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Stinging Nettles

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Picture of stinging nettles.

Picture of stinging nettles.

David Beaulieu

Taxonomy of Stinging Nettles:

Plant taxonomy classifies the stinging nettles with which I deal here as Urtica dioica.

Plant Type:

Urtica dioica is a broadleaf, perennial plant. Depending on your perspective, you could also categorize it as either a noxious weed or an herb with culinary and medicinal uses (see below).

Identification of Stinging Nettles:

Although it can reach greater heights, Urtica dioica generally grows about 3-4 feet high. It also often grows in masses, forming a monoculture. If you see a group of such plants (see photo above right), look for those noxious bristly hairs along the stems of the plants and on the undersides of their leaves. The plants spread via rhizomes.

Weed Control:

Try to dig out stinging nettles before they've had a chance to establish themselves. Failing that, HDRA Organic Weed Management still offers hope for organic eradication, noting, "Repeated hoeing will exhaust the rootstocks eventually" because Urtica dioica, with its shallow rhizomes, does not tolerate cultivation well. HDRA also notes 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:

The plants are found in disturbed soils and can be encountered on roadsides. But because they prefer nitrogen-rich soils, their favorite habitat is garden borders. The Ohio Perennial and Biennial Weed Guide speaks of two varieties (which are very similar to each other), one a North American native, the other indigenous to Europe.

Why Stinging Nettles Burn -- And a Home 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, can be used as a home remedy to counteract their toxicity. I would describe the symptoms resulting from an encounter with stinging nettles 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 "vexatious."

Stinging Nettles Not the Same as "Deadnettle":

Don't confuse these plants with dead nettle (deadnettle), a harmless perennial plant used in shade gardens.

Medicinal and Culinary Uses:

Stinging nettles have long been used for medicinal purposes, including as a treatment for hay fever. Aficionados of edible weeds harvest the young leaves and boil them, which renders the leaves edible. I emphasize "young" because the barbs haven't had time yet to develop on young leaves. Not only will they not sting your mouth once cooked sufficiently, but young leaves are also quite nutritious.

I once ordered a sorrel and nettle soup at a bistro in Maine (U.S.). It was much better-tasting than the name may sound to some of you.

Origin of the Names, "Stinging Nettles," "Urtica Dioica":

The genus name for stinging nettles, Urtica, comes from the Latin root that means "burn" -- a reference to the burning skin irritation caused upon contact with the plants. The specific epithet, dioica, meanwhile, is from the Greek for "two houses" and refers to the fact that male and female flowers appear on separate stinging nettle plants; other so-called "dioecious" plants include winterberry shrub.

As for the origin of the common name, "stinging nettles," the foregoing explains 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." For besides culinary and medicinal uses, another of the ancient uses to which nettles were put was as a source of fiber for clothing and rope.

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