Do dock leaves really help nettle stings?

How do nettles sting?

Stinging hairs of nettles are hollow, pointed cells with a tip made of pure silica, which breaks leaving a jagged point when you brush against it. The nettle sting contains irritants – mainly formic acid and histamines – that are injected into the surface layer of the skin cells.

Advertisement A stinging nettle. © Carol Sharp/Getty

Do dock leaves help nettle stings?

It is often claimed that crushed dock leaves relieve the pain because their alkaline sap neutralises the nettle’s formic acid, but dock leaf sap is acidic too, so this cannot be true. Nevertheless, many find that the dock leaf remedy seems to work, so there may be other reasons for this.

One possibility is that dock leaf juice evaporating from the skin may have a surface cooling effect on the burning sensation. Another is that dock leaves might contain natural antihistamines that reduce the irritation, though none have been identified. The placebo effect, where faith in the efficacy of dock juice might lower the perception of the sting symptoms, cannot be discounted either.

A small girl holding a large dock leaf – hopefully she hasn’t been stung! © Elva Etienne/Getty

How to treat stinging nettle stings

If you really want to neutralise the effect of the nettle sting’s acid and dock leaves don’t work, try treating it with soap, milk or a dilute solution of baking soda, all of which are alkaline.


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Weedy Wednesday – Dock

In this weekly series, we take a quick look at common garden weeds. How they grow, what benefits they bring to the garden, and how to manage them. Organic growers recognise the importance of these native plants. Insects and birds need the flowers and seeds – and gardeners, cooks and herbalists can harvest some nutrient rich foliage.

We hope that this snap-shot view of bindweed, dandelion, nettle, bramble, thistle, goosegrass, plantain, fat hen, dock and yes, even ground elder, will help you to live with them. We also give advice on how to compost weeds. You may not love them, but you certainly won’t be tempted to reach for the toxic weed-killer.

For more detailed information on over 100 individual weeds, go to the superbly researched Weeds List, and here for how to manage them.

Dock Rumex obtusifolius

What: This broad-leaved plant grows throughout the UK. It’s as well to make friends with it, as the dock is very long lived and hard to eradicate. Cutting will only encourage regeneration in the root system. Dock is closely related to the delicious herb, sorrel (Rumex acetosa). Both have reddish stems, broad green leaves and spires of flowers/seeds which turn red as they mature. Sadly it lacks sorrel’s delicious tangy taste.

Habit: A perennial with a deep taproot. The broad leaves can grow up to 40cm long, and the whole plant up to 130 cm tall. Flower stems appear from June to September, consisting of large clusters of racemes which contain small greenish flowers that change to red as they mature. Seeds are reddish brown. A large mature broad-leaved dock can produce up to 60,000 ripe seeds per year. These seeds can survive ungerminated for over 50 years.

Benefits: Dock leaves can be eaten in salad or soup when very young – before they get too bitter. They contain high levels of oxalic acid (like spinach, sorrel and parsley). This is extracted and used in baking powder; as a bleach for wood, removing black stains caused by water penetration; and – interestingly – as a polish and sealant for marble. Despite the general advice, rubbing a nettle sting with a dock leaf does not alleviate the histamine sting.

Controls: These plants can be very long lived, forming compound crowns with multiple taproots. Their ability to regenerate makes it difficult to eradicate the plant. Cutting the leaves causes regrowth under, as well as above, ground. It is also possible for the plant to form new shoots if detached from the parent. Only by digging out all parts of the long taproot can you be sure to remove a dock. This is best done when the plant is young. As with all weeds, preventing seed dispersal is vital.

For further information on this and other weeds, go to the Weeds List . And here for ideas and advice on how to prevent and manage weeds.

Photo by Hank Shaw

Here in NorCal, edible green things grow all year long, and you can take your pick if you are even a half-decent forager. This is not the case in the rest of the country, where actual winter shuts things down. Fortunately, there is a European weed called curly dock, or dock plant, that is as pervasive as it is persistent. As soon as you catch a whiff of spring, you’ll start to see dock.

Docks are in the rumex family, and are related to rhubarb and sorrel and oxalis. (Note that burdock is a different plant entirely.) If you’ve ever eaten any of these vegetables, you know they are tangy from the oxalic acid in them; rhubarb leaves have so much of this that they are toxic.

