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Temporal range: Miocene–Recent
Illustration Urtica dioica0.jpg
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)[1]
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Tracheophytes
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Eudicots
Clade: Rosids
Order: Rosales
Family: Urticaceae
Tribe: Urticeae
Genus: Urtica

See text



Urtica is a genus of flowering plants in the family Urticaceae. Many species have stinging hairs and may be called nettles or stinging nettles, although the latter name applies particularly to Urtica dioica.

Urtica species are food for the caterpillars of numerous Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), such as the tortrix moth Syricoris lacunana and several Nymphalidae, such as Vanessa atalanta, one of the red admiral butterflies.[2]

The generic name Urtica derives from the Latin for sting.[3]


Urtica species grow as annuals or perennial herbaceous plants, rarely shrubs. They can reach, depending on the type, location and nutrient status, a height of 10–300 centimetres (3.9–118.1 in). The perennial species have underground rhizomes. The green parts have stinging hairs. Their often quadrangular stems are unbranched or branched, erect, ascending or spreading.

Most leaves and stalks are arranged across opposite sides of the stem. The leaf blades are elliptic, lanceolate, ovate or circular. The leaf blades usually have three to five, rarely up to seven veins. The leaf margin is usually serrate to more or less coarsely toothed. The often-lasting bracts are free or fused to each other. The cystoliths are extended to more or less rounded.

In 1874, while in Collioure (south of France), French botanist Charles Naudin discovered that strong winds during 24 hours made the stinging hairs of Urtica harmless for a whole week.[4]

In New Zealand, U. ferox is classified among poisonous plants, most commonly upon skin contact.[5]


The last common ancestor of the genus originated in Eurasia, with fossils being known from the Miocene of Germany and Russia, subsequently dispersing worldwide. Several species of the genus have undergone long distance oceanic dispersal, such as Hesperocnide sandwicensis (native to Hawaii) and Urtica ferox (native to New Zealand).[6]


Detail of a male flowering stinging nettle.
Detail of female flowering stinging nettle.
The dotted bumps on the leaves of Urtica thunbergiana

A large number of species included within the genus in the older literature are now recognized as synonyms of Urtica dioica. Some of these taxa are still recognized as subspecies.[7] Genetic evidence indicates that the two species of Hesperocnide are part of this genus.[6]

Species in the genus Urtica, and their primary natural ranges, include:[citation needed]


Due to the stinging hairs, Urtica species are rarely eaten by herbivores, but rather provide shelter for insects, such as aphids, butterfly larvae, and moths.[9]


Fabric woven of nettle fiber was found in burial sites in Denmark dating to the Bronze Age, and in clothing fabric, sailcloth, fishing nets, and paper via the process called retting (microbial enzymatic degradation, similar to linen processing).[10] Other processing methods include mechanical and chemical.[11]

Urtica is an ingredient in soups, omelettes, banitsa, purée, and other dishes. In Mazandaran, northern Iran, a soup (Āsh) is made using this plant.[12] Nettles were used in traditional practices to make nettle tea, juice, and ale, and to preserve cheeses, such as in Cornish Yarg.[10][13]

In folklore[edit]

The stinging hairs of Urtica dioica

Nettles have many folklore traditions associated with them. The folklore mainly relates to the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica).[citation needed]



Milarepa, the great Tibetan ascetic and saint, was reputed to have survived his decades of solitary meditation by subsisting on nothing but nettles; his hair and skin turned green and he lived to the age of 83.[14]


The Caribbean trickster figure Anansi appears in a story about nettles, in which he has to chop down a huge nettle patch in order to win the hand of the king's daughter.[15]


An old Scots rhyme about the nettle:

"Gin ye be for lang kail coo the nettle, stoo the nettle
Gin ye be for lang kail coo the nettle early
Coo it laich, coo it sune, coo it in the month o' June
Stoo it ere it's in the bloom, coo the nettle early
Coo it by the auld wa's, coo it where the sun ne'er fa's
Stoo it when the day daws, coo the nettle early."
(Old Wives Lore for Gardeners, M & B Boland)

