Hedge Nettle

The plant for the cover of this OBISPOENSIS is found in many habitats from dry to moist and from wood edge to open fields. It is found primarily in the coastal area west of the Santa Lucia mountain divide.

It’s common or California hedge-nettle (Stachys bullata). This species is certainly not rare but it is not overly abundant either. It’s widespread but snooty where it grows. The flower books and floras state that it is found in our shrub lands (coastal scrub, dune scrub & chaparral) as well as oak forests. This is true, but if one wants to find it look in these communities where the soils tend to be moist.

I tend to think of it occupying the drier edge of the riparian habitat. As surface streams dry hedge nettles will move into the stream bed itself. The species can be found in relatively dry areas such as the Elfin Forest and Sargeant Cypress Forest found on West Cuesta Ridge. Both areas have lots of fog and contain plant species that are able to condense fog onto their leaves and stems. Leaves and stems, however are poor absorbers of liquid water, so the water drips off onto the soil surface where it sinks to where the plant’s roots absorb it. Fog drip is a significant source of water.

I remember reading a Cal Poly Biology Department senior project done for Dr. Robert Rodin many years ago. They found that rain gauges placed under the trees recorded over 20 inches more water than ones placed in the open.

The “hedge” part of the common name, I assume, comes from the habit of these plants to grow in fence rows and along roadsides, especially the old world species. The “nettle” part of the common name comes from its resemblance to the stinging nettle (Urtica). The surface of leaves and stems are coated by short stiff hairs. These hairs merely impart a sandpapery feel, but do not cause the rash and itching or pain of the true stinging nettle. I find it a rather pleasant feel and you have to touch them to get the pleasant citrusy odor that arises from the bruised leaves.

Stachys is fairly large (ca. 300 sp. worldwide, 8 CA & 5 SLO Co.) genus of mints (Lamiaceae or Labiatae). It contains a number of plants used as food or medicine, particularly in the Old World. The medicinal plants generally go by the common name of betony while the ones producing edible tubers go by the various names. These include chorogi, Chinese or Japanese artichoke, knotroot. I found no reference to any of our California Stachys species, including S. bullata, possessing either edible or medicinal properties. The closest I came was one suggestion that leaves might to be tried as a poultice. That is, bruise a few leaves in warm water and apply the mixture to minor wounds and rashes. This is how the various betony species are used around the world and is the explanation for another common name for the species in this genus, woundwort.

References to hedge nettles are noticeably absent from my California native gardening books. The current Jepson Manual recommends that they be planted in areas where they get occasional water (3-4 times during dry season). It indicates that native hedge nettles are very hardy and might work in an area that needs stabilization. However, they caution that being hardy, they can become invasive.

by Dirk Walters, illustrations by Bonnie Walters | Dirk and Bonnie Walters are long-time CNPS-SLO members, contributors, and board/committee participants. In addition to his work at Cal Poly, Dirk is the current CNPS-SLO Historian.