Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

QUERY: Dock leaves to treat nettle stings

Posted on by royvickery |

It’s my impression that the use of dock (Rumex obtusifolius) leaves to relieve nettle (Urtica dioica) stings is a remedy which although widespread in the British Isles is unknown, or at least uncommon, elsewhere. Has anyone any knowledge of dock leaves being used to treat nettle stings elsewhere in the world? Or does anyone know of any other remedies for such stings? RV.


ARMENIA 1. I can’t remember knowing any cure for nettle stings. Nettles are used in soup and there is a belief that they are useful to cure arthritis [Natural History Museum, London, May 2012].

AUSTRIA 1. We had no cure for nettle stings, I was surprised to learn about dock leaves being used [in the British Isles]. We thought the stings were good for you; they made the blood circulate more quickly. I’m not sure if people still think that, but they pick young nettle and dandelion [Taraxacum officinale] leaves to eat in the spring [Roehampton, London, January 2012]. 2. I don’t know how to treat nettle stings, but when I was a child in the Tyrol I was told to urinate on them. I never tried it [University of Natural Resources & Life Sciences, Vienna, September 2012].

BELGIUM 1. In Belgium they definitely use dock leaves to treat nettle stings [Balham, London, March 2012].

BRAZIL 1. A woman attending a Science Uncovered event at the Natural History Museum on 27 September 2013 demonstrated how you treated nettle stings by rubbing them with your hair. [Do nettles occur in Brazil?]

BULGARIA 1. To help relieve the pain from stinging nettles you can use urine. I haven’t tried it [Natural History Museum, London, October 2012].  2. In Bulgaria we had no cure for nettle stings, but we collected very young nettles in the spring, before they started to sting, to eat in salads [Natural History Museum, London, October 2013].  3. In Bulgaria we had no cure for nettle stings, being stung by nettles was good for arthritis [Tooting Common, London, April 2021]. 4. [We] used dock leaves against nettle stings [Beaulieu Heights, London, October 2022].

CANADA 1. When I was a girl in British Columbia if we got stung by a nettle when out hiking we would rub the stung area with a ‘burdock’ leaf. When I came to the U.K. I found that what we called ‘burdock’ was known as ‘dock’ there. BC is culturally quite British in a colonial sort of way, so this practice could have been brought over by our recent ancestors. If we couldn’t find a ‘burdock’ leaf we would rub the sting with Equisetum [Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, February 2013]. 2.  Remedy for stinging nettle is to rub the top part of a plantain [Plantago ?major] on the white bumps [Beddington, Surrey, May 2019].

CZECH REPUBLIC 1. Discussed nettles with a young couple attending an open day in the Wildlife Garden of the Natural History Museum, London, 12 June 2011: On being asked what they did when they were stung by nettles they looked confused, as though they had never heard of anyone doing anything. She explained nettle stings are good for you … ‘they keep you healthy, keep you young’. He added they were good for arthritis.

DENMARK 1. [Until you told me] I didn’t know [of dock leaves being used to treat nettle stings]. My wife is American but I cannot recall her mentioning it. Once when stung by a man-of-war in India I was told to urinate on it [Copenhagen, October 2012]. 2.  When I was a child back in the 1970s we would use spit where we got stung by a nettle.  Today in my family we would scrape off the spot with a credit card or other plastic card (like the advice for when stung by Cyanea capillata [a jellyfish]) and then pour cold water over the spot [Aalborg, Denmark, April 2022].

ESTONIA 1. If a child gets stung by a nettle we get a greater plantain [Plantago major] leaf, chew it, and rub it on the sting [Tooting Common, London, 21 August 2011].

FINLAND 1.  As a gardener I have been told to alternatively spit on a sting or  rub it with a dock, or by one Finnish gardener to urinate on the sting (I have not tried this) [Folklore Society Legendary Weekend, Scarborough, September 2018].

FRANCE 1. I think, if I remember correctly, we used to use dock leaves to rub on nettle stings. That was in Brittany [South London Botanical Institute, May 2011]. 2. Conversation with a man aged c. 40, from Strasbourg, France, 22 October 2012: R: What do you do if you get stung by one of these [a stinging nettle]? A: Just have a cup of tea and wait for it to go away [South London Botanical Institute] 3.  Picardie.  To relieve the pain from nettle ‘bite’ crush five types of greens (any, clovers. grass, etc.) in the palm of your hand and rub the mixture on your skin.  It will soothe the rash [Natural History Museum, London, June 2014]. 4.  In France, more specifically, South Burgundy, they use [greater] plantain [Plantago major] to treat nettle stings …  seems to work [Palace Road Nature Garden, Brixton, July 2014].