Coo, cow, and stoo are all Scottish for cut back or crop (although, curiously, another meaning of "stoo" is to throb or ache), while "laich" means short or low to the ground.[16] Given the repetition of "early," presumably this is advice to harvest nettles first thing in the morning and to cut them back hard [which seems to contradict the advice of the Royal Horticultural Society]. Alternatively, it may be recommending harvesting early in the year before the plants grow tall, as they become tough and stringy later.[17]

The English figure of speech "grasp the nettle", meaning to nerve oneself to tackle a difficult task, stems from a belief that nettles actually sting less if gripped tightly. This belief gave rise to a well-known poem by Aaron Hill:

Tender-handed, stroke a nettle,
And it stings you for your pains.
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains.
’Tis the same, with common natures,
Use ’em kindly, they rebel:
But, be rough as Nutmeg-graters,
And the rogues obey you well.[18]

In Hans Christian Andersen's fairy-tale "The Wild Swans," the princess had to weave coats of nettles to break the spell on her brothers.

In the Brothers Grimm's fairy-tale "Maid Maleen", the princess and her maid must subsist on raw nettles while fleeing their war-ravaged kingdom. While standing in for the false bride during the wedding procession, she speaks to a nettle plant (which later proves her identity):

"Oh, nettle-plant,
Little nettle-plant,
What dost thou here alone?
I have known the time
When I ate thee unboiled,
When I ate thee unroasted."


  1. ^ Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany
  2. ^ Acorn, John (2001). Bugs of Washington and Oregon. Auburn, WA: Lone Pine. p. 39. ISBN 978-1-55105-233-5.
  3. ^ Gledhill D. 1985. The Names of Plants. Cambridge University Press.ISBN 0521366755
  4. ^ (in French) Fabricio Cardenas, Vieux papiers des Pyrénées-Orientales, Orties inoffensives à Collioure en 1874, 7 May 2015.
  5. ^ Slaughter, R. J; Beasley, DM; Lambie, BS; Wilkins, GT; Schep, LJ (2012). "Poisonous plants in New Zealand: A review of those that are most commonly enquired about to the National Poisons Centre". New Zealand Medical Journal. 125 (1367): 87–118. PMID 23321887.
  6. ^ a b Huang, Xianhan; Deng, Tao; Moore, Michael J.; Wang, Hengchang; Li, Zhimin; Lin, Nan; Yusupov, Ziyoviddin; Tojibaev, Komiljon Sh.; Wang, Yuehua; Sun, Hang (August 2019). "Tropical Asian Origin, boreotropical migration and long-distance dispersal in Nettles (Urticeae, Urticaceae)". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 137: 190–199. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2019.05.007. PMID 31102687. S2CID 158047492.
  7. ^ "The Plant List: Urtica". Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Missouri Botanic Garden. Retrieved 6 September 2016.
  8. ^ "Urtica perconfusa". New Zealand Plant Conservation Network. Retrieved 2021-08-26.
  9. ^ Chris Baines. "Nettles and Wildlife".
  10. ^ a b Randall, Colin (2004). Kavalali, Gulsel M (ed.). Historical and modern uses of Urtica (pages 12-14). In: Urtica: The genus Urtica. CRC Press, Inc. pp. 12–14. ISBN 0203017927.
  11. ^ Vogl, C.R.; Hart, A. (March 3, 2003). "Production and processing of organically grown ®ber nettle (Urtica dioica L.) and its potential use in the natural textile industry: A review" (PDF).{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  12. ^ Shafia, Louisa (2013-04-16). The New Persian Kitchen. Ten Speed Press. ISBN 9781607743576.
  13. ^ Randall, Colin (2003). Urtica : therapeutic and nutritional aspects of stinging nettles. London. ISBN 0-203-01792-7. OCLC 56420294.
  14. ^ Gtsaṅ-smyon He-ru-ka, Andrew Quintman, Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (2003), The Life of Milarepa, Penguin, p. 139, ISBN 0-14-310622-8{{citation}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  15. ^ Caribbean folktales
  16. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language (online)
  17. ^ Mabey, Richard (2004). Food for Free (2004 ed.). HarperCollins UK. ISBN 0-00-718303-8. Retrieved 22 April 2023.
  18. ^ Tréguer, Pascal. "MEANING AND ORIGIN OF THE PHRASE 'TO GRASP THE NETTLE'". word histories. Retrieved 22 April 2023.

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