A Nettle by Any Other Name

UPDATE 5/8/2022 – ignore everything in this post. Well, almost everything. Additional research revealed that these plants are, in fact, stinging nettle. You can read the details here.

Remember how I’m always saying to confirm your identification when foraging wild plants? Today I provide a benign but relevant example.

That stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) patch that grows down the road from my house? The one I’ve been happily munching on for years, and planned to try medicinally now that I’ve started learning more about herbal preparations? Appears those plants are actually Urtica urens, aka dwarf or small nettle.

The opposite leaves and deeply toothed leaves of nettle
The opposite leaves and deeply toothed leaves of nettle

This explains why it took me so long to find the patch in the first place. Normally stinging nettle towers three to six feet or taller, yet this patch never stood out. Until recently I couldn’t remember its location and had to hunt for it among the other roadside weeds. (Weeds? You mean other beneficial plans, like ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) and daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva)…)

Dwarf nettle hiding among other plants
Dwarf nettle hiding among other plants

(And yes, I was super careful to avoid the poison ivy growing up the tree in the background.)

Dwarf nettle is apparently a shorter, angrier cousin to stinging nettle. Perhaps it’s compensating for something. The sting allegedly burns worse than U. dioica – which I guess I wouldn’t know, since I apparently have never found “real” stinging nettle even though it grows literally everywhere.

I know dwarf nettle is edible since, as I mentioned, I have been eating it for years not realizing I had misidentified the plant. (Ooops! Do as I say, not as I do!) I haven’t found as much online about medicinal benefits since every search only turns up stinging nettle, clearly the popular one. At least one article suggests that the two are “therapeutically interchangeable” although it then proceeds to discuss primarily U. dioica. And it seems like folks engaging in urtification might even prefer the strong effect of using dwarf nettle. In Herbal Medic, Sam Coffman generously lists “Urtica spp.” (p. 334) in his materia medica list, but highlights U. dioica specifically.

One of the challenges to dwarf nettles is – as the name makes clear – its diminutive stature, meaning there is less plant matter to harvest whatever your intended purpose. This may be reason enough to continue the hunt for “real” stinging nettle.

My local woods are also populated with Canadian or wood nettle (Laportea canadensis), which has a vicious sting of its own. Wood nettle, another member of the family Urticacea, is also edible (and possibly tastier than U. dioica in some respects). This photo is from last summer, as the shoots still haven’t started coming up here.

Wood nettle (summer 2021)
Wood nettle (summer 2021)

There’s also a native variety, American nettle, with longer and more lance-shaped leaves.

Speaking of “nettles by any other name”… you’re probably sick of me blathering on about purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), since I’ve mentioned it recently both as food and as medicine. It’s called “dead” nettle because it doesn’t sting at all. It’s not even in the same family. And the more you learn about identifying plants by their stems and leaves, the more apparent it is that dead nettle looks nothing like the other nettles I just mentioned.

Purple dead nettle
Purple dead nettle

To check whether you have found stinging (or dwarf or wood) nettles, perform the “nettle handshake” – brush your hand against the hairs on the stems, and if you jerk your hand back from the sudden pain, congratulations! And remember, however much it hurts, some people do it on purpose.

What wild discoveries are you making this spring?

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