Urtica dioica - stinging nettle

Family: Urticaceae
Wetland Indictor Status: FAC+


General Species Description

Stinging nettle is a perennial herb with square stems arising from strong, thick, spreading rhizomes. The 1-3 meter stems are usually unbranched and tend to extend and droop outwards, especially along forest edges and clearings. The common name of this species arises from the many hollow stinging hairs on the leaves and stem. Each hair arises from a bulbous formic acid-filled base and has a stiff, sharp tip. These sharp tips easily penetrate skin, breaking off and injecting acid into the skin causing an unpleasant stinging sensation. Pain is immediate and can be long-lasting. There are several variations of this species.


Leaves

The leaves are simple, opposite and grow 7-15 cm long. Leaf blades are lanceolate to ovate or heart-shaped and have stinging hairs mostly on the bottom surface. The leaf margins are uniformly toothed with large, widely spaced points. The leaf veins appear almost indented. Prominent stipules are 5-15 mm long.


Inflorescence/Flowers

The tiny, reddish-green flowers are borne in drooping clusters from the leaf axils and at the stem tips. They are imperfect, small and inconspicuous with no petals. The male and female flowers are found in separate spikes, with the female spikes uppermost.


Fruits

Persistent sepals tightly enclose the flattened, lens-shaped achenes.


Habitat

Stinging nettle occurs in moist, shaded, nitrogen-rich habitats from sagebrush deserts to deep woods, and is commonly found in meadows, steam-banks and open forests. It can also dominate disturbed sites and forest edges.


Range

This native of North America is found in much of the United States and southern Canada. It is also found in Eurasia. It is common throughout the Pacific Northwest.


Similar Species

Dog nettle (U. urens), a weedy introduced species, may be found in disturbed sites in the southern half of our region (south of 51 north), but is shorter (10-50 cm) and has smaller stipules than stinging nettle. Cooley hedgenettle (Stachys cooleyae) and mad-dog skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) have similar stems and leaves, but both have large, conspicuous, tubular purple flowers growing in spikes.


Ecological Value

Stinging nettle is a nuisance species for all animals that come into contact with it.


Human Value

Called 'Indian Spinach' by both coastal and interior tribes, the young leaves and stems of this species were cooked and eaten as a healthy green vegetable or pureed in soups. Cooking softens the hairs and destroys the irritating qualities of the formic acid. The leaves can also be used in herbal teas. Older stems, with the leaves removed, made very strong, fibrous string used for twine, thread, and weaving snares, fishnets and baskets. A decoction of the roots was used as a hair tonic for long, silky hair and as a soaking solution for bleeding hemorrhoids, and other internal ailments. Although considered by most to be a nuisance species because of the stinging nettles, this characteristic had medicinal qualities used by native peoples. The stinging nettles were said to be a good treatment for arthritis and stiff and sore joints and muscles. Patients first bathed in warm water and then rubbed bunches of stinging nettle all over their bodies. They repeated these steps a number of times. At first, this procedure was painful, but after a few days the pain and stiffness was improved. This same method was used as a spot treatment for sores and bruises.


References

Cooke, S. S., ed. 1997. A Field Guide to the Common Wetland Plants of Western Washington & Northwest Oregon. Seattle Audubon Society and Washington Native Plant Society. Seattle Audubon Society, Seattle WA, 417pp.

Hitchcock, C. L. and A. Cronquist. 1973. Flora of the Pacific Northwest. University of Washington Press, Seattle WA, 730pp.

Parish, R., R. Coupe and D. Lloyd. 1996. Plants of Southern Interior British Columbia. Lone Star Publishing, Vancouver, BC, 463pp.

Pojar, J. and A. MacKinnon. 1994. Plants of Coastal British Columbia. Lone Star Publishing, Vancouver, BC, 527pp.

Turner, N. J., L. C. Thompson, M. T. Thompson and A. Z. York. 1990. Thompson Ethnobotany: Knowledge and Usage of Plants by the Thompson Indians of British Columbia. Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, BC, 335pp.

Walters, D. R. and D. J. Keil. 1996. Vascular Plant Taxonomy, Fourth Edition. Kendall/Hunt Publishing, Dubuque, IO, 621pp.


This page was created by: Tasha Murray, August 2000


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