(Urtica dioica)

What is it?

Nettles are an herbaceous, perennial plant, 1 to 2 m (3 to 7 ft) tall in the summer and dying down to the ground in winter. The soft, green leaves are 3 to 15 cm (1 to 6 in) long and are borne oppositely on an erect, wiry, green stem. The leaves and stems are very hairy with non-stinging hairs, and in most subspecies, also bear many stinging hairs, whose tips come off when touched, transforming the hair into a needle that can inject several chemicals causing a painful sting, giving the species its common names: stinging nettle, burn nettle, burn weed, or burn hazel.

Where does it live?

Stinging Nettles is native to Europe, Asia, northern Africa, and North America, and introduced elsewhere. It’s abundant in northern Europe and much of Asia, usually found in the countryside. It is less widespread in southern Europe and north Africa, where it is restricted by its need for moist soil, but is still common. In North America, it is widely distributed in Canada and the United States, where it is found in every province and state except for Hawaii, and also can be found in northernmost Mexico. It grows in abundance in the Pacific Northwest, especially in places where annual rainfall is high. In Europe, nettles have a strong association with human habitation and buildings. The presence of nettles may indicate the site of a long-abandoned building. Human and animal waste may be responsible for elevated levels of phosphate and nitrogen in the soil, providing an ideal environment for nettles.

Why is it here?

We have chosen to include stinging nettles for its medicinal properties, specifically in relation to treatment for hay fever, which is often triggered by Ragweed, one of the other plants in these boxes. For us, it’s inclusion represents the balance that is always present in the natural world when we have the eyes to see it. Where there are toxins, there are often remedies. Poison ivy, for instance, often grows in proximity to its antidote, Jewel Weed. Nettles will often grow alongside or nearby Ragweed. As we learn about and begin to recognize these patterns of balance, perhaps we can more deeply consider how we might understand our own role within larger, more complex natural systems.

Of Note:

The plant has a long history of use as a source for traditional medicine, food, tea, and textile raw material in ancient societies. It has been used in the traditional Austrian medicine internally (as tea or fresh leaves) to treat disorders of the kidneys and urinary tract, gastrointestinal tract, locomotor system, skin, cardiovascular system, hemorrhage, influenza, rheumatism, and gout.

As Old English stiðe, nettle is one of the nine plants invoked in the pagan Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm, recorded in the 10th century. Nettle was believed to be a galactagogue, a substance that promotes lactation. Urtication, or flogging with nettles, is the process of deliberately applying stinging nettles to the skin in order to provoke inflammation. An agent thus used is known as a rubefacient (something that causes redness). This is done as a folk remedy for treatment of rheumatism. In Ecuador there are indigenous healers that use stinging nettles with the belief that they improve fatigue and circulation, by rubbing raw leaves or flogging the plant directly on the body.