GERMANY 1. I (and my wife and children) don’t know this use of Rumex obtusifolius. We used spit [Masurenweg, Germany, May 2011]. 2. I’m aware of the practice [of treating nettle stings with dock leaves] here, but I didn’t know it from Germany, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I grew up in the countryside and there were nettles and ants and all sorts of stinging things. When we got stung we knew that it would go away after a while. I know that in Germany some people use Plantago (I think P. lanceolata [ribwort plantain] only) in a similar way to soothe insect bites [Leicester, September 2011]. 3.  I have asked some German friends and none of them has known of this use of docks in Germany.  The people I have asked come from different parts of Germany, one from Switzerland.  But they have all known it from England.  None of them has heard of the use of Plantago  …  I was surprised about this result especially because natural medicine is very popular in Germany [Leicester, September 2011]. 4. Growing up in Saxony, south Germany, in the 1920s, my informant told me that as children if they fell (or were pushed) into stinging nettles they would walk in cow pats. She always went bare foot when playing out [Penge, London, September 2012].

GREECE 1. In Greece we treat nettle stings with olive oil and mud. And we eat nettles in spinach pies [Natural History Museum, London, October 2013]. 2. Pelargonium – see MATERIAL COLLECTED page on this website.

HUNGARY 1. A young woman from Hungary attending a Science Uncovered event at the Natural History Museum, London, on 27 September 2013, knew of no cure for nettle stings.  2.  ‘What do you do if you get stung by nettles?’  ‘Nothing, just wait for it to go away [Natural History Museum, London, June 2015].

ITALY 1. A young woman who grew up in northeast Italy at event at the Natural History Museum, London, 23 September 2011, had no knowledge of any cures for nettle stings. Her British boyfriend knew about treating them with dock leaves. 2. We didn’t treat nettle stings, apart from possibly using cold water. We used nettles to make a risotto [Brockley, London, December 2011]. 3. [Rome] I use saliva if I’m stung by a nettle [Peckham, London, May 2013]. 4. I was born in the region of Emilia-Romagna, in northeast Italy in 1989. I know of no remedy for nettle stings [University of the Arts London, September 2013]. 5.  In the 1990s I often foraged in Campania, Italy, to make risotto alle ortfiche. My Italian friends didn’t know about curing the stings – but I didn’t find Italian nettles very stingy – nothing compared with the nettles of Norfolk where I live now [Norwich, Norfolk, September 2018].

LATVIA 1. We don’t have any cures for nettle stings [Natural History Museum, London, June 2013].

LUXEMBOURG 1. I asked my husband [born 1940] what they did in Luxemburg (the northenmost tip where they were invariably the first to be occupied by German armies at the start of every war). His instant response was ‘Nothing, we avoided touching them like the plague’. He said one of his aunts (an uncle’s wife) wasn’t bothered by nettle stings … and liked making nettle soup for her family, which was rather unusual at the time (that would have been before World War II and for perhaps 10-20 years after) Rambouillet, France, May 2011].

NETHERLANDS 1.  Conversation with a woman at the South London Botanical Institute, 4 June 2011:  ‘Are you from Holland?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Oh, what did you use if you got stung by a nettle?’ ‘Plantain, what we call weegbree’ [a sketch of weegbree confirmed that it is greater plantain, Plantago major]. 2.  During a walk in the countryside, while at boarding school in the Netherlands, we were taught by one of the nuns that dock [Rumex] leaves alleviate nettle stings and were all invited to try it. It worked! [e-mail, January 2022].  3.  In the Netherlands we use greater plantain [Prestwood Nature, Buckinghamshire, August 2023].

NEW ZEALAND 1. Common dock (Rumex obtusifolius) – if stung by nettle (Urtica dioica) rub the sting with a fresh dock leaf [University of Otago, New Zealand, October 2013].  2.  Growing up in the South Island of New Zealand in the late 1980s as children we used to touch a nettle on purpose, we would then put dock on the sting, like magic (or so we thought) the stinging sensation would pass [Natural History Museum, London, June 2014].

