1. Family: Urticaceae Juss.
    1. Genus: Urtica L.
      1. Urtica dioica L.

        The nettle is well known for its toothed, hairy leaves and for its sting. The painful sensation of nettle stings occurs when toxins from specialised hairs are delivered into the skin. Each stinging hair has a bulbous tip which breaks off to leave a sharp, needle-like tube that pierces the skin and injects histamine and acetylcholine, causing itching and burning that may last up to 12 hours.

    [KSP]

    Kew Species Profiles

    General Description
    The nettle is one of the most useful plants in Britain and even its sting can be beneficial.

    The nettle is well known for its toothed, hairy leaves and for its sting. The painful sensation of nettle stings occurs when toxins from specialised hairs are delivered into the skin. Each stinging hair has a bulbous tip which breaks off to leave a sharp, needle-like tube that pierces the skin and injects histamine and acetylcholine, causing itching and burning that may last up to 12 hours.

    Species Profile
    Geography and distribution

    Urtica dioica is widespread through Europe and North America, and also occurs in North Africa and parts of Asia. There are naturalised populations in several other parts of the world.

    Description

    This species is a herbaceous perennial, which grows as an upright plant to 2 m tall. The soft, serrated leaves are opposite each other in pairs on the stem. The leaves and the rest of the plant are coated in stinging and non-stinging hairs. The plant spreads by underground roots which are noticeably yellow. The tiny greenish-white flowers, each with four petals, are densely clustered on elongated inflorescences towards the top of the stem. Urtica dioicais divided into at least five subspecies, each of which is slightly different.

    Threats and conservation

    This plant is not threatened and is a common weed.

    The stinging nettle is of great benefit to UK wildlife, and its growth is often actively encouraged by conservation groups. It supports over 40 species of insects, including small tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies.

    Uses

    Nettles have been used for centuries for a multitude of purposes, and continue to be harvested from the wild for food and medicine today.

    Nettles are eaten as a vegetable; cooking will destroy the stings. The tender, young shoots and leaves - the most palatable parts - are the main ingredient in nettle soup, which has a reputation for 'cleansing the blood'. Historically, puddings and beer were made with nettles. Today, the mature leaves are used in the production of cheese (notably Cornish Yarg) and in pesto, cordials and herbal tea. Nettles have also been used to yield vegetable protein similar to tofu made from soya ( Glycine max). In some parts of Britain (eg Orkney) the leaves are traditionally fed to pigs to fatten them.

    Nettles have been used for a variety of medicinal purposes. A tonic prepared from the leaves is still among the most popular plant remedies used today. One traditional remedy for rheumatism involves deliberately stinging the afflicted area with nettle leaves! While this may seem strange, research has shown that nettle stings have anti-inflammatory properties that disrupt the NF-κB pathway and inhibit other inflammatory responses. Extracts of the root are used to treat benign prostate hyperplasia. Scientists have identified a variety of biochemical properties in extracts of nettles that support their uses in herbal medicine.

    Nettle stems contain tough fibres and can be used in textiles; the fibre was widely used to this effect in Germany and Austria during the First World War. Nettles can also be used for dyeing fabric. Horticulturalists sometimes use nettles, which are rich in nutrients, to produce a type of liquid plant feed. The leaves are used in cosmetics.

    Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

    Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

    Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: FourSeed storage behaviour: Orthodox - the seeds of this plant survive being dried without significantly reducing their viability, and are therefore amenable to long-term frozen storage such as at the MSBGermination testing:SuccessfulComposition values: Oil content 23.1 - 32.6%, Protein 15.5%

    Cultivation

    Although not cultivated at Kew, this perennial species is planted as a crop elsewhere. Until recently it was cultivated in Scotland, Denmark and Norway for use in food, textile and medical industries. This species can be propagated by seed or by rhizome (that is an underground stem that grows horizontally) division. Abundant seed is produced and can be collected in late autumn, before frost causes seed-fall. The seed does not pass through a dormant stage and can germinate just days after maturity. Open ground is preferred for germination. Rhizome division can be carried out from spring through to late summer.

    As deep, rich soils are preferred by this species, a substrate rich in organic matter is recommended, with nutrition added. This species responds well to generous watering. Given the tendency to flop, it is recommended that nettles be grown with support, such as that provided by pea sticks if a neat appearance is required. Control of the spread of the rhizomes can be carried out by using a pot or polyurethane barrier in the soil.

    If the purpose of cultivation is to provide for butterflies, large discrete clumps should be grown where eggs will usually be laid on leaves on the outside of the clumps. As young foliage is generally preferred, cutting can be carried out to produce fresh growth. Gloves are required for handling the plants.

    Where to see this species at Kew

    This species is not cultivated at Kew. However, a natural population is allowed to grow in the Natural Areas (Conservation Area) where it is of benefit to the native fauna. Nettles can usually be seen close to the Badger Sett. Nettles are a food source for many butterfly and moth larvae, and ladybirds benefit from the aphids that thrive there. The numerous seeds produced in late summer are an important food source for many native birds.

    What would you use nettles for?

    Nettles are one of the popular plant remedies used in the United Kingdom. Kew is collecting people's memories of nettles and other plant remedies for the Ethnomedica project. Many people remember using nettles in a tonic and to relieve rheumatism. What would you use nettles for?

    If you would like to share your remembered remedies with us, please emailethnomedica@kew.org. 

