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Botany Photo of the Day
In science, beauty. In beauty, science. Daily.

Urtica dioica

Urtica dioica
Urtica dioica

Over to Taisha again for today's entry. She writes:

Today's images are of Urtica dioica, or stinging nettle. Recently, I've been obsessed with looking at various "best of" lists of photomicrography, or light microscope photography. While perusing the Botany Photo of the Day Flickr Pool, I came across some work by Eckhard Völker (aka Tatcher a Hainu@Flickr). He has some great microscope shots! I really liked the sprout cross-section of Aesculus hippocastanum, but this species has been twice been featured on BPotD, once by Douglas Justice and another by Daniel, so I thought I'd choose another species. The first photo above is a rhizome cross-section of Urtica dioica at 10x magnification. To give this close-up some context, I've complemented his image with one of stinging nettle in habit by Tim Hicks (aka corvinundrum@Flickr). Thanks Eckhard and Tim!

Urtica dioica (Urticaceae) is a herbaceous perennial that varies widely in morphology, yet is still immediately recognizable throughout its distribution range, i.e., much of the northern hemisphere. This species has a vast system of rhizomes and stolons, so it can form dense populations. Plants can reach 3 meters in height in ideal conditions. Densely covered in stinging hairs, plants can be a hazard to those not paying attention.

The sting from stinging nettle is caused when the stinging hair (made up of a large stinging cell embedded in a multi-cellular base) comes into contact with the skin and releases a chemical mixture. The stinging cell and the main part of the cell are pulled into a brittle tapered shaft that is capped by a hollow terminal knob. When contact with a surface like skin is made, the terminal knob breaks off, leaving the hollow shaft tip. With the downward contact force on the flexible basal bulb, fluid is forced upward and expelled onto the surface. The compounds responsible for the burning sensation have been proposed by Thurston & Lersten (1969) to be histamine, acetylcholine, 5-hydroxtryptamine, serotonin and formic acid, however it has been noted more recently that despite this citation being in various texts, negative findings are ignored (see: Taylor, K. (2009). Biological Flora of the British Isles: Urtica dioica. Journal of Ecology 97(6):1436-1458).


Daniel Mosquin commented:

I've walked through patches of stinging nettle growing above my head before. Mosquito netting isn't just for mosquitoes!

Katherine commented:

Great photo! And I was interested to learn about how it "stings" -- I never had it in my garden until a few years ago when I tried a new compost brand. The first time I weeded that area, I thought something bit me! I couldn't find anything and then I noticed the different plant and saw its thorn-like hairs. Looked it up on the web.

But it's nice to know that it really does sting by injecting chemicals, and that accounts for why it hurts so much from such a tiny thing (the one that first got me was only 2-3 inches tall).

Thanks for such interesting info!

Charles Tubesing commented:

I remember a tasty cream of nettle soup served by the FOGs to the garden staff at a holiday luncheon in the early 1980s!

Bonaventure Magrys commented:

Young shoots make a great spinach, boiled briefly, then topped with butter and salt.

alphabetjohn commented:

Both photos are break-your-heart beautiful!! And I, too, have been "bitten" while working in the herb garden at Memphis Botanic Garden--in spite of being warned!

Dean Dietrich commented:

This is a plant I know all to well working at Jenkins Arboretum in Devon PA. We call it the 7 minute itch. Lucky enough there is a natural relief for the itch usually growing close by Stinging Nettle. The sap of Impatiens capensis aka Jewelweed can calm the discomfort.

Jane Levy Campbell commented:

Great to see the eye's view along with the microscopic view.
I'll pass on a bit of folk wisdom: You can neutralize the sting of a stinging nettle by rubbing the affected area with dock leaf. Rumex obtusifolius is the broad-leaved dock; maybe others work as well? They tend to grow in the same conditions as stinging nettle, so are often found nearby. It works for me, and many others report the same, though I don't know the chemical basis for the interaction.

Pat Willits commented:

Red elderberry, Sambucus racemosa, works for me. Every time I've been stung, red elderberry has been right there. Rub the leaves on the affected area until your skin is green.

Trisha Mason commented:

I remember camping some 50 yrs ago in Central Texas and hiking out to a fishing pond with my dad and little brother. My brother, maybe 5 or 6 at the time brushed against stinging nettle. My dad shredded a cigarette and made my brother urinate on the tobacco then used it as a wet dressing on the nettle burn. Either it worked or my brother was distracted/fascinated by the process. By the time we had hiked back to my mom, my brother was happily telling the story of peeing on a cigarette and none the worse for wear. You learn the best stuff out camping, like what nettle looks like and how to avoid it.

Mary commented:

I love early spring nettles the best lightly fried to break down the "sting" and was happy to discover a cheese from Wisconsin made with stinging nettles called Burning Melange..Hope the link to it works..I sure didn't like it in the cow pastures of my youth. Our holstein milker cow Star knew we were reluctant to get her out of patches of the plant when she didn't want to come and would stand in the middle daring us.

frances howey commented:

While touring the Botanic Garden at Dunedin, NZ, when I asked about poisonous plants, Urtica feroz was pointed out. It was set back a distance from the path so that people couldn't come into contact with it. Supposedly, a small animal such as guinea pig can die from being pricked by it. Sounded like quite a monster plant to me.

Bonnie Moro commented:

Nettles are host species for the larvae of some butterflies too, although I'm never sure which ones in our area (Pacific Northwest). Does anyone have good information on this? commented:

Hi Bonnie,

I found the resource (PDF),Lepidoptera of the Pacific Northwest: Caterpillars and Adults

It lists Urtica dioica as the host to Abrostola urentis, Hypena californica, Hypena humuli, Nymphalis milberti, Polygonia satyrus, Vanessa annabella, Vanessa Atlanta, and Udea profundalis.

Bonnie Moro commented:

Thanks!! What a great resource that PDF is.

Doug commented:


You might want to look at HOSTS - a Database of the World's Lepidopteran Hostplants from The Natural History Museum (a UK site, but claims to be a global database).

Ian commented:

While traveling in Cornwall a couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of sampling some Yarg. Wonderful cheese with a rind of stinging nettle. Of course, well aged and delicious.

Comments are closed.

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