, 2008

Plants Fighting Back

On Tuesday I reached into the container of cilantro from the grocery store and quickly pulled my hand back in surprise. Something had hurt me! But what?

My thoughts went to some alarming places. Bits of metal? Shards of glass? I felt like I had been pricked by something sharp, but there were no marks on my fingertips. No blood was drawn.

I dumped all of the cilantro into a colander and moved it around with a fork. There in the middle was the culprit. Initially its camouflage had concealed it from sight, but on closer inspection it stood out from its surroundings.

Clearly, those are not cilantro leaves. Any guesses?

It turned out my instinct was correct, because the first page I pulled up on Wikipedia was stinging nettle, where I saw the above picture. The plant mixed with my cilantro was the spitting image.

What makes a stinging nettle sting? The sting is caused by a combination of chemicals, not just by the hairs alone which, although sharp, are tiny. Tiny and hollow, and filled with a combination of chemicals that give a noticeable irritation: acetylcholine, serotonin, and perhaps most importantly, histamine and possibly formic acid. Yikes.

Surprisingly, nettles are easily tamed, and can be made into tea or even eaten when young ( and cooked). They're also good for your hair, feature prominently in hippie-dippie shampoos, and are mixed into cattle feed to give the bovines shiny coats. My nettle, however, was transferred by fork to the trash bin, as I was in no mood to attempt to tame it. (And my hair is already quite shiny, thank you.) I do admire it for fighting back, though. As a vegetarian, I'm not really used to food that puts up much of a struggle, so this was an interesting interaction between me and a plant.

But I think I'll stick with cilantro just the same.


The Morrigan said...

I am so excited that I was able to ID that as a nettle by sight!!! Here's to a week on the farm!!! *grins*

Nettles also can be used to make a really excellent fertilizer; just put them and comfry stalks into a large barrel, fill it with water, and allow it to stew for a while. They also generally grow right next to the plant that can help neutralize the stinging sensation -- dock leaves. Just rub the leaves on the spot where you were stung. It really does help!!

Faye said...

Thanks for ID confirmation; I think Wikipedia is generally ok for stuff like this but it's nice to have a second opinion.

Too bad they didn't throw some dock in with the cilantro then, eh? Next time I'm making fertilizer, I'll keep your comments in mind. Thanks! :D

The Morrigan said...

*grins* Don't make the fertilizer inside your apartment, though... it stinks to high heaven.

How on earth do you think a nettle made it into your cilantro, anyway? Are they particularly common in the US?