"Natural Healing with Herbs for a Healthier You"

Stinging nettle is a perennial herb that grows from two to six feet tall, depending on the soil conditions and weather.  The stem is erect, square, and quite substantial, with tiny hairs all along the length, particularly on the corners.  The leaves are greenish in color with subdued but pronounced veins.  They grow opposite along the length of the stem and are lance-shaped, tapering to a point, with strongly serrated margins.  Both the stem and the leaf are covered with tiny, hollow, silica-tipped stinging hairs.  The small flowers are found in long, branched clusters clinging to the joints between the leaf stem and the main plant stem.  These flowers are an inconspicuous green color, drooping from the upper leaf pairs at the stem in close clusters, quite often so thick that they nearly cover the stems.  They bloom throughout the summer and into the fall. 

The flowers of stinging nettle are incomplete; the male and female flowers are found on separate plants.  Male flowers are in loose sprays or racemes, are barren, and have stamens only.  They consist of four sepals, each with a stamen curled up inside.  These bend inward during the bud stage.  When the flower unfolds the anthers on the tip of the stamen are allowed to spring out and scatter their pollen in the wind.  The female flowers occur in more dense clusters.  Each has a superior-positioned ovary with a single, one-seeded carpel, bearing one style and a brush-like stigma.  These flowers later develop into dry seeds which are blown off the parent plant to grow in the nearby soil.  Stinging nettle spreads using rhizomes, or underground roots, that shoot out to the side - a creeping rootstock. 

The “sting” from stinging nettle comes from the tiny hairs that cover the plant.  They are hollow and are attached at the base which is composed of small cells containing an acrid fluid.  When the hairs are slightly pressed or broken off, the venom is instantly released, causing severe irritation and inflammation that lasts anywhere from two to 12 hours. 

Stinging nettle is found throughout the world, from sea level to 10,000 feet above sea level, and is native to North America, Europe, and Asia.  It thrives in nitrogen-rich soils of moist woodlands, streams, waste places, and pastures.  It is one of the first forest floor plants to appear in the spring. 

Where nettles are growing in a stream forge or steep, moist embankment, they can form stout fences with stems as much as an inch thick, with leaves only towards the top of the plant.  Such groups are virtually impenetrable.  More frequently they form rich green stands of three to four feet in height. They are often mistaken for large mints with their square stem, opposite leaves, and growing habits.  Some of the common names of the mint family are called by a nettle name as well, causing further confusion.  These include hedge-nettle, hemp-nettle, and dead-nettle.

The Latin name for stinging nettle is Urtica dioica.  Urtica is from the Latin verb uro or urere, which means “to burn”, because of its urticate, or stinging, hairs.  Dioica means “two houses”, referring to the male and female flowers on separate plants.  Scientific classification of the stinging nettle is as follows: Kingdom: Plantae; Division: Magnoliophyta; Class: Magnoliopsida; Order: Urticales; Family: Urticaceae; Genus: Urtica; Species: dioica.

In her book, A Modern Herbal, Mary Grieve relates the following statement of a Dr.  Prior: “The common name of the nettle, or rather its Anglo-Saxon and also Dutch equivalent, Netel, is said to have been derived from Noedl (a needle), possibly from the sharp sting, or… in reference to the fact that it was this plant that supplied the thread used in former times by the Germanic and Scandinavian nations before the general introduction of flax, Net being the passive participle of ne, a verb common to most of the Indo-European languages in the sense of “spin” and “sew”… Nettle would seem… to have meant primarily that with which one sews.”
by Kassie Vance
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