Think of dock as the love child of spinach and rhubarb or sorrel (R. acetosa), and you’ll get a good idea about the flavor of this edible wild green.

So how to go about foraging curly dock? Start by knowing that there are a number of varied species, some native and some invasive. Here in the West we have Rumex occidentalis, or Western dock plant.

Photo by Hank Shaw

Where I live it’s actually more common than curly dock, and it tastes similar. Other parts of the country have their own native docks, but the unifier is curly dock, R. crispus.

Look for curly dock in waste places and disturbed ground. Edges of things. It likes construction sites, fallow fields, places chewed up by vehicle tires, roadsides — in other words, a lot of places that aren’t exactly ideal for foraging, because plants growing in compromised places can sometimes contain heavy metals within them, or might have just been sprayed with pesticide.

Still, it’s not too hard to find decent places to pick dock if you walk around a bit.

The native docks tend to like to live near streams and in open forests, and occasionally you will find curly dock there, too. My spots are mostly in neglected corners of local parks, away from the manicured grass and the pesticides those lawns probably contain. There are also seashore docks (R. maritima) as well as desert docks, but I find the desert dock (R. hymenosepalus) to be really, really bitter.

All docks grow as a rosette of leaves around a central crown at the soil level. They all have broad, simple leaves, too. Western dock is a very plain-Jane plant, but once you see it, it’s hard to go wrong:

Photo by Hank Shaw

Remember that pattern of veins in the leaf: All docks have something like that. Also note the blotches. Docks tend to get these when the leaves get older — if you see those blotches, move on: The leaves will likely be bitter and leathery. Dock leaves are hairless, too, so if you see leaves that are fuzzy or bristly, it’s not dock.

Curly dock, as you might imagine, has wavy, ruffled edges to its leaves.

Photo by Hank Shaw

This makes curly dock one of the easier plants for beginners to identify. The leaves are fairly thick and the stems can get a tinge of red, especially in cold weather.

If you catch dock too late, it will send up a flower stalk that can grow to 3 feet high. It will have leaves along the stalk, and lots of tiny, greenish “flowers” that really don’t look like much. The stalk will ripen all summer and eventually turn an attractive, rusty brown. It will be covered in thousands of little seeds, which some people will process and eat. I can tell you this is a massive pain in the ass, and the flavor isn’t that great. My advice: Don’t bother. Stick with the young leaves. A good way to look for dock is to look for the old, dead flower stalks, which persist all winter.

How young do you want your dock plant leaves? Very young. Look at the rosette. You will see leaves emerging that are rolled up tight. If you unroll one, you’ll notice it’s a little sticky-slimy. You want these leaves, and the ones that have just unrolled. The older the leaves get, the more bitter they become. Old leaves need to be boiled in at least one change of water to help mitigate this. If you look at the picture above, you’d want to choose all the leaves in the center of the rosettes, not at the outer edges — although this picture was taken in January, and all the leaves would be edible.

In hot weather, the young leaves are still good, but fully unrolled leaves get gnarly in a hurry.

What to do with them? I cook them like spinach. Remember, however, that like everything in the rumex clan, that pretty emerald dulls to Army green within seconds of hitting the heat. Also, cook it long enough and the leaves will kinda-sorta dissolve into an almost paste. A very tangy, lemony paste. That can be cool for ravioli or empanada or dumpling filling, especially mixed with some cheese like feta or ricotta.

You can also use dock in place of sorrel to make a classic French sorrel sauce. use the sauce on fish, light meat poultry or eggs.

What I did in the picture up top was to go Ethiopian. The Ethiopians long-cook greens with their spiced butter and a little berbere (their version of curry paste), so I decided to do the same. Gotta say it rocked the house! Exotic, rich, spicy, tangy, “green.” For a less esoteric take, go for butter and Cajun seasoning. Or olive oil, chile, garlic and black pepper. Or olive oil and Spanish smoked paprika. Or sesame oil and Japanese togarashi. You get the idea.

