- Three members of the Nettle Family
- Garden News Blog
- Weed of the Month: Stinging Nettle
- What Is Burning Nettle: Getting Rid Of Burning Nettle Plants
- Burning Nettle Plants
- Getting Rid of Burning Nettle
- From the Extension: Beware the weeds that sting and burn
- How to Manage Pests
- Pests in Gardens and Landscapes
- Beware of pretty little members of Urtica family
- Edible Weeds 101: The Health Benefits of Stinging Nettles
- Stinging nettles
- Stinging Nettle: How To Identify, Harvest, and Eat
- Stinging Nettle Urtica dioca
Three members of the Nettle Family
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)
Probably the most commonly known and recognized member of the Nettle Family (Urticaceae) is stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). Many folks know of its medicinal and edible qualities and enjoy foraging for it. Stinging nettle can be found throughout North America, Europe, Asia and North Africa.
Wood nettle (Laportea canadensis)
Less well known is wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) which is native to the eastern half of North America. It, too, is prized by foragers as food and medicine.
Clearweed (Pilea pumila)
The third plant to review in the nettle family is clearweed (Pilea pumila) — also found in eastern North America. I have read that it is edible and people have foraged and eaten this plant — mistakenly thinking they were harvesting stinging nettle.
So let’s look at some commonalities and differences between these three plants. (If you click on the images below, you will be taken to a larger view of each of them.) All three plants are in the Nettle Family. And each has been assigned to a different genus (Urtica, Laportea and Pilea).
When we look at the leaves we can see how very similar they are in shape. Clearweed’s leaves are smooth and somewhat glossy while both stinging nettle and wood nettle have “rougher” looking leaves.
As you can see in the wood nettle photo above (taken in early spring), the stems and underside of the leaves are covered with stinging hairs. Stinging nettle has similar stinging hairs along its stems.
Clearweed does not have any stinging hairs at all.
Later in the year, the clearweed stem becomes more obviously translucent (“clear”) and flexible.
Since both stinging nettle and wood nettle look so much alike — and both protect themselves with stinging hairs — how can we tell these two plants apart? The most obvious difference is the orientation of the leaves along the stems. Stinging nettle’s leaves are opposite each other.
Wood nettle’s leaves alternate on the stem.
9/3/12: Here’s a comparison with a fourth member of the nettle family.
Garden News Blog
Weed of the Month: Stinging Nettle
By Joni Blackburn | June 6, 2018
A couple of years ago, I was strolling through an herb garden and pushed aside a tall clump of leafy green stems overhanging the path. I regretted this move within seconds as the back of my hand and wrist began tingling, then stinging, then burning as if I’d been stung by a score of little bees. After a few moments of utter confusion mixed with growing distress, I realized what I’d gotten into: stinging nettles!
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) grows abundantly throughout North America and temperate regions across the Northern Hemisphere. The stems and foliage are covered with brittle, needlelike hairs, called trichomes, no doubt an adaptation to deter herbivory. Each trichome contains at its base a potent mix of irritating compounds, including histamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and formic acid. The tips of the trichomes break off upon contact, releasing the chemicals. Pity the poor creature that bites off a mouthful of these leaves—or touches them with her bare hands.
In addition to its defense mechanisms, the weedy success of stinging nettle can also be attributed to the facts that it is a perennial; it spreads by rhizome as well as by seed; and given moist, reasonably rich soil, it can thrive in the light shade of woodland brooks or in sunny meadows, along roadside ditches, and in disturbed areas like barnyards.
The species is also sometimes cultivated intentionally, as it was when I came across it in the herb garden. Why grow such a noxious plant? Stinging nettles are both tasty and healthful and considered a desirable, if weedy, herb. The leaves, stems, and roots have been used for food, medicine, cordage, and dye for millennia.
To recognize stinging nettle—a useful skill to avoid accidental agony—look for the plant’s long, hairy, slightly heart-shaped serrated leaves, which grow opposite each other on tall, fibrous, hairy stems that can reach up to six feet tall. Because it spreads by rhizomes, stinging nettle is often found growing in patches. In late summer, dense panicles of tiny greenish-yellow flowers bloom at the leaf axils before forming seeds that drop to the soil in the fall.
Not long after my first encounter, I had another brush with stinging nettle. This time, a single plant was growing at the bottom of my raised-bed vegetable garden, camouflaged among some zinnias. I immediately ran inside and scrubbed down with soap and water, but no relief. Instead of 20 minutes of discomfort like my first run-in with it, this time I endured distractingly painful hives up and down my forearm that felt like multiple fresh wasp stings for more than 24 hours. A Google search revealed a number of folk remedies, including applying a poultice made with other weeds usually found nearby, such as jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) and dock (Rumex species), as well as household first aid like hydrocortisone cream, calamine lotion, and baking soda. Nothing helped me but time.
