Friday, August 24, 2012

Grabbing the Devil by the Tail

Second only to Cow Parsnip as far as a trail hazard for Alaskan hikers, Devil's Club is definitely the most barbaric and deadliest looking plant I've ever seen. Unfortunately based on a true story, it's somehow always handily within reach at the most inopportune times.

As of my last hike, I would amend the list of evil weeds to include Stinging nettles, which I was familiar with from the East Coast, but hadn't yet run across in Alaska (its range doesn't extend as far north as where the majority of my treks happen). So it was an extremely unpleasant surprise to discover that I had waded into an enormous patch of it while attempting to cross the Little Susitna, wearing shorts no less. After getting hung up in an alder thicket (not much fun trying to climb an embankment while wearing a full pack) I was desperately bushwhacking my way back to the trail and suddenly felt like acid was pouring over the skin of my legs, arms and hands. Having studiously avoided the thickets of cow parsnip I didn't pay much attention to what I had spent several minutes plowing through. Urtica dioica, as seen magnified below, is covered with "hollow stinging hairs called trichomes on its leaves and stems, which act like hypodermic needles" that break off on contact and inject chemicals such as acetylcholine, 5-hydroxytryptamine, histamine and formic acid into your skin. Now I don't know about the efficacy of historical folk remedies using this plant, but I will personally attest to the power of it acting as a defense against bears. As in, no animals within three square miles of me remained in that valley after hearing my warning cry.

Image: Jerome Prohaska

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