Health Benefits of Dock

Rumex spp., commonly known as broadleaf dock, cushy-cows, butterdock, kettle dock, curly dock and smair dock, is a species of flowering plant in a buckwheat family Polygonaceae. It is native to Europe which is now available in United States, Australia, New Zealand and others. The three varieties of dock are: Curled dock, Western dock and Willow dock. It could be found on entire continents as pasture weed, grains and tillage cropland. This plant is considered as perennial weeds. It has alternate leaves with tough and unbranched stem. Dock does best in loamy fertile soils. It is a weed in lawns, orchards, home gardens, roadsides as well as waste areas. It is generally found on borders of woods, floodplains, buildings, and poorly drained as well as nutrient rich soils. It is common on acid soils and upland sites.


It is a perennial herbaceous plant that has tough, reddish and unbranched stem, reaching a height of 1-3 ft. The leaves are alternate, lanceolate to ovate and are 30 inches long. The flowers are small, greenish, and 5 mm across which blooms during June to October. The plant has a stout, branched and yellow taproot. The fruit has the size of 2.5–3.5 mm (0.1–0.14 inch); reddish-brown and 3-angled achene.

Nutritional Value

The serving size of 133 grams provides about 29 calories. It serves 2.66 grams of protein, 0.93 grams of fat and 3.9 grams of dietary fiber. It possesses various amounts of nutrients, minerals, vitamins and amino acids. The same amount provides 70.89% of Vitamin C, 29.88% of Iron, 28% of Vitamin A, 32.62% of Magnesium, 20.17% of Manganese, 19.33% of Copper etc.

Close-up-flower-of-Dock Leaves-of-Dock Plant-of-Dock

Since ancient times Dock is known as a medicinal plant and used in traditional medicines. It possess various antiscorbutic, astringent, cholagogue, depurative, homeopathy and laxative properties which has beneficial effects to maintain the overall health.

  1. Skin health

The study conducted shows that high intake of Vitamin C helps to lower the appearance of wrinkles, skin dryness and also slows down the aging process. Vitamin C is vital for the tendons, skin, blood vessels and ligaments. It speeds up the healing process and also forms a scar tissue.

The evidence shows that the skin cream with Vitamin C reduces the skin redness. The skin health could be maintained with proper diet rich in antioxidants which also help to prevent the skin cancer.

  1. Enhances mood

Neurotransmitters depend on adequate amount of iron in the blood to maintain the positive mood. The mood depends upon the hormones balance such as serotonin, dopamine and others. When low levels of oxygen are present in the body, brain cannot synthesize properly.

The deficiency in iron leads to bad sleep, poor mood, lack of motivation and low level of energy. The feelings of anxiety or mild depression are the contributor of iron deficiency.

  1. Prevent eye ailments

Beta carotene in the form of Vitamin A helps to prevent macular degeneration which is one of the causes for the age related blindness. The study shows that an intake of vitamin E, vitamin C, vitamin E, copper and zinc reduced the chances of macular degeneration by 25 percent.

The study also shows that an eye drops with Vitamin A helps to treat dry eyes effectively. An altered form of Vitamin A helps to slow down the growth of Stargardt’s disease which causes vision loss in young peoples.

  1. Treat osteoporosis

Magnesium is required for the formation of bones, impact osteoblast activities as well as osteoclasts which helps to build the density of bones.

Magnesium helps to maintain the balance of vitamin D in blood which manages bone homeostasis. The high intake of magnesium helps to increase the mineral density of bones. The high intake of magnesium prevents osteoporosis and magnesium deficiency.

  1. Anti-oxidant activities

Manganese is vital for enzymes such a glutamine synthetase, arginase and manganese superoxide which acts as an antioxidants, reduce the oxidative stress as well as inflammation which can lead to cancer or heart disease. Deficiency of manganese helps to reduce pain, inflammation and stress which can cause various chronic ailments. The low level of manganese relates to low superoxide dismutase function which is the only enzyme to slow down the aging process and extend health.

Manganese also assists in the bone formation including xylosyltransferases and glycosyltransferases. It also plays a vital role in converting the compounds into usable energy and nutrients in the body including amino acids and glucose.

  1. Treats anemia

Iron and copper combines while synthesizing red blood cells and hemoglobin. The study shows that copper assists in the iron absorption from an intestinal tract releases iron in the liver where it is stored.

