Weeds of Wednesday: Tread-Softly

Stinging hairs cover the leaves, stems, flowers, and seed capsules of tread-softly (Cnidoscolus stimulosus).  Also known as finger-rot, the hairs of this native plant contain irritating compounds that cause intense stinging and itching.  A nasty rash of red pustules often appears after the burning sensation begins to subside, which usually is  less than an hour.  7-minute-itch is another common name for this plant, but. for many folks, the mean itch lasts much longer.

You or I might consider this plant to be a weed, “a plant in the wrong place”, were we to encounter this venomous plant in our yard.  Gopher tortoises, on the other hand, feed on the leaves of this plant.

Its long-stalked alternate leaves are palmately-lobed with 3 to 5 very deep jaggedly toothed lobes.  Whitish veins are evident on the dark green leaf surfaces, and the much of the surface area of the leaf is covered with venomous, stinging hairs.

Reportedly, the flowers are fragrant, but, since even the flowers sport these nasty hairs, I have not tried to verify this assertion.

Each seed capsule contains 3 draw brown seeds.  Bob-white quail and several species of songbirds consume the seeds of tread softly.  Wildlife are the primary dispersers of the seeds, but tread-softly, if mowed down, will quickly re-grow from its fleshy, persistent tap root, which settlers reportedly consumed (in revenge?).

You will “encounter”, hopefully not too personally, this plant in dry places — scrub, coastal strand, hammocks, old fields, and disturbed areas.  In dry and disturbed places, tread-softly can be quite prolific and weedy.  It is distributed throughout the coastal plain from Virginia to Florida to Texas and Oklahoma.

Sometimes this plant is referred to as stinging nettle or bull nettle, a common name better reserved for plants in the nettle family, Urticaceae.  Tread-softly is a member of the spurge family, Euphorbiaceae, and contains a white milky sap.  Spurge-nettle is yet another common name for this plant.

Just gently brushing up against this plant will allow it to release its vengeance.  So, beware of the hairs!

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