Plant Profiles Stinging Nettle Urtica Dioica


Urtica dioica is native across the countryside in the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa and North America.  Aptly called the “Stinging nettle”, contact with this plant can cause stinging and rashes.  The many hollow trichomes, or stinging hairs on its leaves and stems actually inject histamines and other chemicals that act as an irritant to the skin and produce an almost immediate immune response. 

Benefits and Gardening tips

Despite this perennial flowering plant’s unfortunate reputation as a weedy, invasive species, it also has a long, positive history of use for medical purposes and even for food.  Additionally, nettles provide the primary food source for many caterpillars such as the tortoiseshell and peacock butterflies as well as some species of moths’ larvae.  Many people lament the uprising of this “weed” in their gardens, but experienced gardeners know that this plant is very useful for many reasons.  For one, nettles can be used to test the chemical makeup of the soil because nettles are actual picky about where they grow and will only pop up in their preferred nitrogen, phosphate-rich soil.  Another important use for the plant in gardens, is as a sacrifice to pests such as aphids.  Even though aphids destroy gardens, they also serve as food for many garden-benefiting insects and birds.  So, because aphids prefer to feed on the nettle, they can safely destroy that hardy plant while continuing to attract creatures that are useful to a garden’s prosperity.   

Where it’s found

Stinging nettles are usually found in riparian communities (the interface between land and some body of water), preferring to grow in moist, soft, and nitrogen-rich soil.  Therefore, nettles are often widespread in areas such as open forests, on the slopes of mountains, near riverbeds, marshes, and meadows, with the colonies often taking over acres of land.  The plant is also especially common in disturbed areas such as roadsides.

Scientific studies

The Ataturk University in Turkey studied the nettle plant’s purported health benefits and found evidence supporting the powerful effects of the plant in a number of categories.  Researchers studied the water extract of the nettle plant and found it to have strong antioxidant activity, antimicrobial activity against nine microorganisms, antiulcer activity against ethanol-induced ulcerogenesis, and analgesic effect on acetic acid-induced stretching.  Also, the German scientific journal, Arzneimittelforschung, recognizes that Urtica dioca can be used as adjuvant therapy in rheumatoid arthritis.

Cooking nettles 

Finally, the stinging nettle is used to make a variety of tasty dishes as long as it is first soaked or cooked to remove the chemicals which cause its eponymous sting.  The plant is said to have a flavor similar to spinach and is high in vitamins, potassium, manganese, calcium and protein.  From Europeans to Native American’s to Asian Indians, the nettle has been used to flavor food.  Popular dishes to try include pesto, curry, and even spanokopita.