How to Grow and Care for Stinging Nettle

stinging nettle

The Spruce / Lindsay Talley 

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a fast-growing herbaceous perennial that is usually regarded as a weed but is occasionally grown as a garden plant. Erect stems growing three to seven feet tall are lined with soft-green pointed leaves with serrated edges. The leaves and stems are covered with fine hairs, some of which have the troublesome habit of detaching and injecting a burning, stinging chemical when the plant is touched or eaten. While most gardeners treat stinging nettle as a noxious weed, it is sometimes planted deliberately because it serves as food for the larva of several butterflies, and when cooked, the leaves have a similar taste to spinach and are quite high in vitamins A and C and contain good levels of other nutrients.

Stinging nettle is a fast-growing plant; young plants reach maturity by mid-season when planted in the spring. This plant is mildly toxic to humans and of variable toxicity to pets.

Common Name Stinging nettle, common nettle, burning grass
Botanical Name Urtica dioic
Family Urticaceae
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Mature Size 3–7 ft. tall, 1–3 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full, partial
Soil Type Rich, moist
Soil pH Acidic to alkaline (5.0 to 8.0)
Bloom Time Summer
Flower Color Greenish white
Hardiness Zones 4 through 10 (USDA)
Native Area Europe and Asia, but now naturalized everywhere
Toxicity Mildly toxic to humans, pets

Stinging Nettle Care

Stinging nettle is easy to plant by dividing an existing patch of roots and planting the pieces where you want it to grow Or, you can collect the seeds and sow them indoors a few weeks before the last frost—or simply direct-sow the seeds in the garden. As befits a plant with a reputation as a weed, stinging nettle is very easy to grow and has very few disease and pest problems.

If you're working with a stinging nettle plant in your garden, always wear protective clothing. This includes thick gardening gloves, as well as long sleeves and pants. Avoid touching your face as you work.

Warning

Because of its ability to spread vigorously from underground stolons, stinging nettle is considered an invasive species in much of North America—gardeners are more likely to fight it as a weed than to plant it intentionally. Growing stinging nettle deliberately may make you unpopular with neighbors, as it will readily spread unless carefully attended.

Stinging nettle is especially fond of rich, moist soil, so gardens can become overrun with this plant unless you are careful. You can keep in check by removing the flowers as they appear to prevent self-seeding. Regular harvesting will also keep the plants under control. At the end of the season, the leaves and stems of stinging nettle make a good nitrogen-rich addition to the compost heap, but it's best to avoid adding the flowers and seed heads to compost.

stinging nettles

The Spruce / Lindsay Talley 

Stinging nettle

 

MarioGuti / Getty Images

Stinging nettle growing in meadow

 

kulbabka / Getty Images

Light

Stinging nettle thrives in full sun conditions but will tolerate some shade. Too much shade makes the plant grow too tall and leggy.

Soil

This plant does best in evenly moist, loamy soils rich in nitrogen and phosphorus. It often thrives in disturbed soil, which is why it is often found growing in abandoned lots and building sites, provided the underlying soil is rich. It tolerates a wide range of pH levels, from very acidic to very alkaline. It does not do well in very dry, barren soils.

Water

Stinging nettle has average water needs but will be especially vigorous in climates with frequent rainfall. Mature plants have a good tolerance for short periods of drought, but this is not a plant that does well in arid climates. If your region has regular rainfall (every two weeks or so), additional watering is not necessary.

Temperature and Humidity

Stinging nettle does well in all climate conditions across its hardiness range, USDA zones 4 to 10. It is more at home in humid climates but will grow adequately in dry atmospheric conditions, provided it has adequate soil moisture.

Fertilizer

Nettles thrive on nitrogen-rich soil, so periodic feeding with compost or a nitrogen-heavy fertilizer will help plants that are growing in poor, barren soil. But in most typical garden soil, stinging nettle does quite well with no feeding at all.

Types of Stinging Nettle

Here are six common subspecies of stinging nettle, but only five have stinging barbs:

  • Urtica dioica subsp. afghanica: This plant is native to central and southwestern Asia, and it sometimes does not have stinging barbs. 
  • U. dioica subsp. dioica: This nettle is commonly found in Europe.
  • U. dioica subsp. gansuensis: This plant is found in China.
  • U. dioica subsp. gracilis: Known as American stinging nettle, this plant is found in North America.
  • U. dioica subsp. holosericea: Known as hoary nettle or mountain nettle, this plant is found throughout western North America. 