When I was ready to venture back to the garden, I wore leather gauntlet gloves to cut down the plant’s stems and lay them on the hot cement of the driveway to dry out (and lose their stinging properties) before composting. To make sure it didn’t come back, I dug down into the loose soil with my fingers and winkled out every bit of yellow rhizome I could find. And until I’m sure no nettle seeds are left to germinate, I’ll be sure to wear gloves to weed my garden!
What Is Burning Nettle: Getting Rid Of Burning Nettle Plants
You’ve likely heard of stinging nettle, but what about its cousin, burning nettle. What is burning nettle, and what does burning nettle look like? Read on to learn more about burning nettle plants.
Burning Nettle Plants
Burning nettle (Urtica urens) grows in various areas across the Eastern, Central and Western United States. It is a small to mid-size, upright, broadleaf weed with bristly, deeply serrated leaves. Small, greenish-white flowers appear from late spring until late autumn.
Burning nettle is found primarily in disturbed areas such as ditches, roadsides, fences rows and, unfortunately, in gardens. The plant earns its name, and if you accidentally brush up against the leaves, you’re unlikely to forget the experience.
Burning Nettle vs. Stinging Nettle
Burning nettle, also known as small nettle or annual nettle, generally reaches heights of 5 to 24 inches. It is native to Europe. Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), native to North America, is a much taller plant that can grow as tall as 3 to 10 feet, but can reach heights of 20 feet when conditions are just right.
Otherwise, the two plants share many similarities. Burning nettle germinates in a span of time from late autumn to early spring and blooms in winter and spring, although plants may produce greenish-yellow flowers all year in mild climates. Stinging nettle seeds germinate in spring and blooms appear from spring until autumn. Both nettle types display leaves covered with long, bristly hairs.
Getting Rid of Burning Nettle
Burning nettle plants are stubborn and getting rid of burning nettle requires persistence. Tilling sounds like a workable plan, but usually just distributes the rhizomes and makes the problem even worse.
Pulling the plants by hand is the best means of control, but be sure to protect your skin with sturdy gloves, long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Pull weeds carefully because any pieces of rhizomes left behind will generate more plants. You’ll have better luck at getting the entire weed when the soil is damp, and a garden fork or a long, narrow tool such as a dandelion weeder can make it easier to get the long taproots.
Always pull the weeds before they bloom and set seeds. You can also mow the weeds very closely, or cut them down with a weed trimmer – again, always before the plants bloom. Be persistent and pull new weeds as they sprout.
If all else fails, a glyphosate-based herbicide may be required but should always be considered a last resort. Keep in mind that the herbicide will kill any plant growth it touches.
From the Extension: Beware the weeds that sting and burn
Have you ever been weeding your garden and pulled on a weed that bit back?
There’s a weed that looks common enough that you think nothing of trying to pull it with bare hands. It has no thorns or obvious weapons, but it does have small hairs with bulbous bases filled with irritant histamines and acetocholines.
These small hairs act like miniature hypodermic needles that inject these irritating chemicals when you break the tip of the tubular hair. Intense itching and reddening follow immediately and you may think you grabbed onto a bee or wasp.
The reaction usually lasts a day or two, but quick first aid may be required to calm the burning and swelling that some people experience. Wash the affected area and immediately apply a baking soda paste to sooth the stinging sensation. Some people may still require medical attention.
This plant is stinging nettle.
Different looking than what you may have seen up north, but just as painful. The plant is an annual that comes out about this time to plague gardeners.
There are two related similar-looking species found in this area, Urtica chamaedryoides and Urtica urens, but the common name around here is fire weed or burning nettle for the intense burning feeling you get from them. Some stinging nettles are used in herbal medicine and as an edible green when boiled, but not these species.
The plant is usually low growing (4-20 inches tall), branching from the base, with plants growing in the shade having the longer stems. The leaves are opposite, triangular to heart-shaped in outline with coarse teeth along the edge. The flowers are not showy, just greenish clusters along the stem.
They look very similar to many other weeds in the garden, so it is best to always wear protective gloves when weeding.
Poison ivy is another dangerous weed you may encounter as you work in the landscape.
Many people confuse Virginia creeper with poison ivy, but a quick count of the leaves will help with identifying the difference. Poison ivy has three leaflets, Virginia creeper has five leaflets. They are both vines, but one is nice and one has a mean defense system.
All parts of poison ivy contain urushiol, the irritating oil that is difficult to get off. Even when the vine has no leaves in the winter time, contact with the stem and roots can still affect you. The oil on your pet’s fur, your clothing, tools, shoes or other items can cause an allergic reaction, including the smoke from burning plants.
