Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Eudicots
(unranked): Rosids
Order: Rosales
Family: Urticaceae
Genus: Urtica
L., 1753

See text

Nettles constitute between 30 and 45 species of flowering plants of the genus Urtica in the family Urticaceae, with a cosmopolitan though mainly temperate distribution. They are mostly herbaceous perennial plants, but some are annual and a few are shrubby. Most of the species have stinging hairs on the stems and leaves.

The most prominent member of the genus is the stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, native to Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America. The genus also contains a number of other species with similar properties, listed below. However, a large number of species included within this genus in the older literature are now recognized as synonyms of Urtica dioica. Some of these taxa are still recognized as subspecies.

Urtica nettles are food for the caterpillars of numerous Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), such as the tortrix moth Syricoris lacunana and several Nymphalidae.


Vegetative characteristics

Nettle species grow as annuals or perennial herbaceous plants, rarely shrubs. They can reach, depending on the type, location and nutrient status, a height of 10–300 cm. The perennial species have underground rhizomes. The green parts have stinging hairs. Their often quadrangular stems are unbranched or branched, erect, ascending or spreading.

Most leaves and stalks are arranged across opposite sides of the stem . The leaf blades are elliptic, lanceolate, ovate or circular. The leaf blades usually have three to five, rarely up to seven veins. The leaf margin is usually serrate to more or less coarsely toothed. The often-lasting bracts are free or fused to each other. The Cystoliths are extended to more or less rounded.


Most of the species listed below share the property of having stinging hairs, and might be expected to have similar medicinal uses to the stinging nettle. The stings of Urtica ferox, the ongaonga or tree nettle of New Zealand, have been known to kill horses, dogs and at least one human.[1]

The nature of the toxin secreted by nettles is not settled. The stinging hairs of most nettle species contain formic acid, serotonin and histamine; however recent studies of Urtica thunbergiana implicate oxalic acid and tartaric acid rather than any of those substances, at least in that species.[2]

Species of nettle

Detail of a male flowering stinging nettle.
Detail of female flowering stinging nettle.

Species in the genus Urtica, and their primary natural ranges, include:

  • Urtica angustifolia Fisch. ex Hornem. 1819, China, Japan, Korea
  • Urtica ardens China
  • Urtica aspera Petrie South Island, New Zealand
  • Urtica atrichocaulis Himalaya, southwestern China
  • Urtica atrovirens western Mediterranean region
  • Urtica australis Hook.f. South Island, New Zealand and surrounding subantarctic islands
  • Urtica cannabina L. 1753, Western Asia from Siberia to Iran
  • Urtica chamaedryoides (heartleaf nettle), southeastern North America
  • Urtica dioica L. 1753 (stinging nettle or bull nettle), Europe, Asia, North America
  • Urtica dubia (large-leaved nettle), Canada
  • Urtica ferox G.Forst. (ongaonga or tree nettle), New Zealand
  • Urtica fissa China
  • Urtica galeopsifolia Wierzb. ex Opiz, 1825, (fen nettle or stingless nettle). Europe. (Often considered a subspecies of Urtica dioica)
  • Urtica gracilenta (mountain nettle), Arizona, New Mexico, west Texas, northern Mexico
  • Urtica hyperborea Himalaya from Pakistan to Bhutan, Mongolia and Tibet, high altitudes
  • Urtica incisa Poir (scrub nettle), Australia, New Zealand
  • Urtica kioviensis Rogow. 1843, eastern Europe
  • Urtica laetivirens Maxim. 1877, Japan, Manchuria
  • Urtica linearifolia (Hook.f.)Cockayne (creeping or swamp nettle), New Zealand
  • Urtica mairei Himalaya, southwestern China, northeastern India, Myanmar
  • Urtica membranacea Mediterranean region, Azores
  • Urtica morifolia Canary Islands (endemic)
  • Urtica parviflora Himalaya (lower altitudes)
  • Urtica pilulifera (Roman nettle), southern Europe
  • Urtica platyphylla Wedd. 1856-1857, China, Japan
  • Urtica procera Mühlenberg (tall nettle), North America
  • Urtica pubescens Ledeb. 1833, Southwestern Russia east to central Asia
  • Urtica rupestris Sicily (endemic)
  • Urtica sondenii (Simmons) Avrorin ex Geltman, 1988, northeastern Europe, northern Asia
  • Urtica taiwaniana Taiwan
  • Urtica thunbergiana Japan, Taiwan
  • Urtica triangularisa
  • Urtica urens L. 1753 (small nettle or annual nettle), Europe, North America

