Stinging nettle, commonly known as itching weed, is native to Europe and Asia, but now commonly grows in the wild in North America as well. Throughout the ages it has been used both as table fare and as a medicinal plant. It is also, however, known for its ability to create an itching burning sensation when coming in contact with the skin. Knowing how to identify stinging nettle is important both for those who wish to employ and those who wish to avoid its various properties.
Various tissues on the plant are covered in very fine hair, sometimes referred to as thorns. These hairs are full of formic acid. The acid is released when brushed against. If the acid comes in contact with the skin, it causes an itching, burning or stinging sensation.
Stinging nettle plants have a single stem that is both rigid and ribbed. It stands erect throughout its growth and reaches an average height of about 4 feet, with a maximum height of more than 6 feet. The stem is covered in the hair responsible for stinging. Leaves are arranged oppositely on the stem.
The leaves of the plant are generally oval or egg shaped with pointed ends and serrated edges. Mature leaves have stinging hairs, or long hairs, only on the underside, while immature foliage has a mixture of short, harmless hairs and long, stinging hairs on both its upper and lower surfaces. Leaves have a paperlike texture with a rough surface. They grow out of petioles which are attached to the stem.
Flowers vary in color and can occur in pale shades of green, white, pink and yellow. Both male and female plants produce flower clusters, but the shape of the bloom is significantly different. Male flowers are spear shaped and grow diagonally out from the stem, and female flowers are fluted open blooms with more color. Flowers grow out of the area between the stem and leaf petioles.
Stinging nettles grow from a rhizome, and so typically grow in the same places every year. They prefer rich soil, and grow best in areas with abundant organic matter, like leaf compost. Look for them in moist woodlands, near water sources and in other partially shaded areas, as well as in open pastures and along roadsides. They are also capable of producing seed, which scatters by natural means and forms new plants in the following growing season.
- Photo Credit nettle in nature image by .shock from Fotolia.com
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