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Questions about Stinging Nettles crop up quite regularly in the BDSM newsgroups. This Web document attempts to address those questions. Are they safe? How are they used? Read on....
Stinging Nettles are mostly tall herbaceous plants (i.e. they die down in the winter), botanically in the genus Urtica. The best known is the Common Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica), which is widespread in Europe and North America. Nettles are notable for their stinging hairs, which may be more or less confined to the stems, or clothe much of the entire plant. The flowers are minute and usually green, held together in hanging tassels or bunches.
Depending on individual opinion there are some 50 to 100 species of Stinging Nettle in the world. The Common Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is the best known species in Europe and current opinion is that most native American nettles also belong to this species, though they differ in various ways from the European plant.
The hairs are like miniature hypodermic needles, approximately 2mm long in the Common Stinging Nettle. The walls of the hairs are composed of silica, i.e. natural glass, and contact breaks the fragile tip of the hair. The hair is sharp enough to push into the skin, while at the same time, the venom, stored under pressure in the expanded base, travels up the hair and is injected into the skin through the broken tip. Hairs tend to be grouped together so a stung person will develop a localised rash of small, raised bumps.
Some species are known to be more vicious than others. Whether there are reliable comparative studies of venom strengths I do not know, but the abundance of stinging hairs certainly varies. Even within the Common Stinging Nettle, the distribution of hairs varies a lot. The usual European race has stinging hairs over most of the plant, on the stems, the leaves (especially on the underside), the leaf stalks, even the flowers. Native American races of the same species have far fewer such hairs on the leaves, often none at all, and it is primarily the stems that sting. The European race is, however, introduced and widely established in eastern North America.
The Small Nettle or Burning Nettle (Urtica urens) is a native of Europe that has spread widely as a weed elsewhere in the world (including N.America), especially on warm, sandy soils. It is a much smaller plant but packs a greater punch, probably because it has a denser covering of the stinging hairs.Some tropical nettles are known to sting much more fiercely, enough to cause a more general swelling.
If nettles are being collected for their stinging properties, it is a good idea to check that they have a sufficiency of stinging hairs. These are the long, bristle-like hairs, which should stand out clearly from the shorter, softer, non-stinging hairs. Plants with well-developed purple pigment in the stems (a response to higher light levels) tend to have more stinging hairs than those plants which remain green.
If you live in New Zealand, yes! The Tree Nettle or Ongaonga (Urtica ferox) causes occasional fatalities in horses and dogs and is responsible for at least one human death, with symptoms that read like anaphylactic shock (see below). Its venom is believed to contain toxins additional to the active ingredients generally present in nettles.
In the absence of contrary information, nettles in the tropics must be regarded as suspect. Anyone in these more exotic parts of the world is advised to take note of local knowledge and folklore.
The Common Stinging Nettle grows in patches, individual stems coming up direct from the ground, with few or no side branches, and reaching anything from 1 to 6 feet (c. 0.5 - 1.5 m). The leaves are elongated-triangular, mid to dark green, and coarsely but evenly toothed. The flowers consist of green, hanging, catkin like clusters. More detailed descriptions and illustrations should be in most wildflower books.
Nettles like rich soils with decaying organic matter or ground that has been heavily fertilised. They naturally grow amongst other tall vegetation on riversides and along ditches and hedges and by forest roads and tracks. The European race of the Common Stinging Nettle is an aggressively weedy plant that thrives on disturbance and can be common around human habitation and on farmland.
The Small or Burning Nettle is an annual weed of cultivated ground, especially on sandy soils.
The Common Stinging Nettle is a perennial that dies down completely in winter. The young growth appears in late spring and the plant continues through the summer and autumn (fall), dying back with the onset of harder frosts.
The Small or Burning Nettle is generally more abundant in the summer months, but potentially it can germinate and grow at any time of the year if sheltered from frosts (especially if it is a weed in greenhouses).
With great ease, as gardeners (often non-consensual nettle growers) can testify. If the Common Stinging Nettle is to be grown deliberately, it will need strict control as it can readily become rampant. Damper, slightly shady places by a compost heap will suit it well.
Greater control can be achieved by growing nettles in large plant pots, providing adequate water and fertiliser. Such pots of nettles may then be directly useful in BDSM games.
Various substances have been claimed as being the active principles of nettle venom, based on speculation and supposition. In fact the venom is a cocktail of three substances, each highly dilute:
All three substances occur naturally in the human body.
