As everyone in the world very well knows, there is no place safer than England, a country entirely bereft of such dangers as bears, malaria, poison ivy, culture and mountains. The Irish may claim that their land is even more innocuous due to the lack of snakes, but the snakes in England are not to be taken seriously, and if you really want to see one, you are best advised to go to a zoo. (And to make up for the lack of snakes, the Irish have passion, which is far more hazardous, and therefore illegal in England and Wales.)

For this reason, such minor inconveniences as may be lurking in the pristine and harmless beauty of the flora and fauna of this one-time refuge of the Holy Family are taken far more seriously than they would be in other parts of the world, where life is regularly and expectedly cut short by unplanned encounters with rabid packs of man-eating spiders, deadly man-eating plants or trackless deserts. Children in England are therefore taught at an early age about the risks of the consumption of deadly nightshade (although it is not felt essential to teach them to identify it, in case they are confused by the excess of information), about the deadly danger inherent in the consumption of any kind of fungus not obtained cling-wrapped from the shelves of Tesco's, and about the hazards of consorting with strangers (whereby the same concern for economy and concision in the transmission of information applies as in the case of deadly nightshade). But the greatest peril faced by the young of that Sceptered Isle is not addressed in the course of their formal education, not because of any disregard for their safety, but because it is so omnipresent that any child is aware of it almost before they are old enough to walk into it: the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). The oral tradition (and isn't England's traditional reliance on tradition a great tradition, and one that we should cherish?) gives sufficient warning, and the children of the nation are on their guard.

But what of the fate of those who are careless, or who are innocently ambushed by the perfidious plant as it grows in the shelter of other, more virtuous undergrowth? For those unfortunates too, the oral tradition has a remedy, and one that Providence has determined shall ever grow in proximity to the plaguey weed: the humble dock leaf. Simply rub this leaf on the affected portion of your skin, and you shall find relief. Or so it is said. Sadly, life is seldom so simple as it appears to the eyes of youth. And much as it pains me to admit that there could be any defect in a venerable tradition, and an English one at that, there are two problems with this supposed 'remedy'. In order of increasing gravity these are as follows:

Firstly, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that any kind of leaf contains an antagonist to the (excuse my technical language here) stuff that stinging nettles inject into your skin. Even if there were to be such a component in some kind of leaf juice, it is hard to imagine how it could follow the tiny punctures made by the hairs (again, apologies for the jargon) on the nettle to make its way under the surface of the skin to the irritated tissue, particularly once the swelling caused by the nettle gunge (sorry again) has squeezed the holes shut and left the problem even more deeply buried under the skin than it was at the start.

At this point you are asking what could possibly be worse than complete ineffectiveness in a remedy? Or perhaps you have already done your own research and are aware that:

Secondly, the juice of the leaves of Rumex obtusifolius, often referred to as 'dock leaves', is in fact poisonous, containing oxalic acid, perhaps better known as the reason you shouldn't eat wild rhubarb. It is an 'injurious weed' within the meaning of the Act (that being the Weeds Act of 1959. I'm glad there is a Weeds Act). It has been known to cause dermatitis, which is generally considered more of an inconvenience than the slight irritation caused by stinging nettles.

So there we have it: once again the oral tradition fails to measure up to the cold antiseptic standards of science: its remedy is ineffective and possibly injurious. But as if that were not enough of a damning indictment:

Thirdly (nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!), there is a very real sense in which there is no such thing as a dock leaf: I mentioned that R. obtusifololius is often referred to as 'dock leaves'. The same goes for Rumex sagittatus (rambling dock), for Rumex salicifolius (willow dock), and even for Rumus x confusus (worried dock), as well as several other weeds, each more or less distantly and insignificantly related to each other. Admittedly they are all members of the genus Rumex, but not all Rumex are dock leaves (many are, for example, sorrel), and there are no characteristics shared by all those 'Rumex' that are referred to as dock leaves and absent from those that are not. In other words: there is no distinct plant or group of plants to which the name refers. This no doubt accounts for the difficulty often encountered in looking for dock leaves after a nettle sting: the plant you were shown last time may well not in fact be anywhere near you this time, although there is almost certainly something with broad leaves that won't do you any good at all and might do you harm. (Disclaimer: recently someone found antihistamine in patience dock (R. patientia). Bully for him.)

But as I said at the outset: England is mostly harmless. The promotion of ineffective, harmful and indeed chimerical remedies for the slight discomfort of a nettle sting has had no measurable demographic effect, unlike, say, the late 19th Century Tasmanian vogue for treating snake bites with spider venom, which was as short-lived as its proponents. Indeed, it is possible that the fortitude and endurance promoted by the lack of the remedy and the never-ending futility of the search for it was one of the things (like cold baths and rowing before breakfast) that made Britain great, and upon which was built the British Empire. It has been said (purportedly by Wellington, but that's the oral tradition again) that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton: perhaps the weed beds of Sussex also had a part to play. Consideration of that hypothesis is a matter for the trained historian; for myself I can only remark that I became aware of the dubious ontologico-taxonomical status of the dock leaf when I tried to find out how to translate its name into German in order further to disseminate the Wisdom of the Isle: the sensible and efficient German language has no time and no term for such chimerical vegetation. To those who would see an advantage therein I can only recommend a closer study of history.

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