That’s right — your pet may bring back more than you think from a romp in the woods.
People vary in their sensitivity and may become more sensitive with repeated exposure. The itching rash, redness and swelling can last for weeks. Over-the-counter creams with bentoquatam absorb the urushiol oil and can prevent or lessen the reaction if applied before contact.
After exposure, your best practice is to immediately wash the exposed skin, tools or other items with warm, soapy water and rinse thoroughly in cool water. Wash affected clothing separately from the other laundry. Minor reactions may be treated with over-the-counter products that contain zinc acetate, hydrocortisone, or zinc oxide; oatmeal baths; a paste of baking soda; or oral antihistamines. More severe reactions may require medical attention.
Gardening can be a fun, therapeutic activity, but sometimes some bad weeds get in the way. Be aware of the potential problem weeds and always wear protective gloves.
Visit the Discovery Gardens and our plant clinic with your plant problems and questions from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. week days at the Extension Center, 1951 Woodlea Road in Tavares.
Visit http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/lake/ for more details and class registrations. Use the “hamburger” menu in the top right corner to navigate to our various pages.
Juanita Popenoe is a multi-county commercial fruit production agent IV at the UF/IFAS Lake County Extension Center. Email [email protected]
How to Manage Pests
Pests in Gardens and Landscapes
Burning & Stinging Nettles
In this Guideline:
Burning nettle plant, Urtica urens.
Stinging nettle Urtica dioica ssp. holosericea stinging hairs.
Burning nettle seedling, Urtica urens.
Burning nettle, Urtica urens, flowering stem.
American stinging nettle Urtica dioica ssp. gracilis flowers.
Burning nettle, Urtica urens, seeds.
Burning nettle (Urtica urens) and stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) belong to the family Urticaceae. Both are upright plants, which are well recognized for their stinging hairs. Although both are often called stinging nettle, that common name only applies to Urtica dioica. Despite their similarity in causing skin irritation, the two species are considerably different in their biology and preferred habitat.
Burning nettle, Urtica urens, is also known as dwarf nettle or small nettle. It is native to Europe, but in the United States is common in many eastern states and a few central states. It also occurs in the Western United States, including Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, and Washington. In California, burning nettle is widely distributed, although it is not known to occur in the desert, the Klamath Mountain range or in the higher regions of the Cascade Mountain range above 9800 feet. It is especially common along the California coast. Burning nettle commonly infests disturbed sites, such as fence rows, ditch banks and roadsides, but can also be a problematic weed in gardens, vegetable crops, sugar beets, citrus and deciduous orchards.
Stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, is native to North America, including California and other western U. S. states. This species has two widespread, subspecies that include the subspecies gracilis, commonly known as American stinging nettle, California nettle, coast nettle, or Lyall nettle, and the subspecies holosericea, known as California slender nettle, creek nettle, giant creek nettle, hedge nettle, hoary nettle, or mountain nettle. In California, stinging nettle does not generally occur in the desert and areas above 9800 feet. The species commonly infests moist uncultivated areas including waste places, riverbanks, fence rows and roadsides, and is occasionally a problem in orchards and vineyards. It is not generally a problem in gardens and row crops.
Burning nettle is a small to medium-size summer annual broadleaf weed common in gardens. The first new seed leaves, or cotyledons, are bright green, notched at the tips, but smooth along the edges. The first true leaves have serrated margins, and occur opposite each other on the stalk. The leaf blade and the stalk have both stinging and nonstinging hairs. Mature plants can be 5 inches to 2 feet tall. Plants are slender and upright with sparse, four-angled stems. Stinging hairs on stems and leaves are long. Shorter nonstinging hairs may also be present. The two opposite, stalked leaves have toothed margins and are 1/2 to 2 inches long with 3 to 5 veins radiating from the base. Flowers are about 2/5 of an inch long and greenish white. The plant contains both male and female flowers that occur in the same cluster. Fruits are small (1/16 to 1/10 of an inch), triangular, with one seed.
Stinging nettle is a tall perennial broadleaf weed that often grows in colonies. The cotyledons (seed leaves) are round to oval, and hairless except for a few stinging hairs and sparse, short, nonstinging hairs. The first true leaves have margins that are coarsely round-toothed on short stalks. Leaf surfaces are coated with stinging hairs as well as nonstinging hairs. Full grown plants can be 3–1/2 to 10 feet tall, but can reach 20 feet in some situations. Stems are angular, often branched from the base and have long stinging hairs as well as short, nonstinging hairs. Leaves are opposite and 2–1/2 to 5 inches long with 3 to 5 veins radiating from the base and coarsely toothed and lance shaped. Separate male and female flower clusters occur at the base of the leafstalks and are whitish green and inconspicuous. Fruits are small (1/25 of an inch) and egg shaped.
