Urticaceae (Nettle Family)

Urticaceae is a small family in the Bay Area, with three native species and two known European varieties. Some are annual herbs, others are perennials than die back each year and sprout up new growth from an underground root network. Any large (3 ft tall or more) nettle encountered on the coast is certain to be a form of Urtica dioica (Stinging Nettle). Hesperocnide tenella (Western Nettle) is found north of San Francisco Bay. Both of the European varieties (Parietaria judaica - Pellitory and Urtica urens - Dwarf Nettle) are widespread but much smaller in size.

Despite a similar appearance, the Hedge Nettles found on Montara Mountain are not true nettles, but belong to Lamiaceae, the Mint Family.

In Urticaceae, the plant grows as a large main stem, the leaves are in opposite pairs, and the flowers concentrate in clusters from the leaf axils. The flowers do not have petals; male flowers have a 4-lobed calyx and 4 stamens - the female flowers are either 4-lobed or 2-lobed and have a pistil that produces a single seed.

Most species have stinging hairs on the leaves and stems. The hairs contain a skin-reactive poison that can cause severe stinging in the affected area that can last for days. If you've come back from a walk on Montara Mountain with a weird stinging, tingling sensation on your hand or your bare leg, you probably brushed against our local representive of Urticaceae, Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)



 Urtica dioica:
ssp. gracilis & holosericea
Stinging Nettle

Urticaceae (Nettle Family)

Flowers: Reddish-brown to greenish-white; in dangling clusters at junction of stems and leaves.

Blooms: April - October

Leaves: Large, dark green, triangular and coarsely toothed; covered with poison-filled hairs.

Fruit/Seeds: Small green seed clusters after flower blooms - late summer.

Location: All trails - prefers damper, sheltered areas. Most prevalent along creek beds and in seep areas.

Status: Native - Common.

Urtica dioica

An especially showy set of flowers - most Urtica have much more subdued blooms (see below). 600x450 JPEG - 56K

Further description & Comment: Up to 7 ft tall, growing in stands and connected by underground roots. Stems with white, non-stinging hairs: ssp. holosericea has denser hairs, I am told, and narrower leaves, although ssp. gracilis is the predominate subspecies on the coast.

Caution: Handling Stinging Nettle can cause a severe stinging skin reaction that can last for hours or even days.

Some say the effects of Stinging Nettle can be alleviated by rubbing the affected area with the leaves of Artemesia Douglasiana (Mugwort). Having subjected myself to the test, I can report that although Mugwort leaves are quite soothing, they didn't do much about the stinging.

Others swear by this remedy, so if you do get into a patch of nettle, it's worth a try.

Nettles, both our native varieties and the European types, are used extensively in herbal remedies and preparations. Obviously, because of the poisonous stingers, collecting, handling, and preparation must be done carefully and properly.

Its uses are far-ranging: as a diuretic, an alkalizer, an anti-imflammatory astringent, for stress reduction, and scalp conditioning.

Powdered nettle leaves are very high in chlorophyll, protein and useful minerals; it is claimed to be a much more effective green food than algae and pollen products, and a lot cheaper!

I refer you to Michael Moore's Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, from Red Crane Books, for all you would want to know about nettle preparations and handling.

A closeup of some of the little stingers.
600x450 JPEG - 36K

600x450 JPEG - 44K

The image to the left is more typical of Urtica flowers - a lot less splashy than the one shown above.

Last nettle note: Urtica is apparently also very efficient in the filtering of metals, minerals and waste materials from contaminated water, storing these substances in its plant fibers and cleansing water supplies. It is an excellent candidate for organic waste treatment and detoxification systems. Many of the materials it collects can be recovered afterward from the dead plant matter.


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