POLAND 1.  I’m not sure what to do when you are ‘burnt’ by a nettle as we say in Polish; I know that parsnip, horse-radish or baking soda is good when you’re stung by a wasp or bee, but their stings look different to that of a nettle. Really have no idea! [Warsaw, Poland, November 2012]. 2. I did not know about docks being used to treat nettle stings until I came here [England]; we do have docks in Poland [Upminster, Essex, July 2014].  3. In Poland we use Plantago major to treat stinging nettle stings and small wounds [Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Surrey, September 2014].

ROMANIA 1. ‘I’m from Romania.’ ‘What did you do to treat nettle stings?’ ‘We didn’t, just cried’ [Natural History Museum, London, April 2012].

RUSSIA 1. We did not have a known cure for nettle stings in Russia … My aunt treated my uncle’s lower back pain by whipping him with a large bunch of nettles! [Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Surrey, May 2011]. 2. When we get stung by nettles we don’t do anything [Natural History Museum, London, October 2012].

SERBIA 1. I know of no cures for nettle stings; just wait [South London Botanical Institute, December 2013].

SLOVAKIA 1. I grew up near Bratislava; we didn’t know of any cures for nettle stings, but I have learnt about using dock leaves since I’ve been in England [Bristol, September 2013].

SLOVENIA 1. If we get stung by a stinging nettle in Slovenia we wait for the pain to go away on its own [Natural History Museum, London, June 2013].

SPAIN 1. In Spain I never heard about Rumex being used to treat nettle stings, at least not where I grew up. But as children we were always told to use the leaves of apple mint (Mentha suaveolens, I think). I grew up in Madrid, and learnt this from my family who were all from Navarra, in the north, and from other people in the north of Spain, where I spent all my summer holidays (Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria), where apple mint is very common [The Natural History Museum, London, May 2011]. 2. In the Basque country, as far as I know, we do not use anything [to treat nettle stings], just lament the stinging. However, my father used to collect nettles for medicinal purposes, and told us you can harvest them by making sure you touch/press the hairs in the direction they grow (the scientific way), or you should hold your breath when you do it [Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Surrey, May 2011]. 3. Conversation, Tooting Common, London, 22 May 2011: RV: What do you do if you sting yourself with one of these [stinging nettle]? JLP: Wait for 15 minutes for the pain to go. RV: Oh, in England we use one of these [dock leaf]. JLP: No, we don’t do that. 4. [North of Spain] We make tea from nettles. I don’t know of a cure for nettle stings; they just go away [February 2013]. 5. Basque Country – spotted deadnettle (Lamium maculatum) used – see MATERIAL COLLECTED page on this website. 6. [North Spain], ortiga (Urtica) stings – put mud on the skin and don’t touch it [Natural History Museum, London, October 2013]. 7.  In Galicia (northwest Spain) we rub the leaves of a plant we locally know as ‘false mint’ to relieve the pain of a nettle sting.  Funnily enough they normally grow next to each other [Natural History Museum, London, June 2014].

SWEDEN:  In Sweden I didn’t know about dock leaves being used to treat nettle stings; I’m sure that’s the sort of thing my parents would have told me.  I can’t remember any cures [West Norwood Cemetery, London, March 2020].

SWITZERLAND  1. Conversation with a man, aged c.45, attending an event in the Wildlife Garden of the Natural History Museum, London, 1 October 2011: M: I’m a botanist but I don’t know these [British] plants; I’m from Switzerland. RV: Oh, what do you do if you get stung by a stinging nettle, Urtica? M: Nothing, or perhaps cold water. RV: In the British Isles we rub the sting with dock, Rumex, leaves. M: I’ve never heard of that. 2. In Switzerland it is common to hear that nettle, bee or wasp stings can be treated with Rumex [dock] or plantain [Plantago]. I’m not 100% sure which plantain, I think it is P. major [greater plantain]. There are also traditional cough sweets in Switzerland based on plantain [Sheffield, November 2013].

UKRAINE 1. In the Ukraine we didn’t realise you needed to treat nettle stings [Natural History Museum Wildlife Garden, London, April 2012].

U.S.A. 1. Conversation Department of Botany, The Natural History Museum, London, September 2004: Have you heard about touch-me-not being used against nettle-stings? In the States they use them – particularly Impatiens capensis – against nettle stings and poison ivy [Toxicodendron radicans]. Apparently it works. 2. Ribbed plantain [ribwort plantain, Plantago lanceolata] used as nettle cure in U.S.A. [Lichfield, Staffordshire, September 2014].

Updated 17 November 2023.

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