Iron from the supplements or food sources are used to form red blood cells. When there is deficiency of copper, the level of iron also decreases which causes anemia that is caused due to the deficiency of iron. Anemia results in muscle aches, fatigue, impaired brain function and digestive problems.

  1. Prevent heart ailments

Vitamin B6 helps to regulate the homocysteine levels in the blood. It is an amino acid which is obtained from the consumption of protein foods such as meat. The presence of high homocysteine levels in the blood develops heart disease, inflammation and blood vessel disease that leads to heart attack.

The intake of Vitamin B6 helps to reduce the homocysteine levels in the body and also recovers the blood vessel damage. Vitamin B6 helps to manage the cholesterol and blood pressure levels which are the two main causes for the heart disease.

  1. Detoxify the body

Kidneys play a vital role in the body. It eliminates the excess organic molecules present in the blood. Phosphorus is essential for the functioning of kidneys and also detoxifies the body by removing the waste and toxins through the urination. Kidneys and digestive organs depend on the electrolytes such as potassium, phosphorus and magnesium to balance the level of water, sodium, uric acid and fat in the body.

  1. Kidney health

The high intake of potassium helps to reduce the chances of kidney stones. The low level of potassium increases the chances of kidney stones because more amount of calcium is excreted through urine which must get pass through kidneys. Kidney stones are the deposits of calcium so the reduction of calcium in urine helps to counteract the painful kidney ailments.

  1. Assist digestion

Fiber has a vital role in digestion because it adds bulk to the stool, eases to pass the waste through the digestive tract that helps to prevent constipation, indigestion and bloating. It enhances the digestion as the soluble fiber absorbs the water to evolve into viscous, glutinous substance and fermented by bacteria in digestive tract. Intake of an adequate amount of water is essential for the fiber to provide these effects.

Traditional uses

  • Dock leaves are used as an aid for the nettles sting in Western Europe.
  • The roots and leaves are used in traditional Austrian medicine internally to treat viral infections.
  • The milk in the dock leaf contains tannins as well as oxalic acid which are considered as an astringent.
  • The leaves are also used to soothe blisters, burns and nettle stings.
  • The tea which is prepared from root is used to cure the boils.


  • Plants can contain high amount of oxalic acid, so it should not be consumed in large quantity because the nutrients could be lock-up and cause mineral deficiencies.
  • The people rheumatism, gout, arthritis, hyperacidity or kidney stones should be careful to include this plant in the diet because it can worsen the existing condition.
  • The pregnant and breast feeding mothers should also avoid this plant.

How to Eat

  • It could be dried to use later.
  • The leaves are cooked as a potherb, added to salads.
  • The stems and seeds could be consumed either raw or cooked.
  • Seeds are used as piñole, grounded into a powder and used to make pancakes as flour.
  • The seed is roasted or a perfect substitute for coffee.
  • The leaves during young are consumed as greens.

Other Facts

  • The leaves become bitter early and contain a laxative effect.
  • The leaves help to soothe blisters, burns, and nettle stings.
  • It was known as butter dock during old times as the large leaves was used to wrap butter.
  • In North America, there are 25 species of Dock.
  • The leaves of Dock contain oxalic acid which is also found in spinach as well as beets.
  • When the leaves grow older, it possesses a sour taste.
  • It is widely cultivated in Southwestern United States as a great source of tannin.

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Broad-leaved dock

The two main dock species are the broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius) and the curled dock (R. crispus). They are common throughout the UK both as the true species and as hybrids. The hybrids may produce less seed but can be more vigorous than the parents and will sometimes infest whole fields. The presence of fertile hybrids has been reported, probably the result of backcrosses with a parent. Broad-leaved dock itself is a highly variable perennial species and many forms, varieties and subspecies have been described worldwide. Three subspecies have been distinguished in the UK.

Broad-leaved dock is found throughout Britain and there is no climatic limitation on distribution. It is the most abundant dock in grassland. Dock seedlings are poor competitors and can only establish in open or disturbed patches in standing vegetation. The presence of docks in grassland is often associated with the uneven application of slurry or manure that leaves bare patches. The openness of a sward after cutting for silage is also linked with dock establishment. Poor grass management leading to overgrazing and poaching allows dock seedlings to emerge and grow. Fewer broad-leaved docks are found on grassland grazed by sheep or subject to flooding but it may be frequent on trodden ground in pastures and in gateways. Broad-leaved dock is also found in arable crops, field margins and waste places.