Burning nettle seeds germinate from late fall through early spring. Plants may produce viable seeds within five weeks of germination. Flowers generally bloom from January to April, but blooms can be seen year-round in milder climates such as along the California coast. As an annual plant, it dies within one year.
Stinging nettle seeds germinate in the spring. Underground stems, or rhizome fragments, can also develop into mature plants under favorable conditions. Often large clumps of plants grow from rhizomes in uncultivated areas. The flowers bloom from March to September. As a perennial plant, stinging nettle may live for several years regrowing from rhizomes.
Both burning and stinging nettle are aptly named. Their leaves and stems are covered with long, fine to bristly hairs that can irritate and blister skin when handled. When human skin comes into contact with a leaf or stem, it often rapidly develops reddish patches accompanied by itching and burning. Frequently, a prolonged tingling sensation may persist on the affected skin for more than 12 hours, even after visible symptoms have faded.
The prickly hairs of both burning and stinging nettle consist of a minute tubelike structure that has a hard round bulb at the tip and a softer vessel at the base. This bulb breaks off after contact with skin and exposes a needlelike point. When the tip contacts and penetrates the skin, it puts pressure on the basal vessel and results in the needlelike injection of irritating substances under the skin. The contents of the structures are not fully known, but have been found to contain active concentrations of the neurotransmitter chemicals acetylcholine and histamine. Unlike poison oak, which causes a red, itchy, weepy reaction called allergic dermatitis in only a portion of the population, the nettles affect everyone equally. This is known as irritant dermatitis.
Along the coast, burning nettle is particularly problematic because it grows year-round. Stinging nettle plants can become a nuisance for farmers when large stands block irrigation waterways. Stinging nettle prefers moist areas in wildlands, such as areas surrounding creeks or rivers. If these sites occur along hiking trails, plants can be a nuisance or even a health hazard to visitors.
Burning and stinging nettles growing in the home garden and landscape are best controlled using cultural and mechanical methods.
Cultural and Mechanical Control
Burning and stinging nettles can be controlled by removing plants by hand. However, it is important to wear gloves to protect skin from the stinging hairs. For stinging nettle, ensure that the underground portion called rhizomes are removed or the plants will regrow. Because stinging nettles are native to California and the western United States, control should only be performed in areas where they cause economic or health problems. Close mowing can prevent the development of fruit. Be aware that cultivating the soil may spread the rhizomes of stinging nettle, thus increasing the size of the population. Repeated cultivation works best as a control for this weed.
Herbicides listed to control burning and stinging nettles include isoxaben, oxadiazon and oxyfluorfen, but these materials are available only to licensed pesticide applicators. Refer to the herbicide label for proper use of these products.
WARNING ON THE USE OF PESTICIDES
DiTomaso, J. M., and Healy, E. M. 2007. Weeds of California and other Western States. Oakland: Univ. Calif. Agric. Nat. Res. Publ. 3488.
Fischer, W. 1998. Grower’s Weed Identification Handbook. Oakland: Univ. Calif. Agric. Nat. Res. Publ. 4030.
Kulze, A. and Greaves, M. 1988. Contact urticaria caused by stinging nettles. British Journal of Dermatology. 119, 269-270.
Whitson, T. D., L. C. Burrill, S. A. Dewey, D. W. Cudney, B. E. Nelson, R. D. Lee, and R. Parker. 2002. Weeds of the West. Jackson, Wyo.: Univ. Wyoming.
Authors: A. E. Schellman, UC Cooperative Extension, Stanislaus County, A. Shrestha, UC Statewide IPM Program, Kearny Agricultural Center, Parlier
Produced by UC Statewide IPM Program, University of California, Davis, CA 95616
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Beware of pretty little members of Urtica family
Two forms of an unassuming nettle look as innocuous as any weed pushing its way through a driveway crack.
Two forms of an unassuming nettle look as innocuous as any weed pushing its way through a driveway crack or appearing unexpectedly in a manicured flowerbed like a party crasher. But the innocence of the herbaceous perennial flowering plants belonging to the Urticaceae family stops there.
There are as many as 39 species of the plant, three of which are found in Florida, with two of those in Marion County: Urtica urens and Urtica chamaedryoides, often called heart-leaf nettle, weak nettle or ortiguilla, according to the University of Florida IFAS website.
The plant is found throughout the United States, Northern Europe and Asia. The two species that grow in Marion County are indistinguishable to most people, said Kent Perkins, the herbarium collections manager at the University of Florida’s Florida Museum of Natural History.