Formic acid, the principle component of the venom of many ants, is often claimed as an ingredient in nettle venom. If present in appreciable amount it would contribute to the burning sensation. However, despite being named in many books (and web pages) as the cause of nettle stings, this appears to be no more than a myth. There seems to have been an initial assumption that has become copied from one book to another as fact.
This said, it must also be admitted that formic acid is chemically simple and could be present. It occurs transiently in many or all plants (and animals) as a result of the natural process of formate hydrolysis, particularly if there is some degradative process involved. (There is a useful, technical review article by J.M. Desmarchelier at http://hort.cabweb.org/Postharv/Desmarch.htm). However, to be an active ingredient in nettle venom it would have to be present in high amounts and the whole venom would need to be stored as a strongly acidic (by biological standards) solution. This seems very unlikely. If anyone can quote contrary scientific evidence (research paper with analytical methods and results properly described), I would be interested to know.
In principle, within reason, no. As noted above, the active ingredients are already present in the human body and the action is to produce a local overload rather than to introduce alien toxins. Histamine is responsible for many of the symptoms of allergic reactions in general, but this is histamine as over-produced by the body in response to allergens. However, as noted below, some people are more sensitive to nettle stings than others and it would be foolish to continue any BDSM games if there is generalised swelling and unusual inflammation. A reported incident in the U.S.A., in which hunting dogs were killed by "massive exposure" to nettle stings, is a warning that there are limits to the safety of these plants.
Rare cases of nettle allergy have been reported, but these seem to refer to the whole plant, and even to homeopathic pills derived from the plant, rather than to the action of the venom.
However, as noted above, the Tree Nettle or Ongaonga (Urtica ferox) of New Zealand is a potentially dangerous exception. H.E. Connor (1977), in The poisonous plants in New Zealand, ed. 2, describes the case of an apparently healthy young man who hurried unheedingly through a patch of this nettle. A delayed reaction occurred, with paralysis and breathing difficulties after one hour and death in five hours. The described symptoms read very like anaphylactic shock, the dangerous condition that occurs in certain sensitive individuals if substances such as bee venom or penicillin get into the blood stream.
This said, I must also mention a hearsay claim of "anaphylactic shock" during a bdsm game using nettles in the U.S.A. I have no further details and currently believe this was much more likely to have been an abnormally strong but more ordinary allergic response ("anaphylaxis" rather than anaphylactic shock, assuming a clear distinction can be made). Occasional deaths from wasp stings readily make the newspapers, but while nettle stings are commonplace, no such danger is associated with them in the media.
It should also be noted that a few individuals are reported as suffering dermatitis for a while following nettle stings. Again this is good reason, in BDSM games, to establish the responses of the recipient before any extensive use of nettles.
Apart from the venom, nettles contain numerous other active substances. A useful compilation is at
Yes. It is common countryside experience that some people are affected only mildly, suffering a sting and slight rash which is forgotten after a few minutes, while others may develop a more extensive rash or even localised swelling, and still feel the effects (particularly on contact with cold water) for two or three days.
During preparation of this FAQ (and purely in the interests of science of course) ;-), a certain delightfully malevolent lady subjected me to approximately half an hour of "treatment". Naturally I suffered a fairly extensive rash, but nothing too dramatic. I itched around the um, personal regions for much of that evening and could feel slight effects the following day. She, on the other hand, accidentally just touched herself with the nettles a couple of times, suffered much more conspicuous raised rashes and still felt the effects two days later. (Retribution was threatened and she assures me this is still only partly exacted.)
The after effects are somewhat intensified if the stung area coincides with whip marks.
Legal disclaimer: the next section is fantasy reading and should not be construed as encouragement to go stinging your play partners. Nettles are to be regarded as novelty items, fashion accessories or interior design. What's more, I am not here. Someone else must have broken in and typed this.
Seriously, the point is rather laboured in this FAQ, but common sense does apply. Find out beforehand if the recipient knows if he/she has any unusual reaction. If he/she does not know, go carefully in the first session. Stay well within the recipient's limits. Both top and bottom should be ready to stop the scene if there is any evidence of an unusual response. If there is no adverse reaction during or following a session, then subsequent sessions can be less inhibited, if so desired.
Nettles can be used both in active and in passive play.
The assumption here is that the nettles are brought to the recipient. The alternative is possible. A woodland walk with a naked, blindfolded sub could be interesting. However, encounters could be a little surprising to early morning dog walkers or families out to enjoy the more conventional sights of the countryside, so to avoid court action and starring rôles in local newspapers, this is an idea perhaps better left to owners of private estates (who probably do this all the time anyway).
