Stinging Nettle
Urtica dioica L.
Family: Urticaceae, Nettle
Genus: Urtica
Other names: nettle
Nomenclature: dioica = male and female flowers separate.
Nativity / Invasiveness: Montana native plant, weed
Edible plant
Medicinal plant

General: erect perennial, 50-300 cm tall with 4-sided stems, armed with stinging hairs, otherwise from hairless to strongly bristly and flat-silky-hairy, from long, spreading rhizomes, often in colonies.

Leaves: opposite, 7-15 cm long, the stalks from about 1/10 as long to nearly 1/2 as long as the blades, depending on variety. The stipules prominent, mostly 10-15 mm long. Leaf blades from narrowly lanceolate and rounded or pointed at base to broadly ovate and often cordate at base, coarsely sharp-toothed.

Flowers: numerous in hanging clusters from upper leaf axils, greenish, sometimes tinged pinkish, inconspicuous, 1-2 mm long, with 4 tiny sepals and no petals. Male and female flowers on separate plants or in separate clusters on the same plant. May-September.

Fruits: achenes, lens-shaped, flattened, about 1.5 mm long, enclosed by the 2 inner sepals.


Moist shaded lowland or montane slopes, always in deep rich soil or near moisture, often on disturbed ground, from the plains to subalpine, in all parts of MT. Widespread, from AK to n.e. states, s. to S. America, and in Eurasia.
Edible Uses

These plants are covered with tiny, hollow, pointed hairs. The swollen base of each hair contains a tiny droplet of formic acid, and when the hair tip pierces you, the acid is injected into your skin. This acid can cause itching and/or burning for a few minutes to a couple of days. Rubbing nettle stings with the plant's own roots is supposed to relieve the burning. Tender, young shoots can be boiled and eaten like spinach or in soups and stews. The acid is destroyed by cooking or drying, but eating large quantities of cooked nettles can still cause a burning sensation. Young plants can also be used to make nettle tea, wine or beer. They can also be dried for winter use. Nettles are a very valuable addition to the diet, they are a very nutritious food that is easily digested and is high in minerals (especially iron) and vitamins (especially A and C). Older plants become fibrous and gritty from an abundance of small crystals.

Medicinal Uses

Nettles have a long history of use in the home as a herbal remedy and nutritious addition to the diet. A tea made from the leaves has traditionally been used as a cleansing tonic and blood purifier so the plant is often used in the treatment of hay fever, arthritis, anemia etc. The whole plant is antiasthmatic, antidandruff, and astringent. It eliminates toxins and purifies the system, especially the blood. It is urine-producing, promotes the flow of milk in a nursing mother, controls internal bleeding, reduces the levels of sugar in the blood, and is a stimulating tonic. An infusion of the plant is very valuable in stemming internal bleeding, it is also used to treat anemia, excessive menstruation, hemorrhoids, arthritis, rheumatism and skin complaints, especially eczema. Externally, the plant is used to treat skin complaints, arthritic pain, gout, sciatica, neuralgia, hemorrhoids, hair problems etc. A hair wash is made from the infused leaves and this is used as a tonic and antidandruff treatment.
The fresh leaves of nettles have been rubbed or beaten onto the skin in the treatment of rheumatism etc. This practice, called urtification, causes intense irritation to the skin as it is stung by the nettles. It is believed that this treatment works in two ways. Firstly, it acts as a counter-irritant, bringing more blood to the area to help remove the toxins that cause rheumatism. Secondly, the formic acid from the nettles is believed to have a beneficial effect upon the rheumatic joints. For medicinal purposes, the plant is best harvested in May or June as it is coming into flower and dried for later use. The juice of the nettle can be used as an antidote to stings from the leaves and an infusion of the fresh leaves is healing and soothing as a lotion for burns. The root has been shown to have a beneficial effect upon enlarged prostate glands. A homeopathic remedy is made from the leaves. It is used in the treatment of rheumatic gout, nettle rash and chickenpox, externally is applied to bruises.

Other Uses

Nettle fibers were used for many years to make rope, paper and cloth. The fibers were considered superior to cotton for velvet or plush, and they were said to be more durable than linen. It is harvested as the plant begins to die down in early autumn and is retted before the fibers are extracted. The plant matter left over after the fibers have been extracted are a good source of biomass and have been used in the manufacture of sugar, starch, protein and ethyl alcohol. An oil obtained from the seeds is used as an illuminant. The leaves are also an excellent addition to the compost heap and they can be soaked for 7-21 days in water to make a very nutritious liquid feed for plants. This liquid feed is both insect repellent and a good foliar feed. The growing plant increases the essential oil content of other nearby plants, thus making them more resistant to insect pests. Flies are repelled by nettles so a bunch of freshly cut stems has been used as a repellent in food cupboards. The juice of the plant, or a decoction formed by boiling the herb in a strong solution of salt, will curdle milks and thus acts as a rennet substitute. This same juice, if rubbed into small seams of leaky wooden tubs, will coagulate and make the tub watertight again.

Sub taxa:

ssp. gracilis (Ait.) Seland:
Leaf blades proportionately broader, usually ovate-lanceolate to ovate, the length usually 2-3 times the width. Flower cluster not crowded, the floral leaves not greatly reduced, usually well exceeding the flowering branches. Plant often with hairy stems. Mainly in ID and w. MT in our area, also to B.C. and Alberta, and occasional in WA and OR, e. to the Atlantic coast.

ssp. holosericea (Nutt.) Thorne:
Leaf blades narrowly to broadly lanceolate, usually at least 3 times as long as broad, pointed to rounded at the base. Flower cluster crowded above, the upper leaves reduced and usually equalled or exceeded by some of the flowering branches. Plants grayish with dense, short hairs. Mostly in s.w. U.S., but not rarely in e. WA, e. OR, ID, and NV.

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