The Urtica variations growing in Marion County may not have a threatening appearance, but people who have had a brush with the unassuming plant tell a different story. They convey tales of how the plant’s tiny hair-like barbs along its leaves and stems pierced their skin, burned like the bites of angry fire ants and kept hurting for as long as a day.
As cooling temperatures prevail each year, the pesky, low-lying plant will become more abundant, Perkins said.
The plant does best in mild temperatures and rich, moist soils or disturbed earth. Although most often associated with rural settings, Perkins warned that the flowering and seeding plant can also make its home in parks and backyards. It grows from a few inches tall to about 1 1/2 feet in height and tends to grow in colonies, spreading out from a central location, he said.
Laurie Wilson’s encounter with the nettle is one she won’t soon forget.
Wilson, a professional photographer, was taking family pictures of a mother and father and their 4-year-old son at Sholom Park in Ocala about 10 days ago. She staged them on a patch of especially green grass.
“As I was backing away, they stared screaming. I thought it was an ant pile we didn’t see,” Wilson said.
She ran to the family and her left foot brushed against one of the nettle plants growing low to the ground and embedded in the grass all around the site.
“It just brushed the top of my foot … and it hurt all night,” she recalled.
The irritants that sent Wilson’s clients screaming and left her foot burning were the compounds histamines and acetocholines, Perkins said.
“You can easily overlook them,” he said of the nettles. “There’s nothing that makes them stand out until you touch them. Washing the affected area and applying baking soda paste typically helps sooth the stinging for most people. Other anti-itch crèmes also can help.”
Doing nothing to the affected area and letting the burning run its course also is an option, Perkins added.
Some people are allergic to the plant and should seek medical attention.
To say the plant is good for nothing but inflicting pain would be untrue, Perkins added.
Literature shows that some species can be boiled to become a spinach-like food and also can be used in the treatment of arthritis.
According to UF/IFAS, the unrelated Cnidoscolus stimulosus, a common Florida plant that also has stinging hairs, is characterized by white flowers and large leaves and is often referred to as “stinging nettle” or “bull nettle.”
Perkins predicts that none of the stinging nettles will be leaving Marion County anytime soon and will be found in more pastures and yards when it begins raining.
His own first encounter with the Urtica nettle was not a positive one, he said.
“I was gardening and I grabbed a handful of it,” he said, recalling the episode of about 10 years ago. “The redness went from my hand to my elbow. I got worried I was having some kind of allergic reaction.”
A trip to a doctor and a treatment of steroids alleviated the condition, he said.
As for avoiding the plant, Perkins laughed about his encounter, saying that if he couldn’t spot it digging in his garden, most people probably wouldn’t have much more luck than he did.
To learn more about the nettles, visit http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/hb002.
In Marion County, the UF/IFAS office is located at 2232 NE Jacksonville Road and the telephone number is 671-8400.
Contact Fred Hiers at 867-4157 or [email protected]
Edible Weeds 101: The Health Benefits of Stinging Nettles
Stinging nettles (Urtica diocia) may sound intimidating, but once you get past their prickly exterior this classic spring weed is packed with good stuff that offers many health benefits.
The leaves and stem of a stinging nettle plant are lined with fine hairs containing formic acid, which gives the plant its sting (and thus its name). Photo By Annie & John/Courtesy Flickr.
Vitamins and minerals: Nettles are an excellent source of protein. They also contain high amounts of vitamins A, B and C, as well as calcium, magnesium, potassium and zinc.
Arthritis: Nettles have been used for centuries to treat arthritis. When applied to fingers and other affected areas, nettles can reduce arthritic pain—so much so that 85 percent of participants in a study at the University of Plymouth in England reported that the pain relief from applying nettles was significant enough to endure the sting and welts caused by the leaves. Nettles contain the neuro-transmitters serotonin and histamine, which may be responsible for the weed’s pain relieving qualities. Nettles can also be used to treat other types of pain, such as sore muscles.
Allergies: Tired of sniffling and suffering through allergy season? Studies have shown stinging nettles to be effective at combating hay fever. Anti-inflammatory compounds and flavonoids found in this weed reduce the amount of histamine produced in an allergic response, meaning you’ll sneeze and itch a lot less than normal.
Detox: Because stinging nettles are a diuretic, they can be useful in cleansing and detox diets.
Nettles lose their sting once cooked. Add this edible weed to soups, pastas and other dishes. Photo By Olga Massov/Courtesy Flickr.
Collection and Cooking
Stinging nettles are covered with fine hairs containing formic acid. Brush bare skin against this plant’s leaves or stem, and it will release that acid, causing a sting and welt that may last for an hour. For this reason, it’s necessary to wear gloves when collecting and handling nettles. Collect nettles in the spring when the leaves are young and tender.