Pruning

Deadheading spent flowers will stop stinging nettle from spreading uncontrollably through self-seeding. Other than this, no pruning is necessary, other than pre-winter removal of dead stalks.

Propagating Stinging Nettle

This plant is easy to propagate simply by digging up plants from an existing patch and moving them to a new location. Here's how:

  1. In the spring as plants are just beginning new growth, use a shovel or trowel to dig up small plants along the edges of an existing patch. Make sure a good network of roots is attached to the plant stem. Wear gloves when handling the plants to avoid skin irritation.
  2. Immediately plant into the desired locations.
  3. Water thoroughly upon planting, then weekly until the leaves perk up and the plant begins sending out new growth.

How to Grow Stinging Nettle From Seed

Stinging nettle is easy to grow from seeds collected from existing plants. This is most often done with seeds collected from mature seed pods, stored for the winter, then sown indoors in seed trays six weeks or so before the last frost.

The seeds are very tiny. Scatter them over the surface of a tray filled with ordinary potting mix. Press them lightly into the mix, and barely cover them with a bare sprinkling of soil—they need some light to germinate. Keep the tray lightly moist until the seeds sprout, which happens within about 14 days. The seedlings can be transplanted outdoors as soon as the soil is warm enough to be worked.

Overwintering

No overwinter protection is needed for this hardy plant. Most gardeners will want to cut back dead stalks in late fall to prevent self-seeding in the garden.

How to Get Stinging Nettle to Bloom

Generally speaking, you don't want this plant to flower, as it leads to unwanted spreading through self-seeding. The flowers are not showy, and there's no aesthetic reason to encourage blooming. The exception is where you want to observe the butterflies and other pollinators that are drawn to stinging nettle, or if you are intent on collecting seeds for propagation. If you do want to experience flowers, make sure the plant is getting enough water and sunlight—flowering is almost guaranteed.

removing stinging nettle
The Spruce / Lindsay Talley 
FAQ
  • How do I harvest stinging nettle for eating?

    While all parts of the nettle plant are edible, the leaves and stems can’t be eaten straight from the plant due to the barbs. Instead, you must thoroughly cook the plant before eating it to deactivate its stinging potential. When the plant is uncooked it is toxic.

    Harvesting involves cutting back the top third of the plant, just above a node where leaves branch out. This will encourage new growth. The leaves will have the best flavor in cooking if they are harvested before the plant flowers. After this, the leaves because somewhat tough and stringy. The leaves of stinging nettle can be used in the same way—and in the same recipes—as you would use cooked spinach.

  • How can I get rid of stinging nettle?

    Stinging nettle can be difficult to remove from the garden. If you have a stinging nettle plant or patch you need to get rid of, first, moisten the soil around it to make it easier to slide out the roots. Dig around the plant’s base to loosen the roots, and then grasp the plant at its base to slide it out of the ground with the roots as intact as possible. Finally, dig into the soil to remove any remaining pieces of root, as these have the potential to sprout new plants.

    It’s helpful to have a tarp nearby that you can put your plant clippings on, so they don’t get lost in your soil or grass. Either compost them or seal them in a yard waste bag. Furthermore, to make sure new shoots don’t spring up, you can cover the site with a tarp or piece of cardboard for at least one full growing season. This will smother any new plants that try to grow.

  • What wildlife species are drawn to stinging nettle?

    The butterflies that make important use of this plant are mostly European or Asian species: the peacock butterfly (native to Europe and Asia), the comma (Europe, Asia, Africa), and the small tortoiseshell (Eurasia). Several moths also eat this plant in their larval stage.

    North American gardeners will find that burning nettle has some appeal to native butterflies, though it does not serve an ecologically critical role for them.

Article Sources
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  2. Urtica DioicaNorth Carolina State Extension.

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  6. Ensikat H, Wessely H, Engeser M, Weigend M. Distribution, ecology, chemistry and toxicology of plant stinging hairsToxins (Basel). 2021;13(2):141. doi:10.3390/toxins13020141