Broad-leaved dock is able to grow on a range of soils except the most acid. Soils high in nitrogen or low in potassium are said to favour docks. However, some research has shown a clear link between increasing dock populations and increasing levels of soil potassium. But other studies concluded that increasing the potassium status did not favour docks.

There are some who would argue that docks in grassland are not weeds because they contribute to the herbage and hence do not need to be controlled. They may also contribute trace elements to a grazing animals diet. Broad-leaved dock is relatively high in phosphate and potassium levels in the leaves, and is particularly high in magnesium. Cattle fed on the herbage containing docks are said not to suffer bloat because tannins in the dock leaves precipitate out soluble protein in the rumen liquor.

In the UK, broad-leaved dock is a host for the potato eelworm, Ditylenchus destructor. Docks also serve as alternate hosts for the bean aphis and mangold fly, and encourage subterranean larvae such as those of the swift moth.

Bitter Dock

Rumex obtusifolius

Common names

  • Bitter Dock
  • Blunt-leaved Dock
  • Broad-leaved Dock
  • Common Dock
  • Red-veined Dock
  • Round-leaved Dock

The bitter dog is a perennial non-woody aromatic herb that grows up to anything between two feet and five feet. This European dock with broad obtuse leaves and bitter rootstock has a straight stalk that is greenish in color usually with red streaks. The herb produces large leaves at the bottom that may be up to 14 inches long and have rounded or heart-shaped bases, while the leaves on the higher branches of the plant are usually smaller and leaner. Between the period June and September, the bitter dock produces petite green colored flowers in crowded bunches that appear on tall stems at the top of the herb. After the flowers are gone, tiny fruits having a solitary seed appear on the calyx.

These fruits are covered by three deeply jagged valves resembling wings. These seeds possess jagged wing arrangement enabling them to be scattered by wind or water for propagation. Their jagged or toothed configuration also enables the seeds to attach to the animal hides or machinery and be taken to far away places for dispersal. Bitter dock seeds have the capability to remain dormant for several years before they can germinate under suitable conditions. As a result it is necessary to pull or till the areas where the seeds lie dormant so that they are able to come up to the top soil for germination. The plants can produce seeds in the very first year of their growth and this make it important for detecting them early on for purging.

The scientific name for bitter dock is Rumex obtusifolius and this herb can be easily recognized owing to its extremely big leaves and also because of the fact that some of the leaves at the base of the plant have red stalks. The borders of the bitter dock leaves are crispy or wavy to some extent. The stalks of the herb have joints or nodes that are covered by a thin membrane resembling paper and called ocrea. It may be mentioned here that such nodes and ocrea are typical of the plants belonging to the Polygonaceae family.

The herb bears large clusters of flowers enclosed in racemes (cone-like structures) that are initially green in color, but transform into reddish hue when they mature. These racemes are held on a solitary stalk that develops higher than the leaves and blossoms right from June to September. The plants bear fruits each of which enclose a single reddish-brown color seed. Even the seedlings of the bitter dock are easy to recognize as they have egg-shaped or oval leaves with reddish stems.

The curly dock, scientific name Rumex crispus, is almost identical to biter dock (Rumex obtusifolius), with the only exception that the former has thinner and waiver leaves compared to the large round shaped leaves of the latter. In addition, if one scrutinizes the curly dock plant closely, he will find that the calyx of this herb possesses soft borders, while the calyx of the broadleaf dock or the bitter dock has jagged margins.

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The bitter dock is a familiar herb in North America where it is usually known as the garden weed that is especially obstinate and spreads outrageously. Presently there are over 20 different species of dock in North America and South America (also known as New World) and some of these were brought in from Europe. Among these different varieties of dock, the bitter dock, yellow dock and patience dock are prominent. Although these plants differ from one another in terms of size, leaf, flower and fruit, the therapeutic and cookery uses have common characteristics. However, the traditional usage of these plants and their different parts are not evidently differentiated. However, herbal medicine practitioners were aware of the dock’s therapeutic value as a laxative since the ancient times. Several hundred years later, medical practitioners in England during the Anglo-Saxon period often made use of a blend of dock leaves, other herbs, ale and holy water to treat people who were supposed to have been ailing owing to ‘elf sickness’ allegedly caused by witchcraft.