With care. Leather or heavy rubber gloves are recommended, even though there are few hairs at the base of the stem where the top is likely to be holding the plant. The hairs are sharp enough to penetrate cotton or thin latex gloves, which presumably means they can also penetrate condoms.
It is often said that someone can hold a stem with their bare hand without being stung if they grip it firmly enough, the theory being that the hairs are broken before they can penetrate the skin. As can be told from the fixed expressions on faces of people demonstrating this, it tends not to work.
The venom is held in the hairs under pressure, so that it can be injected into the skin when the tip of the hair is broken. If pressure ("turgor") falls within the plant, the stinging hairs become less effective. Nettles should be as fresh as possible, or if picked sometime beforehand, should be kept in a vase of cold water. They start to lose their effect in a warm room or in contact with a warm body (so leaves pushed into undergarments may not work as well as expected). Remember also that the number of hairs on a plant is limited and each will only work once. The freshest nettle is one that is still growing (e.g. in a plant pot, kept well watered).
In principle, almost anywhere. Keep away from the face of course, but apart from that it depends on the sensitivity and tolerance of the recipient. The mucous membranes (e.g. tip of the penis, vaginal area, anus) are the most sensitive and are best avoided until it is known that the recipient will suffer no unwanted after effects.
Yes, if you are bound and helpless, greenflies walking up your leg can really tickle.
Yes, if your top accidentally stings him/herself during the session, do not burst out laughing. Especially not if you are male and you are secured with your legs apart ......
No, not to preserve their stinging properties.
No. The volume of venom is minute compared with the amount of juice in the whole plant. In fact nettles are regarded by herbalists as having antihistamine properties, even though histamine is an active ingredient of the venom. Effectively, the nettle is an antidote to itself.
No one substance appears to be a standard antidote, and if treatment is required at all, there are various general anti-inflammation lotions available. Witch hazel may be as good as any.
The 'country' remedy is to use the juices of various plants, notably from dock (Rumex) leaves. It is suggested that the juice from the leaves of nettles is itself an antidote (as noted above, nettle preparations reputedly have antihistamine properties). Personally I think nettle stings are better just left alone.
*WARNING*. I have heard of juice of "bracken fern" being used as a similar remedy in the USA. "Bracken" in the UK is the fern Pteridium aquilinum and this is evidently the same in at least parts of the USA. The juice of Pteridium aquilinum is strongly suspected of being carcinogenic (i.e. liable to cause cancers) and it MUST NOT be deliberately wiped on the skin. Many ferns contain dangerous toxins.
There are plants in the mint family with leaves very similar to those of nettles, as the common names will suggest. The White Deadnettle (Lamium album) is one, though the conspicuous white flowers are a bit of a giveaway and are best removed before the sub sees them. Even more similar, even to the extent of having bristly-hairy stems, is the Hempnettle (Galeopsis), though again the pink flowers will need to be removed.
It should also be remembered that very large and fearsome-looking nettles in shady woodland may, in fact, have very few stinging hairs (but do check before use!).
The Roman Nettle (Urtica pilulifera) is a southern European species that reputedly stings quite severely. It has a variety 'dodartii' ('Spanish Majoram') in which the leaves are not toothed along the edges, making it look quite unlike an ordinary nettle. It was once thought to be a jolly jape to get some unsuspecting individual to smell the leaves of this 'fine herb', and it was grown in English eighteenth-century gardens specifically for practical joking. (Proving, of course, that sophisticated humour has a long history in polite English society.)
Yes, but I have no details. I once read that somewhere in Africa there are nettles that will cause a man's arm to swell from a single sting and yet which are (were?) used by tribespeople as whips for punishment of their youths and in initiation rituals. I cannot remember the source.
There is a C.P. classic, The discipline of Odette by "Jean Martinet". It features a whipping with nettles.
BDSM videos are not good for us; our government says so. Evidently we British are more feeble minded than our European neighbours and if any of us get to see consensual BDSM videos (or even explicit sex), the fabric of society will fall apart. All commercial videos must be passed by a government censor before they can be offered for sale. So very limited information here, provided for the benefit of those lucky to live in countries where civil rights are protected.
I understand the following feature authentic nettle play and fully meet the essential criteria of 'safe, sane and consensual':
Further contributions to this section welcome, provided that they depict fully consensual BDSM play.