Fortunately, cooking, steaming or drying the nettles takes the bite out of this weed. Cooked nettles taste excellent with just salt, pepper and butter, or they can be incorporated into more extravagant dishes, such as this Potato Nettle Soup. Nettles can also be steeped as a tea.
Self-care for nettle stings
- Wash the area with soap and water as soon as possible to relieve the sting and remove the nettle hairs. If no water is available, clean the area with a cloth or other available material
- Local symptoms of pain and itching can be relieved by applying a moistened cloth and/or ice pack to the area. It is also important to refrain from scratching or rubbing the itchy areas
- Antihistamines may be effective in relieving local itching and swelling, while creams such as hydrocortisone containing creams can help reduce inflammation. These are available at your local pharmacy
- Use cool, light, bedding and clothing as this will also help relieve itching
- Avoid extreme heat- have lukewarm baths and showers.
The National Poisons Centre is available 24 hours a day on 0800 764 766 for advice on first aid and treatment of stings.
- Do not give aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) or aspirin-containing products to anyone 18 years or younger because of the risk of a serious illness called Reye’s syndrome.
- Take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) with food or milk to prevent stomach irritation. Do not give NSAIDs to anyone with:
- NSAID-induced asthma
- increased risk of bleeding, such as ulcer disease, a bleeding disorder, if taking blood thinners (anticoagulants), or following surgery, significant trauma or major dental work
- an allergy to NSAIDs.
When to see a doctor
While most nettle stings require no further treatment, seek immediate medical attention if you develop:
- Loss of co-ordination
- Muscle weakness
- Breathing problems
- Swelling under the skin
- Abdominal pain
You should also seek medical attention if there is significant skin itching or rash that is not resolving with self care.
Nettle Family (Urticaceae)
Urtica dioica spp. gracilis, Urtica gracilis, Urtica procera, Urtica viridis, American stinging nettle, slender nettle, tall nettle, tall wild nettle, wild nettle.
Origin and Distribution:
Stinging nettle is a bristly, stinging perennial that is extremely variable in its morphology. Two varieties exist in North America. The most common variety (Urtica dioica var. procera) is native, while an uncommon and more bristly type (Urtica dioica var. dioica) was introduced from Europe, possibly for use as greens. It is difficult to distinguish between American and European varieties; however, the introduced variety is rarely encountered. Stinging nettle is widespread throughout the eastern U.S. and in most counties in Ohio. This weed thrives in damp, nutrient-rich soil and does not grow well where soil nutrients, especially phosphorus, are low. It can be found in pastures, nurseries, orchards, neglected yards, waste places, roadsides, flood plains, stream banks and ditches, as well as along the edges of fields and woodlots where it tolerates partial shade. This species does not tolerate saline conditions.
Stinging nettle is an erect, herbaceous perennial that is widely known for its unpleasant stinging hairs on the stems and lower leaf surface. It reproduces by wind-dispersed seeds and creeping rhizomes (horizontal underground stems), and grows in dense clumps, often forming large colonies.
Stinging nettle has an extensive underground network of rhizomes (horizontal underground stems) that can spread 5 feet or more in a season. Fibrous roots are produced along the rhizomes.
Seedlings and Shoots:
Cotyledons are oval, with a notch at the tip. The first leaves are opposite, oval to egg-shaped, thin and bright green. The toothed margins of the first few leaves are more rounded than in older plants. Young leaves and stems are covered with hairs and a few stinging hairs.
Stems are mostly unbranched, and grow 3 to 6 1/2 feet tall (sometimes up to 9 feet). They are covered with bristly stinging hairs (fewer in the upper part of the stem), and otherwise, are smooth or have a few soft hairs. Stems are slender and approximately square in cross section.
The thin, bright to dark green leaves are opposite, with saw-toothed margins and infamous stinging hairs on the underside. Leaves are broadly to narrowly egg-shaped (2 to 6 inches long, 1 to 2 inches wide), with a rounded or heart-shaped base and a pointed tip. Aside from the stinging hairs, the upper and lower leaf surfaces are usually smooth (the lower surface may be slightly hairy). Pointed stipules (small leaf-like appendages) occur at the base of the leaf, but senesce early. Leaf stalks are 1/4 to 2/3 the length of the leaf.
Tiny, greenish-white flowers are arranged in clusters on slender, branched spikes formed in the leaf axils (usually 4 spikes per node). Male and female flower clusters are produced on the same plant (monoecious), but usually from different leaf axils. Male flower spikes are longer than female flower spikes.