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With the turn of the 17th century, ingestion of a tea prepared with bitter dock roots was considered to provide relief from toothache and treated inflammation when it was used as a wash. According to herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, an extract derived from the bitter dock helped to remove marks or blotches from the skin.

Parts used

Root, leaves.


Modern day scientific researches have corroborated the practice of the traditional herbal medical practitioners whereby they used a tea prepared with bitter dock to cure constipation or clear bowel movements. In fact, the bitter dock serves as an effective laxative. The young and tender leaves of this herb may be consumed fresh as a green salad or even be prepared in the same manner as spinach is cooked. On the other hand, the bitter dock root also produces a yellow colorant.

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The juice or ‘milk’ extracted from the bitter dock leaf is said to enclose tannins and oxalic acid that are basically astringents. In a number of places in the United Kingdom herbalists treat nettle stings (the irritating sensation caused by ‘nettle’, an herbaceous flowering plant found in Europe, Asia, northern Africa and North America) by forcefully massaging a dock leaf on the area of the sting. Interestingly enough, the ‘dock leaves’ as the bitter dock leaves are often called are frequently found growing in the vicinity of the nettles. A tincture prepared with the bitter dock leaves is useful in treating menopause problems. And, going by the prescriptions of traditional herbal treatment, roots of the bitter dock plant has a marked detoxifying effect on the liver and it also helps to cleanse the skin of all its blemishes.

Habitat and cultivation

The bitter dock is indigenous to Europe and, hence, is also often referred to as the European dock. However, over the years, this herb has been naturalized all over the United States where it is regarded as a common weed for its vigorous and uncontrolled growth.

Great care needs to be taken while growing the bitter dock from its seedlings. The bitter dock seedlings are unable to face competition from other vegetation and, hence, can only thrive in an open area or disturbed land occupied by permanent vegetation. When bitter docks are found growing in grasslands, be sure that it is owing to lopsided slurry or compost that causes dire plots of land. In fact, the open pastures left after cutting the shrubs for animal feed are also a reason for the rapid growth of the bitter dock. In addition, over grazing and poaching due to lackadaisical grass management also enables the bitter dock seedlings to come out and flourish rapidly. It may be mentioned that very less broad-leaved bitter docks grow on grassland that have been nibbled by sheep or which are flooded frequently. On the contrary, they are found often on trampled ground in meadows and in gateways. Bitter docks with broad leaves may also be found among cultivable crops, borders of the fields as well as waste lands.

As far as the soil condition is concerned, the broad-leaved dock, or bitter dock, is very adaptable. It can grow equally well on all kinds of soils, barring majority of acidic soils. The bitter dock prefers both soils having rich nitrogen content as well as poor potassium content. Nevertheless, a number of recent researches have demonstrated that the growth level of bitter dock increase with increase in the potassium content in the soil. Contrary to this finding, several other studies have shown that soils possessing high potassium content are not suitable for the growth of the bitter dock.

Some people are of the view that bitter dock growing in the grasslands should not be considered to be weeds as these plants contribute to the natural vegetation or fodder in the region. For this reason, this section of people argues that the growth of bitter dock should not be regulated as it is done in the case of other weeds. They further state that bitter dock encloses certain trace elements that are nutritious for the animal diet and, hence, animals grazing on the grasslands benefit from consuming bitter dock. It may be mentioned here that the leaves of the broad-leaved dock or the bitter dock enclose comparatively high levels of phosphate and potassium, while the magnesium content in the leaves is especially high. It is said that the cattle who feed on the foliage including bitter dock never endure bloating as the tannins enclosed in the bitter dock leaves gets rid of the soluble protein in the chewed liquor.

The broad-leaved dock is known to be a host of the potato eelworm( scientific name Ditylenchus destructor) in the United Kingdom. In addition, the bitter dock also functions as substitute hosts for the mangled fly and bean aphis. This herb also promotes the survival of underground larvae like that of the swift moth.