    Distribution
    United Kingdom, USA
    Ecology
    Wasteland, hedgerows, fields and woods. Nettles do particularly well in soils with high levels of nitrogen and are often found growing around abandoned buildings.
    Conservation
    Not threatened.
    Hazards

    Nettle stings are irritating and poisonous but are very rarely serious.

    [KSP]
    Use
    Food, medicine, textiles, plant feed, cosmetics.

    Images

    Distribution

    Found In:

    Albania, Algeria, Austria, Baltic States, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Central European Rus, Corse, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, East Aegean Is., East European Russia, Finland, France, Føroyar, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kirgizstan, Krym, Morocco, Netherlands, North European Russi, Northwest European R, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Sardegna, Sicilia, South European Russi, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey-in-Europe, Ukraine, Yugoslavia

    Introduced Into:

    Alabama, Argentina Northeast, Chile Central, Chile South, Colombia, Eritrea, Falkland Is., India, Libya, New Zealand North, New Zealand South, Tennessee, Tristan da Cunha

    Common Names

    English
    Nettle

    Urtica dioica L. appears in other Kew resources:

    Date Identified Reference Herbarium Specimen Type Status
    Jan 1, 2011 Day, C.D. [721], Turkey K000341581
    Cope, T.A. [RBG 17], Great Britain K000914036

    First published in Sp. Pl.: 984 (1753)

    Accepted in:

    • [1] Bailey, C. & al. (2015) Guide to the Vascular Plants of Tennessee . University of Tennessee press
    • [2] (2013) Index synonymique de la flore d'Afrique du nord 5: 1-451. Éditions des conservatoire et jardin botaniques, Genève
    • [3] Dimpoulos, P., Raus, T., Bergmeier, E., Constantinidis, T., Iatrou, G., Kokkini, S., Strid, A., & Tzanoudakis, D. (2013) Vascular plants of Greece. An annotated checklist . Botanic gardens and botanical museum Berlin-Dahlem, Berlin and Hellenic botanical society, Athens
    • [4] (2011) Norrlinia 24: 1-166
    • [5] Idárraga-Piedrahita, A., Ortiz, R.D.C., Callejas Posada, R. & Merello, M. (eds.) (2011) Flora de Antioquia: Catálogo de las Plantas Vasculares 2: 1-939. Universidad de Antioquia, Medellín
    • [6] Kral, R., Diamond, A.R., Ginzbarg, S.L., Hansen, C.J., Haynes, R.R., Keener, B.R., Lelong, M.G., Spaulding, D.D. & Woods, M. (2011) Annotated checklist of the vascular plants of Alabama . Botanical reseach institute of Texas
    • [7] (2010) Journal of Economic and Taxonomic Botany 34: 42-68
    • [8] (2009) Lagascalia 29: 105-257
    • [9] (2009) Phytotaxa 2: 1-12
    • [10] Gremmen, N. & Halbertsma, R.L. Gremmen, N. & Halbertsma, R.L. (2009) Alien plants and their impact on Tristan da Cunha 2: 1-307. Overseas Territories Environment Programme (OTEP)
    • [18] (2002) Botanical Journal of Scotland 54: 153-190
    • [20] Tutin, T.G. & al. (eds.) (1993) Flora Europaea ed. 2, 1: 1-581. Cambridge University Press
    • [22] (1989 publ. 1990) Flora of Ethiopia and Eritrea 3: 1-659. The National Herbarium, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia & The Department of Systematic Botany, Upps

    Literature

    • [11] USDA Forestry Service (2009). Index of Species Information: Urtica dioica (accessed online 29 September 2009).
    • [12] Jellin, J.M., Gregory, P.J., et al. (2008). Pharmacist's Letter/Prescriber's Letter Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. 10th Ed. Therapeutic Research Faculty, Stockton.
    • [13] Davidson, A. (2006). The Oxford Companion to Food. 2nd Ed.Oxford University Press, Oxford.
    • [14] Warren, P. (2006). 101 uses for stinging nettles. Wildeye, UK.
    • [15] Milliken, W. & Bridgewater, S. (2004). Flora Celtica – People and Plants in Scotland. Birlinn, Edinburgh.
    • [16] Prendergast, H.D.V. & Sanderson, H. (2004). Britain's Wild Harvest: the Commercial Uses of Wild Plants and Fungi. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
    • [17] Williamson, E.M. (2003). Potter's Herbal Cyclopaedia. C.W. Daniel, Saffron Walden.

    • [19] Riehemann, K. (1999). Plant extracts from stinging nettle ( Urtica dioica), an antirheumatic remedy, inhibit the proinflammatory transcription factor NF-κB. FEBS Letters. 442: 89-94.
    • [21] Dennis, L. (ed.) (1992). The Ecology of Butterflies in Britain. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
    • [23] Grieve, M. (1984). A Modern Herbal. Edited by Mrs C. F. Leyel. Savvas Publishing, Adelaide; Jonathan Cape Limited, London.
    • [24] Stuart, M. (ed.) (1979). Encyclopedia of Herbs and Herbalism. Orbis, London.
    • [25] Thurston, E.L. (1974). Morphology, fine structure and ontogeny of the stinging emergence of Urtica dioica. American Journal of Botany. 67: 809-817.

    Sources

    Kew Names and Taxonomic Backbone
    The International Plant Names Index and World Checkist of Selected Plant Families (2017). Published on the internet at http://www.ipni.org and http://apps.kew.org/wcsp
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