Description of Stinging Nettle Plant

The Benefits and Drawbacks of a Nettlesome Weed

Stinging nettle weeds growing in a mass.
David Beaulieu

Stinging nettle is a weed commonly found growing in garden areas. Some gardeners are not bothered by its presence, treating it as an herb with culinary and medicinal uses. But most people want to get rid of it, not only because it takes up garden space, but also because it can cause a skin rash. Learn how to identify it so that you can avoid brushing up against it.

About Stinging Nettle

Plant taxonomy: Stinging nettle is a member of the genus, Urtica, a broadleaf, perennial plant. It can also be categorized as a noxious weed. Do not confuse these plants with dead nettle (Lamium maculatum), a harmless perennial plant used in shade gardens.

Description: Although they can reach greater heights, stinging nettles usually grow to about three to four feet tall. They also often grow in masses, forming a monoculture. If you see a group of such plants, look for those noxious bristly hairs along the stems of the plants and on the undersides of their leaves. The leaves have distinctly serrated edges, with each leaf margin looking like a row of pointed teeth. The flowers are greenish; they are very small but numerous. The flowers grow along stems that shoot out from joints where leaf stalks meet the main stem.

Where Nettles Grow: The plants take advantage of disturbed soils, including areas along roadsides. Because they prefer nitrogen-rich, well-aerated soils, however, their favorite habitat is garden borders. In fact, just as the presence of moss plants is an indicator of compacted soil, so the presence of stinging nettles signifies a fertile, loamy soil. Two similar subspecies of stinging nettles are commonly found growing in North America. One, Urtica dioica ssp. gracilis, is a North American native. The other, U. dioica ssp. dioica, is indigenous to Europe. Yet another nettle native to North America is Laportea canadensis; its common name is "wood nettle," because it grows in the forest, not in gardens.

How to Control Stinging Nettles

To control these weeds organically, try to dig out stinging nettles before they have had a chance to establish themselves. Failing that, repeated hoeing will eventually succeed because Urtica, with its shallow rhizomes, does not tolerate cultivation well. Constant cultivation is another good way to thwart the seedlings. By contrast, such an approach is useless, at best, and counter-productive, at worst, in attempts to control another rhizomatous menace, Japanese knotweed.

Why Stinging Nettles Burn (And the Yellow-Dock Remedy)

Anyone who touches stinging nettles with their bare skin will experience a painful burning sensation followed by an itchy rash. This reaction is the result of the nettles' toxic combination of formic acid (also found in ants), histamine, acetylcholine, and 5-hydroxytryptamine. A weed that often grows near stinging nettles, yellow dock (Rumex crispus), can be used as a home remedy to counteract their toxicity. It is because of all this unpleasantness that the word "nettlesome" has come into the English language; it means "annoying."

Medicinal, Culinary, and Textile Uses

Stinging nettles have long been used for medicinal purposes, including as a treatment for hay fever. Edible-weed enthusiasts harvest the young leaves and boil them, which renders them edible. The barbs haven't had time yet to develop on young leaves. Once cooked sufficiently, the young leaves are nutritious with a flavor comparable to that of spinach. The plant can also be used in soup. Another of the ancient uses to which nettles were put was as a source of fiber for clothing and rope, according to Jadwiga Zajaczkowa.

Origin of the Common and Latin Names

The first part of the name "stinging nettle" is explained, of course, by the toxic barbs on the plants. The origin of the second half, "nettles," is explained by the term's Indo-European root, ned, meaning to "bind" or "tie," a reference to the use of stinging nettles in the production of textiles. 

The genus name (Urtica) comes from the Latin root that means "burn," a reference to the burning skin irritation caused upon contact with the plants. The species name, dioica, is from the Greek for "two houses" and refers to the fact that stinging nettle plants are both male and female.