Stinging nettle
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Urticales
Family: Urticaceae
Genus: Urtica
Binomial nomenclature
Urtica dioica

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.

Other former species names that are now regarded as synonyms of U. diotica include breweri, californica, cardiophylla, lyalli, major, procera, serra, strigosissima, trachycarpa and viridis

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.

In England the nettle is the most common kind of stinging plant, and hence it frequently serves in figures of speech in English. To "nettle" someone is to annoy them; and Shakespeare makes Hotspur urge that "out of this nettle, danger, we grasp this flower, safety" (Henry IV, part 1, Act II Scene 3). The common figure of speech "to grasp the nettle" probably originated as a condensation of this quotation. It means to face up to or take on a problem that has been ignored or deferred. It metaphorically refers to the fact that if a nettle leaf is grasped firmly rather than brushed against, it won't sting you, because the hairs are crushed down flat and cannot penetrate the skin.

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