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Illustration Urtica dioica0.jpg
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)[1]
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Eudicots
(unranked): Rosids
Order: Rosales
Family: Urticaceae
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.[citation needed]


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 cm. 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.


Detail of a male flowering stinging nettle.
Detail of female flowering stinging nettle.

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.[citation needed]

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


Thanks to the stinging hairs, Urtica species are rarely eaten by herbivores, so they provide long-term shelter for insects, such as aphids, caterpillars,[2] and moths.[3] The insects, in turn, provide food for small birds, such as tits.[4]


There is historical evidence of use of Urtica species (or nettles in general) being used in medicine, folk remedies, cooking and fiber production.[citation needed] Urtica dioica is the main species used for these purposes, but a fair amount also refers to the use of Urtica urens, the small nettle. Arthritic joints were traditionally treated by whipping the joint with a branch of stinging nettles, a process called urtication. Nettles can also be used to make a herbal tea known as nettle tea.

Fabric woven of nettle fiber has been found in burial sites dating back to the Bronze Age.[5]

In folklore[edit]

Nettles have many folklore traditions associated with them. The folklore mainly relates to the stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), but the similar non-stinging Lamium may be involved in some traditions.[citation needed]

Myths about health and wealth[edit]

Handmade soap with the extract of stinging nettle
  • Nettles in a pocket will keep a person safe from lightning and bestow courage.[citation needed]
  • Nettles kept in a room will protect anyone inside.[citation needed]
  • Nettles are reputed to enhance fertility in men, and fever could be dispelled by plucking a nettle up by its roots while reciting the names of the sick man and his family.[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.[6]


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.[7]


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.[8] 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].

A well-known English rhyme about the stinging nettle is:

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.

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.


  1. ^ Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany
  2. ^ Butterflies of the nettle patch
  3. ^ "Moths of the Nettle Patch". Nettles.org. Retrieved March 1, 2015. 
  4. ^ Nettles and Wildlife by Prof. Chris Baines
  5. ^ Gulsel M. Kavalali (2003), Gulsel M. Kavalali, ed., Urtica: Therapeutic and Nutritional Aspects of Stinging Nettles, Taylor and Francis, p. 13, ISBN 0-415-30833-X 
  6. ^ Gtsaṅ-smyon He-ru-ka, Andrew Quintman, Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (2003), The Life of Milarepa, Penguin, p. 139, ISBN 0-14-310622-8 
  7. ^ Caribbean folktales
  8. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language (online)