This FAQ only deals with nettles (though the next section warns about some potentially dangerous nettle-relatives). Numerous plants have potential: thistles, holly, sitka spruce etc. 'Chuckg' posted a Usenet article a while ago, which is archived as part of the alt.torture FAQ at poenkitten's site.
Roses are sometimes mentioned in this context, but the hooked prickles can tear the skin and should be considered unsafe. In Britain, their use is probably illegal anyway (post-'Spanner' case-law).
There are other stinging plants related to nettles and occurring in different parts of the world. Their properties are mostly poorly known and are better not tried in BDSM games. The Stinging Trees of Australia, Indonesia, etc. are a notable and dangerous example.
Yes, though most are shrubs rather than trees. They belong, botanically, to the genus Dendrocnide (formerly included in Laportea). There are a number of species in S.E. Asia, Australia, Indonesia and neighbouring islands. The largest and one of the most virulent is the Giant Stinging Tree (Dendrocnide excelsa), which can exceed 25 metres in height.
Most feared is the Stinging Bush or Gympie (spellings vary) (Dendrocnide moroides) of Australia (especially the rain forests of Queensland). It reaches five metres, but young plants are most virulent and these can be overlooked in roadside scrub. It is a major problem for forestry workers.
The stinging hairs are on the leaves, the young stems and even on the otherwise edible fruits.
No. Firstly the plant appears too dangerous. It has killed horses and rendered humans unconscious. Symptoms of being stung may include difficulty in breathing. Its venom contains high molecular weight compounds, related to those in nettles, but evidently more toxic.
Secondly, the effects are long term, sometimes lasting for several months, and cannot easily be treated.
The effects have been described as being first a slight itch, followed in a few seconds by a severe prickling sensation that quickly becomes intense pain. There is a background tingling feeling, on which is superimposed an intermittent stabbing pain, with sharp radiations passing in all directions. The injured area initially becomes red and swollen, the swelling persisting for several hours. The centre part of the area sweats, reaching a maximum after 6-8 hours and sometimes persisting for a day or more. After a time, stabs of sharper pain decrease in intensity and frequency, but the diffuse background pain increases. Touching, rubbing or cold temperatures increase the sensation. Pain spreads to other parts of the body, commonly the opposite limb (referred pain) and may persist for several days in the armpits and groin. It is this background pain that can recur for weeks afterwards.
While the effects lessen in time, changes in temperature, such as exposure to cold water, will bring back the pain. There are products that can provide temporary relief, but there is no known cure, other than the course of time.
(Prime source: S.L.Everist (1974) Poisonous plants of Australia)
All in all, this is a plant NOT to be messed with. This section is included only as a warning.
Yes, fresh young nettles can be cooked like spinach and are said to be a good source of minerals, particularly iron. Some people make nettle soup, and even drink it. There are many recipes in self-sufficiency and getting-back-to-nature type books.
Nettle roots have also been used in making ale, as formerly on the Scottish island of St. Kilda. There again, people stuck on a remote, wind and rain-lashed island out in the Atlantic, barely on the edge of survival, would probably try anything.
In the southern English counties of Somerset and Sussex it was reputedly known as "The Naughty Man's Plaything". This was not a reference to BDSM activities (nor an early reference to Pamela Anderson), as the "Naughty Man" in question was the Devil.
Why, look you, I am whipped and scourged with rods, Nettled, and stung with pismires, when I hear Of this vile politician, Bolingbroke (`1st Henry the Fourth', i., 3 - `pismires' = ants)
Shakespeare, quoted from web page at:
In northern Europe, the fibres of nettle stems were woven to produce a good and serviceable cloth. It is suggested that its use was abandoned with the introduction of flax (for linen).
Nettles or nettle extracts have also been claimed to have a variety of medical properties, from relief of rheumatism (probably true) to preventing baldness. They reputedly have antihistamine and aphrodisiac properties.
A recent development is the development of nettle root extracts for treatment of prostate enlargement (benign prostatic hyperplasia). This condition includes a process by which the amount of free testosterone in the body is reduced. An effect of the nettle treatment is to release some of this testosterone, which supports the possibility of aphrodisiac properties, at least in the longer term.
There is more information on uses of nettles at:
Funny you should ask. In Marshwood, in the southern English county of Dorset, they hold (annually?) a wacky competition involving eating raw nettles.
In view of the antihistamine properties of nettle juice, eating raw nettles may not be as difficult as it sounds. However, Tim Beer and future competitors should be aware that raw nettles are reputedly poisonous, with suggestions that they can cause kidney damage.
This page was first created July 1998 and was last updated 27th May 2000.