Fruits and Seeds:
Stinging nettle produces a small, dry, oval-shaped, 1-seeded fruit (achene) that is yellow to grayish-tan. Fruits are clustered along drooping flower spikes
The uncommon European variety of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica var. dioica or Urtica dioica spp. dioica, often referred to simply as Urtica dioica; European stinging nettle, common nettle, hokey pokey, devil’s leaf, naughty man’s plaything) is more branched and sprawling, with more densely hairy leaves and stinging hairs abundant on stems and both leaf surfaces. Leaves of the European variety are much broader and heart-shaped. Unlike the native stinging nettle, the European type is dioeceous, meaning its male and female flowers are found on separate plants. Small stinging nettle seedlings might be confused with mints, which also have opposite, serrated leaves and square stems, but no stinging hairs.
Flowers of stinging nettle are produced between May and October, and are wind-pollinated. A greater proportion of early season flowers are male, while flowers in the summer are predominantly female. Over 20,000 seeds can be produced on a single plant growing in the sun. Seeds remain attached to the spikes until frost, and have little or no dormancy. Because seeds lack dormancy, germination can occur soon after seeds are shed, but most germination is seen in early spring when soil temperatures are above 40Â° F. Seeds can live 10 or more years in the soil.
Stinging nettle has an extensive underground network of rhizomes that facilitate spread, as well as regrowth in springtime or following mowing. New plants are often established from rhizome fragments that have been spread by machinery.
The weediness of stinging nettle is attributed to its spread by rhizomes, allowing it to form dense colonies that exclude other species. Eradicating an established colony is difficult because the subterranean system expands yearly and cannot be suppressed by mowing. This species does not compete well with grasses, but is able to establish and spread among legumes or other forbs. Stands of stinging nettle are thought to persist for 50 years. Distribution of this species is limited by its intolerance of poor fertility, dense shade and frequent disturbance. Some control may be obtained through repeated tillage and cultivation over several years.
Stinging hairs on the stem and leaves of stinging nettle cause irritation upon contact with skin. The toxins are located at the base of each stinging hair. When skin brushes against the stinging hairs, the bulbous tip of each hair readily breaks off, forming a sharp shaft that acts like a hypodermic needle to inject the toxins into the skin, causing localized pain, reddish swelling, itching and numbness. Toxins thought to be involved include formic acid (also found in ants), histamine, acetylcholine and 5-hydroxytryptamine. The symptoms caused by these chemicals will last for a few minutes to a few hours, and then resolve on their own. Airborne pollen, which is shed in large amounts when stinging nettle is in flower, is an important contributor to hay fever.
Facts and Folklore:
Relief from stinging nettle’s burn comes by rubbing inflamed skin with juice from the leaves of dock, jewelweed, rosemary, mint, sage or even crushed leaves of stinging nettle itself!
The fiber in stinging nettle stems is very similar to that of hemp and flax, and for this reason, has historically been an important ingredient in a variety of items, from sailcloth and fishing nets to clothing and paper.
Europeans cook stinging nettle, removing the stinging hairs by boiling, and find it a good source of vitamins A and C, protein and iron.
Pulling up stinging nettle by the roots while calling out a sick person’s name was believed to drive away a fever.
Urtication, the process of beating the skin with nettles, was formerly used to treat certain diseases.
Hunting dogs have died from extreme exposure to stinging nettle.
Stinging Nettle: How To Identify, Harvest, and Eat
Stinging Nettle identification of this bountiful wild edible is quick and easy. Learn how to identify, harvest, prepare, and eat this vitamin packed powerhouse!
I’ll never forget the time I found out Matt was eating entire meals of wild edible plants. He would head out for a walk and return stating that he was “full” and didn’t need to eat dinner. How was he finding enough to eat in the wilderness to completely replace a meal?
Simple. All it takes is a bit of knowledge in identifying and harvesting, some attention to detail, and a little patience while looking.
It’s unbelievable how much food you can collect from the wild!
Our society is so accustomed to running to the grocery store for food, so foraging for wild edibles has become a novelty instead of a necessity. Our ancestors not only knew how to identify wild plants that were edible, but they also wisely used this free bounty of nature.
Now that we’re both learning more about edible wild plants, we have had several meals and snacks made up of weeds, plants, berries, and vegetables we harvested while out walking. (And no, we didn’t have to steal them from anyone’s yard!)
Recently we had a beautiful salad with chickweed and dock, embellished with some of our favorite salad toppings. But one of our new spring favorites is sautéed stinging nettles with pasta or veggies.
Stinging Nettle Identification, Why Bother?
Stinging nettle definitely lives up to its name – it will sting like crazy if you brush up against it or handle the plants without wearing gloves. But this nuisance of a plant is highly nutritious and readily available in most areas, making it one of the perfect wild plants to consume.
