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Publication #HB002

Stinging Nettles of Florida: Urtica1

Wendy B. Zomlefer2

Classification

Scientific Name: Urtica chamaedryoides Pursh
Common Name(s): heart-leaf nettle; weak nettle; ortiguilla

Family: Urticaceae (nettle family)

Description

Annual herbs with stinging hairs.

Stems erect but weak and often supported by surrounding plants, generally 10-50+ cm (4-20+ in) tall, branching mainly from base.

Leaves opposite, triangular to heart-shaped in outline, bluntly and coarsely toothed, 1-6 cm (0.5-2.5 in) long, 1-4 cm (0.5-1.5 in) wide, reduced in size upward on stem, with linear bumps (cystoliths, concretions of calcium carbonate) on surface; leaf stalks (petioles) slender.

Flowers minute, unisexual (male and female in the same cluster), greenish; flower clusters more or less spherical 3-6 mm (0.1-0.2 in) wide, arising from leaf stalk-stem junction.

Fruit tiny and seed-like (achene), 1 mm (0.04 in) long, flattened, egg-shaped in outline, brown, enclosed by bract-like structures (calyx lobes). See Fig. 1.

Figure 1. 

Shade form of Urtica chamaedryoides.


Credit: Photo by Kent D. Perkins of UF Herbarium sheet.
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Field Recognition Features. Weak-stemmed herbs with brittle, bulbous-based, fluid-filled, stinging hairs; opposite triangular leaves with scalloped-toothed margins; minute flowers in spherical clusters in leaf axils. (Fig. 2). It blooms from spring to summer in Florida.

Figure 2. 

Flowering top of Urtica chamaedryoides.


Credit: Photo by Lawrence A. Halsey, Co. Ext. Dir., Jefferson Co.
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Distribution. Florida: native; north and central peninsula, west to central panhandle. General: south Ohio, Kentucky-Illinois west to southeast Kansas, south to central Florida, Texas, Louisiana, and Mexico.

Habitat. Humus-rich soils (often over limestone) in floodplains, rich woods, and disturbed areas; common around farm yards.

Similar Species

Urtica dioica (stinging nettle, Fig. 3: left, flowers in long compound clusters; native to Eurasia, reported from Alachua County), U. urens (burning nettle, dwarf nettle, Fig. 3: right; flowers in elongate clusters; native to Europe; reported from St. Johns, Lake, Orange, and Leon counties).

Figure 3. 

Left: Urtica dioica; Right: Urtica urens.


Credit: Photo by Kent D. Perkins, Left: UF Herbarium sheet #55306; Right: UF Herbarium sheet #154187.
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Toxicity

Irritant compounds (histamines and acetocholines) that cause reddening and intense itching fill the stiff, hypodermic-needle-like stinging hairs on the stem and leaves (Fig. 4). When the tip of the brittle, tubular hair is broken, pressure on the bulbous hair base injects the irritants into the skin. The usual reaction, reddening and intense itching, is usually of short duration, although sensitive individuals may experience some swelling and burning. Washing the affected area or immediate application of baking soda paste soothes the stinging sensation for most people.

Figure 4. 

Stinging hairs of Urtica chamaedryoides.


Credit: Photo by Lawrence A. Halsey, Co. Ext. Dir., Jefferson Co.
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Economic Uses

None for this species. Related species of Urtica are used in herbal medicine and as an edible, spinach-like potherb (after boiling); extracts of the stinging compounds show promise as treatment for inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis.

Comments

The habit of U. chamaedryoides varies according to the environmental conditions: plants in shady areas tend to have longer, weaker stems with larger, more coarsely toothed leaves and looser flower clusters (Fig. 1), while plants in more exposed areas are much smaller with more compact flower clusters (Fig. 5).

Figure 5. 

Sun form of Urtica chamaedryoides.


Credit: Photo by Lawrence A. Halsey, County Extension Director, Jefferson County.
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

The unrelated Cnidoscolus stimulosus (bull-nettle, stinging-nettle, tread-softly, finger-rot, Fig. 6; Euphorbiaceae, spurge family), a common Florida plant, also has stinging hairs but is characterized by conspicuous white flowers and large, lobed leaves. A plant fact sheet for this species is also available.

Figure 6. 

Whole flowering plant of Cnidoscolus stimulosus (bull-nettle).


Credit: Photo by Kent D. Perkins.
[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Selected References

Miller, N. G. 1971. The Genera of Urticaceae in the Southeastern United States. J. Arnold Arbor. 52: 40-68.

Perkins, K. D. & W. W. Payne. 1981 [reprint]. Guide to the Poisonous and Irritant Plants of Florida. Circular 441, UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville.

Stern, L. J. 1943. Identification of Urtica [Nettle], Eleven Species. 13 pp. Post Institute, New York.

Woodland, D. W. 1989. Biology of Temperate Urticaceae (Nettle) Family. Pp. 309-318 in: P. R. Crane & S. Blackmore, eds., Evolution, Systematics, and Fossil History of the Hamamelidae, vol. 2., Clarendon Press, Oxford.

_____, I. J. Bassett, & C. W. Crompton. 1976. The Annual Species of Stinging Nettle (Hesperocnide and Urtica) in North America. Canad. J. Bot. 54: 374-373.

Wunderlin, R. P. 1998. Guide to Vascular Plants of Florida. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Zomlefer, W. B. 1994. Urticaceae, pp. 100-105. Guide to Flowering Plant Families. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

Footnotes

1.

This document is HB002, one of a series of the Herbarium Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date May 2006. Reviewed December 2014. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Wendy B. Zomlefer, Curator of the Herbarium, University of Georgia Herbarium (GA), Dept. of Plant Biology, 2502 Plant Sciences, Athens, GA 30602 (former Extension Botanist, University of Florida Herbarium). Contact : Kent D. Perkins, University of Florida Herbarium, Florida Museum of Natural History, 379 Dickinson Hall, P.O. Box 110575, Gainesville, FL, 32611-0575.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.