Monday, September 20, 2010

Eucnide urens

Rock Nettle or Stingbush

A deceptively innocent looking plant, Eucnide urens is one of my personal
favorite plants found in the Panamint valley. As the plant's common name attests, it is equipped with a stinging defense mechanism, which is more than likely to deter herbivores from consuming its leaves. The plant's sting is quite powerful, but not entirely like that of a true nettle (which are family Urticaceae). The pain of the sting is much sharper, but levels off to a dull ache after a few minutes. The stinging defense is so powerful, in fact, that while handling the plant with leather gloves, I was still repeatedly stung. Even dried, the leaves' stinging barbs are sharp enough to inflict a painful sting. The leaves have two types of stinging hair, one long and sharp, the other narrower and barbed. These barbed hairs will catch in clothes, and make it very difficult to remove the leaf without further contact.

Despite this rather powerful defense, one which I've been on the receiving
end of more than once, I'm very fond of Eucnide and find it to be a magnificent plant. Growing in rock cracks, on cliff faces and in drainages, its a hardy survivor of a plant. When in bloom, the blossoms are a spectacular creamy white, which is accented by the silvery sheen of this year's leaves, and the tan of the previous year's growth. When found growing on a sheer cliff face, it adds a touch of regal splendor to an already ruggedly beautiful landscape.

There has been some debate recently in the botanical community as to whether Eucnide should be classified as a carnivorous plant. The basis for this debate is the plant's ability to kill large numbers of insects in short order; those who land on the plant's leaves are quickly dispatched by the stinging hairs. The debate arises from the question: does the plant derive any significant amount of nutrients from its kills, or are these simply an extension of the plant's natural defensive strategy.

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