The stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), also known as tall nettle, California nettle or slender nettle, is the best known member of the nettle genus Urtica. It is an invasive herb native to Europe, Asia and North America, and has been introduced into South America.
The taxonomy of stinging nettles has been confused, and older sources are likely to use a variety of systematic names for these plants. Formerly, more species were recognised than are now considered defensible. However, there are at least three clear subspecies, formerly classified as separate species:
- European stinging nettle ''Urtica dioica ssp. dioica
- American stinging nettle U. d. ssp. gracilis (Ait.) Selander
- Hairy nettle U. d. ssp. holosericea (Nutt.) Thorne.
The subspecies U. d. dioica is native to Europe, the other two to North America. In northern Europe the stinging nettle is ubiquitous, found everywhere in the countryside and colonising any patch of neglected ground in towns. In North America it is widely distributed (in the United States it is found in every state except for Hawaii, Arkansas and South Carolina), but markedly less common than in northern Europe, and as a result the European subspecies has also been introduced into North America.
The soft green leaves of the stinging nettle are covered with hollow, silky hairs that contain formic acid as a defense against grazing animals. Bare human skin brushing up against a stinging nettle plant will break the delicate defensive hairs and release the acid, usually resulting in a temporary and painful skin rash. The folk remedy for the sting is to wrap the affected part in the leaf of a dock (Rumex obtusifolia), which commonly grows in association with nettles.
Despite its sting, the nettle is a plant with many uses.
- It is recommended for a wide variety of purposes in herbal medicine
- The young leaves are quite edible and make a very good pot-herb. Cooking disables the stinging hairs, and the leaves are not only tasty, but high in nutrients. A simple recipe is to gather the upper stalks including 3-4 pairs of leaves before the plants flower (using gloves), until one has enough to entirely fill a small sauce pan. Fill the pan with cold water, and then put on a lid and turn the pan on its side until all the water that remains is what is clinging to the leaves. Then put the pan on high heat and steam the leaves, shaking the pan occasionally, until all the leaves are wilted.
- The leaves can be dried and used to make a tisane.
- Nettle stems contain a bast fiber which has been traditionally used for the same purposes as linen, and is produced by a similar retting process.