I first saw “the Witch” in Central Florida and she is alluring. The five white petals are no more than an inch across and there were about a dozen. A close inspection (not too close!) revealed a sugary texture of the petals which I later discovered were not petals but sepals. It was an attractive blossom and the butterflys enjoyed their brief visit. The leaves resembled a long fingered hand and there they were – all over it! When I saw one prickly hair, I suddenly saw a thousand. I couldn’t resist touching the stem (Please resist!) and several hairs imbedded themselves into my finger tip. It took about two seconds for the stinging sensation to begin and in about ten minutes my finger was numb from either the bristled injection or my frenzied rubbing. This first encounter was not pleasant.
I couldn’t figure out exactly the name and species of the plant as the pain and itch resembled the Stinging Nettle I frequently encountered on fishing expeditions along small creeks in Indiana and Kentucky.
But this was not a nettle as nettles do not bloom nor do nettles have gnarled fingers for leaves. This was “The Witch” as it is know in Latin America; “Finger Rot” as it was called in more northern settings, and “Tread Softly” was also applied in the Southeastern US. There are many varieties but mine, I later determined, was Cnidoscolus stimulosus and dreaded, not treaded, everywhere.
It likes moist, somewhat sandy soil and blooms from Spring to Fall in our area of Central Georgia. In Florida, it blooms year round. There is some minor debate as to whether Cnidoscolus is native or an exotic invader from Puerto Rico. More probably, there is a native variety and an invasive cousin close in texture, bloom, and insidiousness. Some brave native plant enthusiasts raise “Tread Softly” in their home gardens but I would stay away from such activity as it can be a serious allergan to those so sensitive.
The needles break away from the plant on contact and actually inject their chemical concoction just under your skin. Research is being conducted on the actual makeup of the plant juices but whatever it is, your body does not like it and will react negatively.
I have read that the plant’s roots and rhizomes are edible and resemble pasta when cooked and drained but I will leave that up to you to try as I have learned my lesson! There is a beautiful wildflower with the name “Touch me Not” but it in no way resembles our subject “Witch”. The touch me not moniker refers to the exploding seed pods that kids (and I was one) would gently touch the tip of a ripened pod and watch and feel the seed ejection mechanism from a suddenly released tightly woven pod. Seeds went everywhere! Do one and you will search out a dozen more and help the plant disburse its seedy payload.
We diverted somewhat from our 50 state exploration of state flowers but this is an intro to my next series on the dark side of blossoms beautiful.