As discussed earlier, the bitter dock blooms between June and September. However, the flowering of the plants is often delayed in the event of removing the shoot quite early or prematurely. A full grown and large bitter dock plant is able to yield as many as 60,000 ripe seeds every year. From the milk phase on, the seeds come into existence and the unripe seeds would continue to grow on the stems chopped from the plants just some days after the plants bear flowers. The bitter dock plants begin to discard the seeds from the latter phase of summer through to the winter. However, the bitter dock seeds require some gestation period after ripening in order to germinate properly. If you are propagating the bitter dock from seedlings, then these plants will not produce any flower during the first year of their existence.

The seeds of bitter dock from different populations, diversely branching flower cluster from the same plant and also from different positions on the same panicle vary considerably as far as their germination features are concerned. The reasons for this variation in germination characteristics are many and may include the size of the seeds, sometimes the depth of the seed coating, often the seeds ripening time and also the maternal factors of the seeds. Even the destruction of the plant may also have an impact on the development of seed and their germination features. To promote the best germination of the seeds, they require discontinuous temperatures, chilling conditions, addition of nitrates and the seed scarification.

Although the bitter dock seeds are capable of germinating during any season of the year provided the conditions are favorable, they basically germinate on a large-scale during the periods March-April and July-October. The seeds of the bitter dock usually germinate most excellently when they are on the surface of the soil or when in the top 10 mm stratum of the soil. Nevertheless, the seeds are able to germinate from relatively deeper layers of the soil during summer when the soil is comparatively warm. This is primarily owing to the fact that the bitter dock seeds do not prefer moist soil. The seedlings can come out even from a depth of up to 70 mm in clay dusty soil. On the other hand, germination of the bitter dock seeds is slow when there is a dense canopy of leaves above the soil. Although the bitter dock seedlings do not grow well in challenging or unfavorable conditions, they enjoy an edge over other crops and grass having superficial or shallow roots once the taproot of these seedlings have gone deep into the ground. And once the taproots have gone deep into the soil, it is quite difficult to get rid of the bitter dock plants.

While the bitter dock seedlings find it difficult to flourish under competitive conditions, fully grown plants are able to endure or sustain even treading over and mowing. Soon after the plants are trampled or mowed, they send up new shoots and frequent rejuvenation of the plant may even result in the growth of huge thickets. The parts of the bitter dock plant that lie below the ground include a vertical stalk and a divided taproot with a transition region lying between them. The subterranean stem of the bitter dock often develops up to a length of around 5 cm and it is maintained below the ground by means of the contraction of the root. During the winter months the broad-leaved dock coils up having undersized shady leaves and a solid taproot. Once the cold is over, the bitter dock produces new leaves quickly in spring and the plant witnesses a productive period that extends for a while.

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Smartweed Family (Polygonaceae)

Other Names:

Origin and Distribution:

Broadleaf dock is a native of Europe that is found on all continents as a weed of pastures, small grains, and reduced tillage cropland. It is also a weed in orchards, lawns, and home gardens as well as along roadsides and waste areas. Broadleaf dock is found throughout Ohio, especially in the unglaciated southeastern counties. It is usually found on floodplains, along borders of woods, around buildings, in poorly drained and nutrient rich soils, but is also common in some upland sites and on acid soils.

Plant Description:

Broadleaf dock is a rosette-forming perennial with a deep taproot that can reach depths of up to 5 feet. It reproduces primarily by seeds, but there is limited regeneration from root tissues. The plants grow as a basal rosette with relatively large leaves. The hairless reproductive stem may reach heights up to 5 feet and will have smaller versions of the basal leaves arranged alternate. The smartweed family is characterized by a papery sheath (called the ocrea) that cover each node. Terminal clusters of small inconspicuous flowers with greenish petals (which turn red at maturity) are formed on the reproductive stems from June through September. Flowers do not contain any nectar and are wind-pollinated. Seedlings are capable of flowering in the first season. A cork-like 3-winged triangular fruit surrounds each seed; this fruit is buoyant and can be dispersed by water. One plant of curly dock can produce up to 60,000 seeds per year. In a long-term weed seed burial study, approximately 83% of the seeds of curly dock were still viable after 20 years. In a similar study started in 1879, about 2% of curly dock seeds were found to be viable after 80 years. Seeds are destroyed in passing through chickens and are relatively short-lived in silage. However, they can pass through other birds and cattle without loss of viability.