The family Urticaceae also contains some other plants called nettles that are not members of the genus Urtica. These include the wood nettle Laportea canadensis, found in eastern North America from Nova Scotia to Florida, and the false nettle Boehmeria cylindrica, found in most of the United States east of the Rockies. As its name implies, the false nettle does not sting.

Uses and medical properties of nettles

Much historical evidence of use of nettles in medicine, folk remedies, cooking and fibre production relate to one species - Urtica dioica, but a fair amount also refers to the use of Urtica urens, the small nettle, which is preferred because it has more stinging hairs per leaf area than the more common species.[citation needed] It may be inappropriate and probably inaccurate to assume that all nettles exhibit similar properties in all cases, but where an action can be attributed to principles found in the species, such as histamine, choline, formic acid and silica, a rational basis for their use is still available.[citation needed] However, the fact that a medical action can be attributed to a single constituent does not imply that the entire plant will have the same action. Various types of Nettle have been studied for their effects on prostate hypertrophy, diabetes mellitus, rheumatic disease, hypertension, gastrointestinal symptoms, osteoarthritis, diarrhea, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammation, pain,[3] constipation, gastrointestinal disease, headache, nausea, common cold, arthritis, asthma, bleeding, respiratory tract disease, allergic rhinitis, kidney disease, prostate cancer, skin disease and urinary tract disease.[4][verification needed][unreliable source?] In terms of allergies, nettle contains properties of an antihistamine to be used for treating reactions associated with the respiratory system.[5][unreliable source?]

Prehistoric use

Fabric woven of nettle fiber has been found in burial sites dating back to the Bronze Age.[6]

In folklore

Nettles have many folklore traditions associated with them. The folklore mainly relates to the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), but confusion with the similar non-stinging Lamium was common.

Myths about health and wealth

Handmade soap with the extract of stinging nettle

Nettles in a pocket will keep a person safe from lightning and bestow courage.

Nettles kept in a room will protect anyone inside. (This may have arisen from common knowledge of the tremendous amount of nutrients nettles offer, making them a powerful plant in that sense.)

Arthritic joints were sometimes treated by whipping the joint with a branch of stinging nettles. The theory was that it stimulated the adrenals and thus reduced swelling and pain in the joint. A controlled study in the year 2000 supports the effectiveness of this treatment.[7]

Nettles are reputed to enhance fertility in men, and fever could be dispelled by plucking a nettle up by its roots while reciting the names of the sick man and his family.

Turkey and other poultry (as well as cows and pigs) are said to thrive on nettles, and ground dried nettle in chicken feed will increase egg production.[8]

A distillation of the flowers of the White Archangel, or white dead-nettle (Lamium album) is reputed "to make the heart merry, to make a good colour in the face, and to make the vital spirits more fresh and lively." [9]

In 1926, the Royal Horticultural Society's recommendation for getting rid of nettles was to cut them down three times in three consecutive years, after which they will disappear.



Milarepa, the great Tibetan ascetic and saint, was reputed to have survived his decades of solitary meditation by subsisting on nothing but nettles; his hair and skin turned green and he lived to the age of 83. [10]


The Caribbean trickster figure Anansi appears in a story about nettles, in which he has to chop down a huge nettle patch in order to win the hand of the king's daughter.[11]


An old Scots rhyme about the nettle:

"Gin ye be for lang kail coo the nettle, stoo the nettle
Gin ye be for lang kail coo the nettle early
Coo it laich, coo it sune, coo it in the month o' June
Stoo it ere it's in the bloom, coo the nettle early
Coo it by the auld wa's, coo it where the sun ne'er fa's
Stoo it when the day daws, coo the nettle early."
(Old Wives Lore for Gardeners, M & B Boland)

Coo, cow, and stoo are all Scottish for cut back or crop (although, curiously, another meaning of "stoo" is to throb or ache), while "laich" means short or low to the ground.[12] Given the repetition of "early," presumably this is advice to harvest nettles first thing in the morning and to cut them back hard (which seems to contradict the advice of the Royal Horticultural Society].

