Herbs or small shrubs [lianas, trees], herbs annual or rhizomatous perennial, usually pubescent, sometimes with stinging hairs, deciduous. Leaves opposite or alternate and spirally arranged, simple; stipules present or absent; petioles present. Leaf blades paired, equal in size (except in Pilea, which may have unequally paired leaves), dotted with linear or rounded marks formed by cystoliths (variously shaped calcium carbonate crystals inside epidermal cells). Inflorescences axillary or terminal, of paniculately or racemosely arranged cymes, or spikelike. Flowers bisexual or unisexual (staminate or pistillate), staminate and pistillate flowers on same or different plants; perianth hypogynous. Staminate flowers usually pedicellate; tepals 4-5, white or green; stamens 4-5, equaling tepals in number; filaments inflexed in bud, reflexing suddenly as flowers open; anthers basifixed, dehiscing by longitudinal slits; pollen ejected explosively; pistillode 1. Pistillate flowers usually sessile; tepals 2-4, hypogynous, greenish or reddish, distinct or connate; staminodes present or absent; pistil 1, 1-locular; placentation basal; ovule1; style present or stigma sessile; stigma linear [capitate]; Bisexual flowers: tepals 4; stamens 4; pistil 1. Fruits achenes, free or loosely or tightly surrounded by persistent, accrescent perianth.
Nearly worldwide, primarily tropical and subtropical regions.
Genera ca. 45, species ca. 800 (8 genera, 21 species in the flora).
Cystoliths cause patterns on epidermal surfaces. Forms of the cystoliths given in descriptions are readily discernible from surface patterns.
Stinging hairs in Urticaceae have a distinct bulbous or cylindric base and a stiff, translucent apex. Nonstinging hairs are soft and flexible and lack a bulbous or cylindric base.
The compounds producing the stinging sensation caused by contact with some members of Urticaceae have been reported to be histamine, acetylcholine, 5-hydroxytryptamine, and, in extracts from which the other three have been removed, an unknown substance that produces pain (E. L. Thurston and N. R. Lersten 1969). E. L. Thurston (1969) was not able to find these compounds in Urtica chamaedryoides using analytic techniques, but J. M. Kingsbury (1964, p. 67) reported that the same species "...contains toxicologically significant amounts of acetylcholine and histamine." The tip of the stinging hair breaks off upon slight contact, leaving a sharp point that readily pierces skin and allows fluid contents of the hair to enter flesh through the body of the hair, which acts as a miniature hypodermic needle.
Economically the Urticaceae are most important for their fibers (see D. W. Woodland 1989). They can be troublesome weeds (species of Urtica and Parietaria), pot herbs (species of Pilea in the tropics, of Urtica in temperate zones), and frequently cultivated ornamentals (Pilea) (I. Friis 1993).
|1||Plants with stinging hairs (hairs with distinct bulbous or cylindric base and stiff, translucent apex); tepals of pistillate flowers 2 or 4, distinct or connate and completely enclosing ovary and achene.||> 2|
|1||Plants without stinging hairs (hairs, if any, soft and flexible and without bulbous or cylindric base); tepals of bisexual and pistillate flowers 3-4, distinct or connate forming tubular perianth, or perianth appearing absent.||> 4|
|2||Leaves alternate; style present, persistent even in fruit.||Laportea|
|2||Leaves opposite; style absent.||> 3|
|3||Tepals of pistillate flowers distinct, inner 2 equal to achene, outer 2 smaller, without hooked hairs.||Urtica|
|3||Tepals of pistillate flowers connate, forming saclike structure tightly enclosing mature achene, covered with delicate, hooked hairs.||Hesperocnide|
|4||Leaves opposite or alternate.||> 5|
|4||Leaves alternate.||> 6|
|5||Plants glabrous; cystoliths linear.||Pilea|
|5||Plants pubescent; cystoliths rounded.||Boehmeria|
|6||Blade margins dentate or serrate.||Boehmeria|
|6||Blade margins entire.||> 7|
|7||Bracts subtending pistillate flowers developing 3 corky wings covered with fine, hooked hairs in fruit; leaves with elongate, linear cystoliths.||Soleirolia|
|7||Bracts subtending pistillate flowers not developing corky wings or hooked hairs in fruit; leaves with rounded cystoliths.||> 8|
|8||Stipules absent (but axillary involucral bracts appear stipular); tepals distinct, ascending, loosely enclosing achene; achenes acute or mucronate.||Parietaria|
|8||Stipules present; tepals connate, appressed to, and tightly enclosing achene; achenes acute, not mucronate.||Pouzolzia|