When cooked or dried, nettles completely lose their stinging properties, making them perfectly safe for consumption. You can steam, sauté, or boil them and enjoy with a meal or in soups. You can also make a wonderful tea with the leaves, sweetening with honey and lemon. Use them in any dish you would normally use spinach. They have an earthy, wholesome flavor that you’re sure to enjoy if you enjoy other greens.
Stinging nettles are also packed with nutrients. They are high in Vitamin C, Vitamin A, and full of calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium. Nettles are also a wonderful source of protein. Seriously!
Stinging Nettle Identification and Harvest
Stinging Nettle identification of this bountiful wild edible is quick and easy. Learn how to identify, harvest, prepare, and eat this vitamin packed powerhouse!
Nettles will begin popping up in early spring, and can be found all across North America. Its proper habitat is in sunny places where there is rich, moist soil. You’ll find them growing along rivers, streams, lakes, ditches, fencerows, and on the edges of cultivated farm fields. When Matt and I walk along one of the nearby rivers, we always notice it growing abundantly as a “weed.”
Stinging nettle will grow in dense clusters, and stalks can reach 5-8 feet at maturity. Leaves are about 2-5 inches long with jagged edges, found in opposing pairs along the upper half of the stalk. Leaves are pointed at the tips, with a heart-shaped base and indented veins. The plant will have small “hairs” up the stalk and stems. (This is where the sting comes from!)
Young plants will have smaller, heart-shaped leaves with a purple hue, while mature plants have longer, pointed leaves that appear very green. (For more pictures, .)
The best time to harvest nettles is the first few weeks after they come up in the spring, before they grow to be a foot tall. Wearing gloves, pick the first two or three pairs of leaves from the tops of plants. Carefully place nettles into a paper or plastic bag for transport. Nettles can still be harvested into summer, but keep in mind the top few pairs of leaves will be most tender, and stalks and stems will be very fibrous.
Once you are ready to use your nettles, use kitchen tongs to remove from the bag and place in a colander to rinse well. To avoid stinging, continue using tongs as you transfer your nettles from the sink to the stove.
Sautéed Nettles With Onions and Pasta
(Makes 2-3 servings)
You will need:
- 8 cups stinging nettles, rinsed well and chopped into smaller pieces if desired (use tongs while rinsing and dealing with nettles)
- ½ cup spring onions or ramps, sliced
- 2 Tbsp butter, preferably pastured
- 2 Tbsp other fat, like bacon grease, coconut oil, lard, etc. (we like bacon grease) – (find coconut oil and other healthy fats here)
- ½ cup cooked ham, cubed (optional)
- 1 cup noodles, uncooked (find organic noodles here)
- sea salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste
- freshly grated parmesan
Boil water and cook noodles. Strain noodles, add a little olive oil to prevent sticking, and set aside. Melt fats in a large skillet on medium heat. Add spring onions and sauté for a few minutes. Using tongs, carefully add nettles to skillet and toss in fat and garlic until cooked down. Add optional cubed ham and toss until warm. Add noodles and gently toss all ingredients together to combine. Season with salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste. Garnish with freshly grated parmesan and enjoy!
We eat this as a complete meal, but it can also be served as a side dish.
Spring is the perfect time to brush up on your stinging nettle identification skills, so start foraging and take advantage of this natural free food source!
Are you familiar with stinging nettle identification? What else can you share for people to learn?
We highly recommend these books if you’re interested in learning more about edible wild plants:
- Nature’s Garden, by Samuel Thayer
- The Forager’s Harvest, by Samuel Thayer
Entire plant harmful to touch. See Notes.
Perennial plant, 30.48-127cm (12-50 in) tall. Leaves and stalk covered in stiff, stinging hairs. Leaves are ovaloid, toothed. Flowers are green to yellow in color in clustering branches. Male and female flowers are found on separate branches.
Found in disturbed areas and waste places with moist soils. Ranges throughout most of North America, from Alaska and Laborador southward.
Uses and Parts Used:
Leaf tea brewed to treat anemia, gout, rheumatism, enlarged spleen, internal bleeding, diarrhea, and dysentery. Leaves have diuretic qualities. Folk medicine states an occasional sting alleviates arthritis.
All parts of Stinging Nettle are painful to the touch and may cause dermatitis. Stinging Nettle affects the white blood cells and aids in coagulation and formation of hemoglobin. Leaves are iron rich. Studies suggest stinging nettle decreases the effects of adrenaline. Germany recently approved the use of roots for prostate cancer, rheumatism, and kidney infection. Russia approved use of leaves in alcohol as treatment for cholecystitis (inflammation of the gallbladder) and hepatitis. Stinging Nettle stings with histamine, acetylcholine, 5-hydroxy-tryptamine, and formic acid.