A well-known English rhyme about the stinging nettle is:

Tender-handed, stroke a nettle,
And it stings you for your pains.
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains.

In Hans Christian Andersen's fairy-tale "The Wild Swans," the princess had to weave coats of nettles to break the spell on her brothers.

Role in the environment

Thanks to the stinging hairs, nettles are rarely eaten by herbivores, so they provide long-term shelter for insects, such as aphids or caterpillars of many butterflies[13] and moths.[14] The insects, in turn, provide food for small birds, such as tits.[15]


Though the fresh leaves can cause painful stings and acute urticaria, these are rarely seriously harmful. A possible exception is the Urtica ferox, the ongaonga or tree nettle of New Zealand. Otherwise most species of nettles are extremely safe and some are even eaten as vegetables after being steamed.[16]

Similar stinging plants

Close-up detail of the stinging hairs.

Other members of other genera in the Urticaceae, with powerful stings:

There are also plants which can produce stinging sensations but which are unrelated to the Urticaceae:[17]

Similarly named plants

Plants with common names include the word "nettle" but which do not sting nor are they part of Urticacea':

See also


  1. ^ Connor, H.E. (1977). The Poisonous Plants in New Zealand. New Zealand Department of Scientific and Industrial Research Bulletin 99. ISSN 0077-916X
  2. ^ *Fu H Y, Chen S J, Chen R F, Ding W H, Kuo-Huang L L, Huang R N (2006). Identification of oxalic acid and tartaric acid as major persistent pain-inducing toxins in the stinging hairs of the nettle,Urtica thunbergiana. It may also have a white bump(s)that will maybe spread a little. Annals of Botany (London), 98:57-65. Abstract
  3. ^ Marrassini C, Acevedo C, Miño J, Ferraro G, Gorzalczany S., "Evaluation of antinociceptive, antinflammatory activities and phytochemical analysis of aerial parts of Urtica urens L." Phytother Res. 2010 Dec;24(12):1807-12
  4. ^ Embase biomedical answers
  5. ^ Natural Relief for Seasonal Allergies by Lauren Sigler
  6. ^ Gulsel M. Kavalali (2003), Gulsel M. Kavalali, ed., Urtica: Therapeutic and Nutritional Aspects of Stinging Nettles, Taylor and Francis, p. 13, ISBN 0-415-30833-X, 
  7. ^ Randall C, Randall H, Dobbs F, Hutton C, Sanders H (2000 Jun), "Randomized controlled trial of nettle sting for treatment of base-of-thumb pain", Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 93 (6): 305–309, PMC 1298033, PMID 10911825, 
  8. ^ Moody, Barb. "The Stinging Truth About Nettles."
  10. ^ Gtsaṅ-smyon He-ru-ka, Heruka Tsangnyon, Andrew Quintman, Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (2003), The Life of Milarepa, Penguin, p. 139, ISBN 0143106228,,+nettle&ots=i-7-wHCLB0&sig=1QISdjJCujV4H23-r3YlwI39WuY#v=onepage&q=milarepa%2C%20nettle&f=false 
  11. ^ Caribbean folktales
  12. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language (online)
  13. ^ Butterflies of the nettle patch
  14. ^ Moths of the nettle patch
  15. ^ Nettles and Wildlife by Prof. Chris Baines
  16. ^
  17. ^ Rohde, M. (1988-2006). "Guide to Contact-Poisonous Plants". Retrieved 2010-02-12. 


