Urticaceae or Nettle family

The Common Stinging Nettle early in the year!

This is family number 50 in Stace and besides the genus Urtica, which has 2 native species, it also has 2 other genera + species occurring in the B.I. namely Parietaria judaica (Pellitory-of-the-wall) and an ornamental, low creeping with very small leaves, sometimes seen as a houseplant, called Soleirolia soleirolii with the very funny common name: ‘Mind-your-own-business’. I have seen this plant more frequently in the last few years in gardens as well.

“ The 3 genera appear very different vegetatively, but are characterised by their inconspicuous, unisexual flowers with 4 perianth segments, 4 stamens, 1-celled superior ovary with 1 ovule, 1 style and densely branched stigma”. The Common Nettle (Urtica dioica) is very variable, especially in leaf shape and hairiness, stingless, subglabrus and monoecious variants are known.” From Stace, p. 285

The other native nettle is not as well-known and is the annual Small Nettle (Urtica urens). Apparently (St. 286) this is an archaeophyte and often occurs in cultivated and waste ground. As with many leafy plants, they are often an indicator of good soil.

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Most of the below information comes from Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia for which I am very grateful. For ease of reading in my blog I will as usual edit all the information and place in bullet points.

The most fascinating fact about the Nettle is the Sting!

Nettle stinging hair diagramme

This sting is caused by trichomes , which are specially adapted hairs filled with an irritant making the stinging sensation.  “The leaves and stems are very hairy with non-stinging hairs, and in most subspecies, also bear many stinging hairs (trichomes or spicules), whose tips come off when touched, transforming the hair into a needle that can inject several chemicals causing a painful sting or paresthesia.

Urtica dioica produces its inflammatory effect on skin (stinging, burning sensation often called “contact urticaria”  (The term, contact urticaria, has a wider use in dermatology, involving dermatitis caused by various skin irritants and pathogens) ) both by impaling the skin via spicules – causing mechanical irritation – and by biochemical irritants, such as histamineserotonin, and choline, among other chemicals.  Anti-itch drugs, usually in the form of creams containing antihistamines or hydrocortisone, may provide relief from nettle dermatitis.

In Great Britain, the use of dock leaves on nettle stings is an established folk remedy, and revolves around the sap released from rubbing the leaf over affected areas of skin, which provides a cooling sensation. Docks and nettles regularly grow in the vicinity of each other due to both plants favouring the same soil conditions, and this may have aided the dock’s popularity as a treatment for nettle stings.

The nettles are a nutritious plant as well as medicinal but this also depends on where it grows. 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. This phosphate and nitrogen can be recycled as compost made of nettles or in the form of liquid manure.

It is often a pioneer plant making the ground better for other plants to follow in succession.

Food plants for wildlife:

Food for us:

The nettle is now a well-known plant to forage for and use cooked as a substitute for spinach. Later in the year some of the plant can be cut back to make it re-grow and give a new supply of young, edible tops. There are many recipes on the internet to use nettles and if you have a large garden it is useful to keep some available for this purpose, but also please leave some for wildlife (see above).

Fresh leaves contain approximately 82.4% water, 17.6% dry matter, 5.5% protein, 0.7 to 3.3% fat, and 7.1% carbohydrates. Mature leaves contain about 40% α– linolenic acid, a valuable omega-3 acid. Seeds contain much more fatty acid than leaves. Minerals (Ca, K, Mg, P, Si, S, Cl) and trace elements (Mn, Cu, Fe) contents depend mostly on the soil and the season.

  • Urtica dioica has a flavour similar to spinach mixed with cucumber when cooked, and is rich in vitamins A and Cironpotassiummanganese, and calcium.

Soaking stinging nettles in water or cooking removes the stinging chemicals from the plant, which allows them to be handled and eaten without injury.

