Stinging Nettle Plant Profile

Toxicity and Special Considerations

Stinging nettle

 

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Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a fast-growing herbaceous perennial that gets tall in the summer and dies back down to the ground in the winter. It bears small greenish flowers in the spring. The plant is native to parts of Europe, Asia, and North Africa, but now it can be found worldwide. And because of its ability to spread vigorously, it’s considered an invasive species in parts of North America. If you do wish to grow stinging nettle in your garden, plant it in the spring after your last frost. Many people opt to grow this plant for culinary and medicinal uses, as it’s high in several vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. 

However, you must be careful when working with stinging nettle because it has a toxic component. Its leaves and stems have tiny stinging barbs, which contain chemicals that can cause pain and inflammation in people and animals when they come in contact with the skin. Reactions also can occur if you eat the plant without properly preparing it.

Toxicity of Stinging Nettle

What look like short hairs on stinging nettle’s leaves and stems are actually needle-like barbs that can inject you with a mix of chemicals, even if you simply brush up against them. These chemicals include acetylcholine, histamine, serotonin, leukotrienes, and moroidin. Both people and animals typically feel a stinging sensation—hence the plant’s common name—followed by local inflammation, a rash, and other various symptoms. 

In most cases, the symptoms are only mildly to moderately uncomfortable. However, some people and animals can have more serious allergic reactions, such as tightness in their chest or throat, that require prompt medical treatment. Severe cases can be life-threatening.

Moreover, 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 cook, blend, crush, or dry the plant before eating it to deactivate its stinging potential. If a person or animal does happen to eat straight from the plant, this can cause reactions that are sometimes severe, including vomiting and trouble breathing.

If you're working with a stinging nettle plant in your garden, always wear protective clothing. This includes thick gardening gloves, such as those made out of rubber, as well as long sleeves and pants. Avoid touching your face as you work. And make sure you gather all the cuttings from your plant. It can be helpful to put cuttings on a tarp, so nothing gets lost in your grass or soil.

Symptoms of Poisoning

There are a variety of symptoms of stinging nettle toxicity, including:

  • Stinging sensation
  • Pain
  • Inflammation
  • Raised bumps or hives
  • Itchiness
  • Redness
  • Difficulty breathing or wheezing
  • Tightness in the throat or chest
  • Swelling in the mouth
  • A rash elsewhere on the body
  • Stomach pain
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

The symptoms generally arise within 12 to 24 hours. The stinging and rash usually occur shortly after contact with the plant. 

If you suspect stinging nettle toxicity, it’s always a good idea to consult a medical professional. Many mild cases can be treated at home by cleaning the affected area with soap and water to wash away the chemicals and then using a piece of tape to try to pull any remaining barbs out of the skin. You also can use anti-itch creams as well as antihistamines and anti-inflammatories, as directed by your doctor.

Gardening Considerations

Stinging nettle is considered a weed by many gardeners because of its ability to spread. It’s a very hardy plant and can easily creep around your garden via self-seeding and underground stems that send up new shoots. Due to its ability to form patches and crowd out native plants that grow in its environment, it’s considered an invasive species. 

On the flip side, butterflies and moths like to lay their eggs on nettle plants. These pollinators ultimately can benefit your entire garden. Plus, if you compost nettle plants, their high level of nutrients can be spread throughout your garden. 

Botanical Name Urtica dioica
Common Names Stinging nettle, common nettle
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial
Mature Size 3 to 6 feet tall and 6 to 12 inches wide
Bloom Time Spring, summer
Flower Color Green

Identification

Stinging nettle sends up its tall, erect stems each spring, which reach their full height by summer. The stems sport medium green leaves that are around 2 to 6 inches long and 1 to 2 inches wide. The leaves narrow at the tip and have serrated edges. And, of course, the leaves and stems are covered in those pesky stinging barbs, which look like fine hairs. Flower spikes that bear small greenish blooms in clusters appear in the spring or summer. Young stinging nettle plants often have a purplish tinge to their foliage, and their leaf edges tend to be more rounded. In the winter, the plant dies back down to the ground.

Stinging nettle growing in meadow
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Where It's Found

Stinging nettle is native to temperate parts of Europe, Asia, and western North Africa. But it has since made its way around the world. It’s commonly seen in North America, especially the Pacific Northwest due to its love of moisture in the soil. It grows best in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 10. 

The plant prefers evenly moist, loamy soil with good drainage and a neutral soil pH. But it's tolerant of many soil types and pH levels. Moreover, it does well in both full sun (at least six hours per day) and partial sun (three to six hours per day). In the wild, you'll often see it in the damp soil along stream beds, as well as in the nutrient-rich soil of pastureland.

How to Remove Stinging Nettle

Stinging nettle is moderately difficult to remove, mostly because of the plant’s toxic components. If you have a plant you need to get rid of, first moisten the soil around it to make it easier to slide out the roots. Then, don your thick gardening gloves and protective clothing. 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 roots you see, 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.

Varieties of Stinging Nettle

There are six common subspecies of stinging nettle, but only five have the stinging barbs. They include:

  • Urtica dioica subsp. afghanica: This plant is native to central and southwestern Asia, and it sometimes lacks the stinging barbs. 
  • Urtica dioica subsp. dioica: This nettle is commonly found in Europe.
  • Urtica dioica subsp. gansuensis: This plant is found in China.
  • Urtica dioica subsp. gracilis: Known as American stinging nettle, this plant is found in North America.
  • Urtica dioica subsp. holosericea: Known as Hoary nettle or mountain nettle, this plant is found throughout western North America.