  • Anderberg, Kirsten (2005). Folk uses and history of medicinal uses of nettles. Nettles, Nettles, Everywhere
  • Chrubasik S, Enderlein W, Bauer R, Grabner W. (1997). Evidence for the antirheumatic effectiveness of herba Urticae dioicae in acute arthritis: A pilot study. Phytomedicine 4: 105-108.
  • Dathe G, Schmid H. (1987). Phytotherapy for benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH): Double-blind study with extract of root of urtica (ERU). Urologe B 27: 223-226 [in German].
  • Holden, Margaret (1948). "An alkali-producing mechanism in macerated leaves". Biochemical Journal 42 (3): 332–336. PMC 1258718. PMID 16748291. Retrieved 2006-09-25. 
  • Kirchhoff HW. (1983). Brennesselsaft als Diuretikum. Z. Phytother. 4: 621-626 [in German].
  • Krzeski T, Kazón M, Borkowski A, et al. (1993). Combined extracts of Urtica dioica and Pygeum africanum in the treatment of benign prostatic hyperplasia: double-blind comparison of two doses. Clinical Therapy 15 (6): 1011-1020.
  • Mittman, P. (1990). Randomized, double-blind study of freeze-dried Urtica dioica in the treatment of allergic rhinitis. Planta Med 56: 44-47.
  • Randall C, Randall H, Dobbs F, et al. (2000). Randomized controlled trial of nettle sting for treatment of base-of-thumb pain. J. Roy. Soc. Med. 93: 305-309. reported online in British Medical Journal
  • Weigend M, Luebert F. (2009). Weeding the nettles I: Clarifying species limits in perennial, rhizomatous Urtica (Urticaceae) from southern and central Chile and Argentina. Phytotaxa 2: 1-12.
  • Yarnell E. (1998). Stinging nettle: A modern view of an ancient healing plant. Alt. Compl. Therapy 4: 180-186 (review).
  • Healthy Life Magazine, Inc. (June 2007) p. 78

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Nettle — Net tle, n. [AS. netele; akin to D. netel, G. nessel, OHG. nezz[ i]la, nazza, Dan. nelde, n[ a]lde, Sw. n[ a]ssla; cf, Lith. notere.] (Bot.) A plant of the genus {Urtica}, covered with minute sharp hairs containing a poison that produces a… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • nettle — ► NOUN ▪ a plant having jagged leaves covered with stinging hairs. ► VERB ▪ annoy. ● grasp the nettle Cf. ↑grasp the nettle ORIGIN Old English …   English terms dictionary

  • nettle — [net′ l] n. [ME netle < OE netele, akin to Ger nessel < IE base * ned , to twist together > NET1: from the use of such plants as a source of spinning fiber] 1. any of a genus (Urtica) of annual and perennial weeds of the nettle family… …   English World dictionary

  • Nettle — Net tle, v. t. [imp. & p. p. {Nettled}; p. pr. & vb. n. {Nettling}.] To fret or sting; to irritate or vex; to cause to experience sensations of displeasure or uneasiness not amounting to violent anger. [1913 Webster] The princes were so nettled… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • nettle — index aggravate (annoy), badger, discompose, disturb, hector, incense, irritate, offend ( …   Law dictionary

  • nettle — provoke, exasperate, *irritate, aggravate, rile, peeve Analogous words: *annoy, irk, bother, vex: disturb, perturb, agitate, upset, *discompose: fret, chafe, gall (see ABRADE) …   New Dictionary of Synonyms

  • nettle — [v] provoke, upset annoy, chafe, disgust, disturb, exasperate, fret, get*, goad, harass, huff, incense, insult, irritate, miff, peeve*, pester, pet, pique, put out*, rile, roil, ruffle, snit*, stew*, sting*, tease, tiff*, vex; concepts 7,14,19… …   New thesaurus

  • nettle — /ˈnɛtl/ (say netl) noun 1. Also, stinging nettle. any plant of the genus Urtica, comprising widely distributed herbs armed with stinging hairs. 2. any of various allied or similar plants, as Gympie nettle. 3. → dead nettle. –verb (t) (nettled,… …  

  • nettle — {{11}}nettle (n.) stinging plant, O.E. netele, from P.Gmc. *natilon (Cf. O.S. netila, M.Du. netele, Du. netel, Ger. Nessel, M.Da. nædlæ nettle ), dim. of *naton, perhaps from PIE root *ned to twist, knot (see NET (Cf. net) ( …   Etymology dictionary

  • nettle — I UK [ˈnet(ə)l] / US noun [countable] Word forms nettle : singular nettle plural nettles a tall plant with pointed leaves and small hairs that sting if you touch them • grasp the nettle II UK [ˈnet(ə)l] / US verb [transitive] Word forms nettle :… …   English dictionary

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