Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

A very different chiaroscuro

with 13 comments

Bull Nettle Flower and Buds 9808

In sharp contrast to the soft and benign chiaroscuro of the Philadelphia fleabane you saw last time comes this one of a bull nettle, Cnidoscolus texanus. The alternate common name treadsoftly warns that the entire plant except for its flowers bears fine needles filled with toxic chemicals. Brush up against those and you’re in for a painful time. Spanish switches gender on bull nettle—and some might say turns misogynist—by calling the plant mala mujer. That translates into English as evil woman or wicked woman, but it translates to no advantage of sisterhood for any female walkers in nature who pay too close a visit to this botanical hazard. I came away intact (literally ‘untouched’) from my encounter with bull nettle on March 25th along Clovis St. in southeast Austin.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

April 5, 2016 at 5:07 AM

13 Responses

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  1. Quite nice.

    Steve Gingold

    April 5, 2016 at 5:40 AM

  2. Hello, very interesting.
    You have a good day!

    Estate un rato

    April 5, 2016 at 6:19 AM

  3. I knew that bull nettles needed a “Do not touch” sign hanging from them, but I didn’t realize there’s a toxin involved. It sounds like they’re the plant equivalent of an asp, which I hope never to encounter again. It’s bad enough to sit on a baby Cirsium horridulum. Clearly, I need to get familiar wth this little gem, too.

    I like the interplay between the white flowers and the white (or reflective) needles. The buds are a nice shape, too. It’s always interesting when a single plant is both beauty and beast.


    April 6, 2016 at 7:43 AM

    • One surprising thing about this forbidding plant is that its flowers have a pleasant scent. I’d read about that, so a few years ago I very carefully leaned in to smell one and confirmed that the fragrance is indeed pleasant. Probably best not to try that on a windy day, however.

      Bull nettle is pretty common, so I expect you’ll encounter some soon now that you’re aware of it (and also duly wary of it). The needles do have a whiteness to them but I don’t know how much of that is intrinsic and how much is an artifact of reflection. You can get a better look at bull nettle’s needles in a photo from three years ago:


      Steve Schwartzman

      April 6, 2016 at 8:29 AM

      • It’s interesting that I read that post, and commented, but didn’t remember it. A second look at that linked photo made me think of the spines and glochids of cactus. Of course, they’re “merely” irritating, and not toxic — to my knowledge, at least.


        April 6, 2016 at 8:41 AM

        • I, too, noticed that you’d commented on that post from 2013, but who can remember all these things? As far as I know, you’re correct that glochids are strictly a physical irritant. In contrast, a close look at bull nettle needles shows that they’re hollow, just like hypodermic needles, and intended for the same purpose.

          Steve Schwartzman

          April 6, 2016 at 9:20 AM

  4. Love the sharp detail in this image. Which grazing animal/s would it have evolved to protect itself against?


    April 11, 2016 at 3:56 AM

    • The first thing that comes to mind is bison, which used roamed the Great Plains in the millions just two centuries ago. But that may be too recent. Before the bison, plenty of other herbivores lived here, most of them now extinct.

      As for sharpness, that’s best kept to visual and not tactile experience when dealing with this plant.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 11, 2016 at 6:02 AM

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