  • Root System:

    The root system is a stout, somewhat branched, yellow taproot that may extend as deep as 4 feet.

  • Stems:

    Stems are erect, tall (1 to 4 feet), and sparsely branched, arising solitary or in small groups from the root crown. A tall membranous sheath (ochrea) surrounds the stem above each node. Stems are smooth, sometimes ridged, and become red-brown with age. The erect rust-colored stems often persist into winter.

  • Leaves:

    Cotyledons are three times as long as wide; first true leaves are round. Subsequent leaves are broad, twice as long as wide, with heart-shaped basal lobes and somewhat wavy (but not curly) margins. Newly emerging leaves are distinctly laterally rolled. The petioles and veins on the under side are covered with short, white hairs. Rosette leaves are oblong, often with red veins and/or red spots on the upper surface. Upper leaves are smaller, lance-shaped, with pointed tips, and are arranged alternately on the stem (one per node).

  • Flowers:

    Flowers are not showy, but are made up of small, green sepals (no petals) that turn brown at maturity. They appear in loose whorls along the upper part of the elongating and branched stem. The flowers lack nectar and pollen is spread by wind.

  • Fruits and Seeds:

    The fruits of broadleaf dock are generally triangular, with jagged spreading teeth along the margins of the membranous ‘wings’ (sepals). Fruits contain a single glossy red-brown triangular seed enclosed in only one of the 3 sepals. A single plant may produce up to 60,000 seeds.

Similar Species:

Curly dock (Rumex crispus) is a more widely distributed weed that is less tolerant of acid soil conditions. It is distinguished by relatively narrow curly-margined leaves, and membranous wings (sepals on fruits) that are not prominently toothed. At the seedling stage, the cotyledons of curly dock are longer and narrower than those of broadleaf dock. Common burdock (Arctium minus) also has broad leaves, but they are much larger, with hollow petioles, and a furry grey-green lower surface.


Seeds produced from a given plant vary greatly in their requirements for germination, which results in intermittent emergence in both spring and fall. Soil disturbance stimulates germination by exposing previously buried seeds to light and fluctuating temperatures, which are requirements for germination. Flower stalks are produced after about 35 days and regrowth from rootstocks is possible after about 50 days. Shoot regeneration occurs from shoot buds on the upper 3 inches of the taproot. Plants emerging in fall form a rosette that overwinters, whereas plants emerging in spring can flower within 9 weeks and set seeds the first year. Broadleaf dock does not tolerate competition well, and if crowded will delay flowering until the second or third year. In Ohio, flowers generally appear during June and July. The plant’s longevity is variable: some die after flowering and others live 3 to 5 years. The seeds are adapted for dispersal by wind, water, and animals. Winged sepals, made of cork-like tissue, are thought to aid in dispersal by allowing the fruit to move long distances by wind and to float along streams. The toothed wings allow the seeds to adhere to animals and machinery. In a buried seed study, 94% of seeds germinated after 3 years and 83% after 21 years. Seeds survive passage through digestive tracts of cattle and many birds (but not chickens). This weed is very commonly associated with moist situations; improved drainage has been suggested as an aid to management. It does not tolerate tillage, especially if it occurs within the first month and a half of growth or if the upper part of the taproot is destroyed.


Leaves may cause mild dermatitis in some individuals. These plants have been used as a laxative, astringent, and in cooking. The plants are generally not considered poisonous, however curly dock seeds are reported as being toxic to chickens. Cattle and horses can become ill if large quantities of leaves are consumed.

Facts and Folklore:

  • The young leaves have been eaten as greens, but they become bitter early in the growing season. They may also have a laxative effect.

  • Broadleaf dock leaves have been used to soothe burns, blisters, and nettle stings. A tea prepared from the root was thought to cure boils.

  • An old name for broadleaf dock is ‘butter dock’ which derives from the use of the leaves to wrap butter for market.

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