  • After the stinging nettle enters its flowering and seed-setting stages, the leaves develop gritty particles called cystoliths, which can irritate the urinary tract. 
  • In its peak season, nettle contains up to 25% protein, dry weight, which is high for a leafy green vegetable.
  • The leaves are also dried and may then be used to make a herbal tea, as can also be done with the nettle’s flowers.
  • Nettles can be used in a variety of recipes, such aspolentapesto, and puréeNettle soup is a common use of the plant, particularly in Northern and Eastern Europe.
  • Nettles are sometimes used in cheese making, for example in the production ofCornish Yarg and as a  flavouring in varieties of Gouda cheese (from the Netherlands).
  • In the UK, an annual World Nettle Eating Championship draws thousands of people to Dorset, where competitors attempt to eat as much of the raw plant as possible. Competitors are given 60 cm (24 in) stalks of the plant, from which they strip the leaves and eat them. Whoever strips and eats the most stinging nettle leaves in a fixed time is the winner. The competition dates back to 1986, when two neighbouring farmers attempted to settle a dispute about which had the worst infestation of nettles. Drink for us:
    • Nettle leaves are steeped in a concentrated sugar solution to extract the flavour.The leaves are then removed and a source of citric acid (usually lemon juice) is added to help preserve the cordial and add a tart flavour.
    • Also, many recipes for alcoholic nettle beer are used, which is a countryside favourite in the British Isles.


    Medicinal use:

    Most of this information is from Hedgerow Medicine

    Nettles are one of the most useful of plants despite their protective sting. The young tops are delicious and nutritious, a natural vitamin and mineral supplement. Medicinally, the leaves, seeds and roots are used to treat a wide range of conditions. The leaves can be dried to use as tea or they can be made into a tincture. The roots can be made into a decoction as well as a decocted tincture. The seeds of the nettles can be made into a medicinal electuary by going through a process of drying, grinding and then mixing into some runny honey. Some of the many uses are listed below:

    • Nettle top tea for spring tonic
    • Blood tonic against anaemia as nettle high in soluble iron.
    • Blood cleanser of urates and toxins
    • Tea for treatment in gout and arthritis
    • Against high as well as low blood pressure
    • For coughs and allergies such as hay fever as nettle has antihistamine effect
    • Good for problems with the skin and high blood sugar.
    • Regulates breast milk production
    • Externally it is used for cuts and wounds and it makes a good hair tonic
    • In the traditional Austrian medicine dioicaherb has been used 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.

    Other uses:

    Nettle stems contain a bast fibre that has been traditionally used for the same purposes as linen and is produced by a similar retting process. Unlike cotton, nettles grow easily without pesticides. The fibres are coarser, however.

    Historically, nettles have been used to make clothing for 2,000 years, and German Army uniforms were almost all made from nettle during World War I due to a potential shortage of cotton.

    • More recently, companies in Austria, Germany, and Italy have started to produce commercial nettle textiles. Found some example of modern nettle clothing here
    • The fibre content in nettle shows a high variability and reaches from below 1% to 17%. Fibre varieties are normally cloning varieties and therefore planted from vegetative propagated plantlets. Direct seeding is possible, but leads to great heterogeneity in maturity.


      Use in the language:

      I found this interesting information about the influence on language and culture:

      Shakespeare‘s Hotspur urges that “out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety” (Henry IV, part 1, Act II Scene 3). The figure of speech “to grasp the nettle” probably originated from Aesop‘s fable “The Boy and the Nettle”.In Seán O’Casey‘s Juno and the Paycock, one of the characters quotes Aesop “Gently touch a nettle and it’ll sting you for your pains/Grasp it as a lad of mettle and soft as silk remains”. The metaphor may refer to the fact that if a nettle plant is grasped firmly rather than brushed against, it does not sting so readily, because the hairs are crushed down flat and do not penetrate the skin so easily.

      In the German language, the idiom sich in die Nesseln setzen, or to sit in nettles, means to get into trouble. In Hungarian, the idiom csalánba nem üt a mennykő (no lightning strikes the nettle) means bad things never happen to bad people. The same idiom exists in the Serbian language неће гром у коприве. In Dutch, a netelige situatie means a predicament. In French, the idiom faut pas pousser mémé dans les orties (don’t push grandma in the nettles) means that we should be careful not to abuse a situation. The name urticaria for hives comes from the Latin name of nettle (Urtica, from urere, to burn).

      The English word ‘nettled’, meaning irritated or angry, is derived from ‘nettle’.

      There is a widespread idea in Great Britain that the nettle was introduced by the Romans. The idea is mentioned by William Camden in his book Britannia 1586. However, in 2011, an early Bronze age burial cist on Whitehorse Hill, Dartmoor, Devon was excavated. The cist dated from between 1730 and 1600BCE. It contained various high value beads as well as fragments of a sash made from nettle fibre. It is possible that the sash was traded from mainland Europe, but also that it was locally made.