Description of Stinging Nettle Plant

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.

Taxonomy, Plant Type for Stinging Nettles

Plant taxonomy classifies stinging nettles as being in the genus, Urtica.

Urtica is a broadleaf, perennial plant. It can also be categorized as a noxious weed.

Identification Help: Description of Stinging Nettles

Although they can reach greater heights, stinging nettles usually grow to about 3 to 4 feet high. 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 plants spread via rhizomes. The leaves have distinctly serrated edges, each leaf margin looking like a row of pointy 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.

Do not confuse these plants with deadnettle (Lamium maculatum), a harmless perennial plant used in shade gardens.

Weed Control

To control these weeds organically, try to dig out stinging nettles before they have had a chance to establish themselves. Failing that, Garden Organic still offers hope for organic eradication, noting, "Repeated hoeing will exhaust the rootstocks eventually," because Urtica, with its shallow rhizomes, does not tolerate cultivation well. They also note that constant cultivation is the 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.

Where Stinging Nettles Grow, Different Types

The plants take advantage of disturbed soils, including areas along roadsides. But because they prefer nitrogen-rich, well-aerated soils, 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 subspecies of stinging nettles that are very similar to each other 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.

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

Of stinging nettles' capacity to cause skin irritation, the Ohio Perennial and Biennial Weed Guide remarks, "Toxins thought to be involved include 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. The symptoms resulting from an encounter with stinging nettles can be described as mainly a burning sensation just after contact, followed by an itchy rash. 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. Not only will they not sting your mouth once cooked sufficiently, but the young leaves are also nutritious. Some compare the taste with 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 Names

Regarding the origin of the common name, "stinging nettles," the barbs on the plants explain the first half of the name. 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, meanwhile, is from the Greek for "two houses" and refers to the fact that stinging nettle plants are dioecious.