Nettles constitute between 24 and 39 species of flowering plants of the genus Urtica in the family Urticaceae, with a cosmopolitan though mainly temperate distribution. They are mostly herbaceous perennial plants, but some are annual and a few are shrubby. Most of the species have stinging hairs on the stems and leaves.
The most prominent member of the genus is the stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, native to Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America. The genus also contains a number of other species with similar properties, listed below. However, a large number of species included within this genus in the older literature are now recognized as synonyms of Urtica dioica. Some of these taxa are still recognized as subspecies.
Most of the species listed below share the property of having stinging hairs, and might be expected to have similar medicinal uses to the stinging nettle. The stings of Urtica ferox, the ongaonga or tree nettle of New Zealand, have been known to kill horses, dogs and at least one human.
The nature of the toxin secreted by nettles is not settled. The stinging hairs of most nettle species contain formic acid, serotonin and histamine; however recent studies of Urtica thunbergiana implicate oxalic acid and tartaric acid rather than any of those substances, at least in that species.