Plants & Gardens Blog

Weed of the Month: Stinging Nettle

A couple of years ago, I was strolling through an herb garden and pushed aside a tall clump of leafy green stems overhanging the path. I regretted this move within seconds as the back of my hand and wrist began tingling, then stinging, then burning as if I’d been stung by a score of little bees. After a few moments of utter confusion mixed with growing distress, I realized what I’d gotten into: stinging nettles!

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) grows abundantly throughout North America and temperate regions across the Northern Hemisphere. The stems and foliage are covered with brittle, needlelike hairs, called trichomes, no doubt an adaptation to deter herbivory. Each trichome contains at its base a potent mix of irritating compounds, including histamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and formic acid. The tips of the trichomes break off upon contact, releasing the chemicals. Pity the poor creature that bites off a mouthful of these leaves—or touches them with her bare hands.

In addition to its defense mechanisms, the weedy success of stinging nettle can also be attributed to the facts that it is a perennial; it spreads by rhizome as well as by seed; and given moist, reasonably rich soil, it can thrive in the light shade of woodland brooks or in sunny meadows, along roadside ditches, and in disturbed areas like barnyards.

The species is also sometimes cultivated intentionally, as it was when I came across it in the herb garden. Why grow such a noxious plant? Stinging nettles are both tasty and healthful and considered a desirable, if weedy, herb. The leaves, stems, and roots have been used for food, medicine, cordage, and dye for millennia.

To recognize stinging nettle—a useful skill to avoid accidental agony—look for the plant’s long, hairy, slightly heart-shaped serrated leaves, which grow opposite each other on tall, fibrous, hairy stems that can reach up to six feet tall. Because it spreads by rhizomes, stinging nettle is often found growing in patches. In late summer, dense panicles of tiny greenish-yellow flowers bloom at the leaf axils before forming seeds that drop to the soil in the fall.

Not long after my first encounter, I had another brush with stinging nettle. This time, a single plant was growing at the bottom of my raised-bed vegetable garden, camouflaged among some zinnias. I immediately ran inside and scrubbed down with soap and water, but no relief. Instead of 20 minutes of discomfort like my first run-in with it, this time I endured distractingly painful hives up and down my forearm that felt like multiple fresh wasp stings for more than 24 hours. A Google search revealed a number of folk remedies, including applying a poultice made with other weeds usually found nearby, such as jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) and dock (Rumex species), as well as household first aid like hydrocortisone cream, calamine lotion, and baking soda. Nothing helped me but time.

When I was ready to venture back to the garden, I wore leather gauntlet gloves to cut down the plant’s stems and lay them on the hot cement of the driveway to dry out (and lose their stinging properties) before composting. To make sure it didn’t come back, I dug down into the loose soil with my fingers and winkled out every bit of yellow rhizome I could find. And until I’m sure no nettle seeds are left to germinate, I’ll be sure to wear gloves to weed my garden!

Joni Blackburn is a former copy editor at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. She writes and gardens in the Catskills.


  • stephane monchalin October 25, 2022

    About 4 months ago I became in contact with this plant, well I think it was, and it always left three little black barbed like nettles with thread-like hairs behind them. I squeezed and tried to pick them out with tweezers and needles. Definitely the worst pain I have encountered and just as you thought they left you body they would break into thousands of smaller ones and leave bits behind if you didn’t wash them off fast enough. strange how such a small weed can do so much.

  • Sue January 4, 2022

    Well, I am the poor creature who tried to pull two plants together out of the ground in front of my rose bush, not knowing anything about the nettle plant. I grabbed them with my bare hand and pulled. My hand slid up the stalks. I didn’t feel anything at the moment so I proceeded to pull them out one by one. I then pulled a third by another rose bush with my other hand. I cannot put into words the pain that I suffered and continue to suffer six months later. They continue to push out and are very painful until the instance they are removed. I have tried tape, glue, wax and anything else I could think of, however, I continue to suffer because they continue to push out and irritate me daily. I would accept any suggestions at this point. They should teach about them in science books!  Nasty nasty plant to touch.

  • esther November 26, 2020

    I love stinging nettle for the larval food it provides for four butterfly species in the Vancouver BC area. When gardening, we use crushed dock leaves to rid the sting. I look for eggs and caterpillars in the wild. I have a plant in a pot in my small back yard and have been rewarded with red admiral bfs in the fall.

  • Erma Kennerknecht October 5, 2020

    I believe I was a victim of the stinging nettle: In late July I got little blisters and stings and had a really bad reaction. I thought maybe I had gotten poison ivy, but I went to the doctor and she said it wasn’t poison ivy. Just the other day I had another encounter, now it stings and has blistered. I put calamine lotion on it and these tiny little black things are coming out. Are those nettles?

  • Maria Styne March 8, 2020

    I found this stinging needle plant growing in my backyard and it looks similar to my mint plants. I noticed the leaves were some what different then my nice mint plants. I went to pull one plant up of the needle plant (as I just learned today that is stinging needle plant). Just one needle went into my finger and I was in so much pain. I ran into the house and soaked my finger in warm water in my sink and I was still in pain. After about 30 minutes I made up my mind to double up on my gloves. I put on plastic thin gloves and rubber gloves over that and quickly pulled all that I saw out if my yard.

    I don’t know how it got into my yard. I fear it is in my neighbors yard and the wind blew seeds over? I hope to never see this plant again. I have dogs and one of them has a big belly that is low to the ground, and it has had an itchy rash. And, also this one dog has been laying around looking uncomfortable. So, when I checked my dog out I bathed her and put triple antibiotic on her rash and it went away. Now, after learning about this terrible plant in my yard I believe it was the culprit. I hope I solved two problems. I will put cedar mulch to ward off this plant in that area. And, cross my fingers too, as it feels better now, yeah!

  • Stace October 13, 2019

    The best thing is to wash thoroughly with Fels-Naptha bar soap and cold water. It is a stain removal soap bar in the laundry aisle of stores. My husband always has a bar on hand to use if he comes in contact with poison ivy, poison oak, and stinging nettle.

  • A victim. April 20, 2019

    I was digging up grass from my garden with my hands earlier and when I put my hand in the dirt I felt a stingy burn on my knuckle. There was a lot of stinging nettle beside the garden but not in the garden. I washed my hands in cold water, but it just stung more. It happened around 6:45, it is 1:39 and it still hurts. Someone help me figure this out, please!

  • Ewa K. August 7, 2018

    I also have a clump of stinging nettles growing in my backyard. Instead of composting them like before, nowadays I gather a plastic bag full of cuttings, rinse them, chop somewhat, put in a pot, and pour some boiling water over them. After a couple of hours, the dark fluid gets strained and stored in the fridge for sipping during the week. Great stuff, can be mixed into iced tea!

  • Cynthia Melendy June 19, 2018

    My experience is that the stinging nettles cultivated to eat are much less toxic than wild ones! Growing up in a rural area, I quickly learned to avoid stinging nettle. Some 20 years later, I bought a house with a plot of it. I learned I could pull it out bare-handed when it strayed. Thinking my earlier experience was related to my child skin, I touched a plant when visiting at my mom’s. NO! It really hurt, like the author said. So I think the plants in my backyard, grown for eating, are a different species than the wild ones.

  • Allison mcguffin June 11, 2018

    To relieve or prevent the irritation, try immediately running ice cold water over the area.  This works quite well for me.

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Image, top of page: Joni Blackburn