Stinging nettles are the equivalent to North American poison ivy but we do have magical dock leaves

Stinging nettles love Ireland’s moist, fertile soil and grow prolifically. When wandering through the lush Irish countryside, remember nettles are Ireland’s equivalent to North American poison ivy.

The lasting effects of a nettle sting may not be as severe as poison ivy rash, but every tourist to Ireland should learn to identify and avoid these stinging plants.

Nettles grow in America too, but not as extensively as they do in Ireland and Britain. 

How to recognize a nettle plant...

How to recognize a nettle plant...

Irish people are aware of the burning sting of the nettle, but for others, this little-known plant can cause great distress, especially to the unwary American tourist.

Full grown plants are easily identified by their dark green coloring and serrated, pointed leaves.

Learning a lesson

I learned my lesson the hard way with four little ones in an Irish graveyard two years ago.  I forgot my kids are four little Americans and at that time had little knowledge of Ireland’s stinging nettles.

Try not to get stung up by those stinging nettles.

Try not to get stung up by those stinging nettles.

The weather was beautiful when we visited the ancient resting place of my ancestors in Myross, West Cork.  The cemetery lies in a windswept field on a cliff above the vast Atlantic Ocean.

My four short-wearing, bare-legged kiddos quickly learned of the sting of an Irish nettle.  A chorus of “ooh’s, ahh’s and ouches” reached my ears just as I tried to warn them: “Watch out for the nettles!”

The magic of the dock plant

Perching them on an old stone wall I inspected their nettled legs.

I surveyed my surroundings and to my great relief I found a dock plant.  Quickly I plucked some leaves and rubbed their little legs.

Passed down from generation to generation, the nettle neutralizing power of a dock leaf is an old wives’ tale some quickly dismiss.  For me it saved eight little legs from severe blisters.  The old Irish saying goes like this:

“Neantóg a dhóigh mé agus cupóg a leigheas mé.”

(A nettle stung me and a dock leaf cured me)

The magical dock leaves!

The magical dock leaves!

I checked on the internet and learned nettle stings are acidic and therefore are neutralized by the alkaline secretions of the dock leaf.

As kids, we rubbed our stinging skin with dock leaves, chanting:

“Dockin in, nettle out!

Dockin in, nettle out!”

Nettles may be a nuisance today, but in years gone by they sustained many Irish families when times were lean.  Nettle stew or soup is rich in nutrients.

Boiling the plant fronds in water removes their stinging properties, resulting in a meal with a similar taste to spinach.

I have never tasted nettle stew, but maybe someday when I am back in Ireland I will don my gloves to gather a hearty handful to boil.

Advice to tourists

Remember nettles love abandoned ruins.  Tourists searching for the homes of their ancestors in derelict spaces should be prepared to do battle with nettles.

If you are lucky to have good weather and are wearing shorts, remember to keep a pair of long pants close at hand to pull up over shorts, if you need to wade through nettles to gain access to an old farmhouse or building.

It is good to keep a long-sleeved jacket in your car.  And don’t forget to bring some anti-histamine cream, just in case you can’t find a magical dock leaf to relieve that nettle sting.

And remember try not to scratch a nettle sting – it only makes it worse. Wishing you all happy days of touring in Ireland this summer, and may all your journeys be free of nettle stings.

Read more: What visitors to Ireland should know about midges

* Mairead Geary came to America for one year 20 years ago. She now lives with her husband and children in Kentucky and is proud to be an American citizen. Read more on her blog here.