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Urtica ferox

Urtica ferox

Classification System: APG IV

Superregnum: Eukaryota
Regnum: Plantae
Cladus: Angiosperms
Cladus: Eudicots
Cladus: Core eudicots
Cladus: Rosids
Cladus: Eurosids I
Ordoo: Rosales

Familia: Urticaceae
Tribus: Urticeae
Genus: Urtica
Species: Urtica ferox

Urtica ferox G.Forst.

Florulae Insularum Australium Prodromus 66. 1786
USDA, ARS, Germplasm Resources Information Network. Urtica ferox in the Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN), U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. Accessed: 09-Oct-10.

Vernacular names
English: Tree Nettle
français: Ongaonga
Māori: Ongaonga
русский: Онгаонга, крапивное дерево

Urtica ferox, commonly known as tree nettle and in Māori: ongaonga, taraonga, taraongaonga, оr okaoka, is a species of nettle endemic to New Zealand. Unlike the other species in the genus Urtica found in New Zealand, all of which are herbaceous, ongaonga is a large woody shrub that can grow to a height of 3 m (9.8 ft), with the base of the stem reaching 12 cm (4.7 in) in thickness. It has large spines that can result in a painful sting that lasts several days.[1]

Ongaonga is the main source of food for larvae of the New Zealand red admiral butterfly or kahukura, Vanessa gonerilla.[2]


U. ferox can grow to a height of 3 m (9.8 ft) with the base of the stem reaching 12 cm (4.7 in) in thickness. The pale green leaves are very thin like a membrane and the surface of the leaf, stems and stalks are covered in stiff stinging hairs can grow up to 6 mm (0.24 in) long. These spines are prominent along the salient mid-vein and leaf margin. The leaves range from 3–5 cm (1.2–2.0 in) in width and 8–12 cm (3.1–4.7 in) in length, these are oppositely arranged and there are two stipules per node. The leaf shape is ovulate-triangulate with a serrated leaf margin each bearing a spine of up to 1 m (3 ft 3 in). The spines covering the leaf surface, stem and stalk are generally no larger than 6 mm (0.24 in) in length, the spines on the older darker bark are smaller and softer - these don't cause a sting. This nettle is winter deciduous in cold climates, evergreen in mild climates and can lose its leaves in drought conditions if it is growing in shallow soils.[1][3][4]

Flowering occurs from November to March and because U. ferox is a dioecious shrub it will cross pollinate,[5][6] with transferral between the flowers enabled by the wind. Pollen grains are collected by the densely packed stigmas on the flowers and seed dispersal is carried out by rolling, wind, and by birds.[7] The fruit, which are achenes, mature in January, each containing one 1.5 mm long, brown coloured, ovoid-shaped seed[8] which takes one month to germinate. In his study on the germination behaviour of 5 different vascular seeding species, C. J. Burrows found that U. ferox had the lowest germination rate of 59% compared to >85% for the other similar species. He surmised that it is capable of building up a large seed bank in the soil which may survive for several years, citing that European species in the genus Urtica produce seed banks.[4]

The toxin present in the spines is triffydin (or tryfydin). This toxin contains histamine, serotonin and acetylcholine, the latter causing powerful stimulation of the parasympathetic nerve system. Multiple stingings can have a very painful reaction which causes inflammation, a rash, and itching. In high concentrations it can also cause: loss of motor movement, paralysis, drop in blood pressure, convulsions, blurred vision and confusion.

Acute polyneuropathy can occur due to U. ferox stings;[9] and there has been one recorded human death from contact—a lightly clad hunter who died five hours after walking through a dense patch.[10] There is also one other likely death, with the mystery of the death only being solved by the pathologist years afterwards.[11]
Distribution and habitat

U. ferox is endemic to New Zealand and inhabits coastal and lowland forests and shrublands in the North, South, and Stewart Islands.[1] It is commonly found in clearings or forest margins, often forming large patches, from 0–600 m above sea level.[10][4] It has also been recorded on the Hen and Chicken Islands along stream-beds.[12]

Although U. ferox is a toxic shrub, it also plays a significant part in the phenology of a native butterfly, namely the red admiral (Vanessa gonerilla). The leaves of the tree nettle is the preferred food and provide protection for the butterfly larvae. When the larvae arrives in the leaves, it will curve the tip of nettle leaf, use the silken threads to make the leaves stick together, and construct a secure place where it can eat the food.[2][13] Due to the caterpillar's activities, the leaves of shrub can fall off. The eggs of butterflies, also including the yellow admiral (Vanessa itea), are laid on the leaves of nettle during the spring and summer. It takes eight to ten days for the eggs to incubate. Beside these butterflies, some mammalian pests also eat the leaves of tree nettle, like the Common brushtail possum,[14] goats and deer.[15] However, because no non-flying, non-marine mammals existed in New Zealand prior to human arrival in the last one thousand years, it is unadapted for them.

U. ferox requires high nutrient levels found in cycling forest systems such as those found in native New Zealand forest. In these environments an “A type” soil horizon of rich leaf litter and humus between 10 – 80 cm is common. This is significant as the species doesn't directly compete with other flora, this is achieved through inhabiting the boundary zones between strata, therefore the high soil fertility.[4] Like other species in the nettle family it grows well in soils with high nutrient levels; especially in high quantities of nitrogen.[16] Access to open sunlight and rainwater results in a rapidly growing plant able to take advantage of natural tree fall and other natural events such as land slides and flooding which clear dominating old growth species.
Cultural uses

In Māori folklore, Kupe was said to have placed several obstacles to hinder pursuers whose wives he had stolen, one of which was the ongaonga.

Tree nettle plays an important role both medicinally- and as a source of food.[medical citation needed] Māori use the bark of tree nettle and the leaves of kawakawa, boiled together, to make a liquid that can be used internally and externally for eczema and venereal disease.[17] Also, the leaves of tree nettle play a significant part in the treating of pains. The decoction of leaves and young twigs dip in boiled water is said to have a benefit on stomach ache and on the treatment of gonorrhea.[18][19][unreliable medical source?] It is also commonly documented that Urtica ferox was a food source for Māori. The inner stems were sometimes consumed after the leaves and outer bark had been removed,[20] the thin film that makes up the inner bark was also eaten raw and is said to have a sweet taste, it is also documented that stems were cooked after having the leaves removed.[21]
See also

List of poisonous plants


Eagle, Audrey Lily (2006). Eagle's complete trees and shrubs of New Zealand. Audrey Lily Eagle, Audrey Lily Eagle. Wellington, N.Z.: Te Papa Press. p. 416. ISBN 978-0-909010-08-9. OCLC 85262201.
Barron, M.C.,Wratten, S.D. & Barlow, N.D.(2004) "Phenology and parasitism of the red admiral butterfly Brassaris gonerilla (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae)." New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 28/(1), 105-111
"Urtica ferox" New Zealand Plant Conservation Network. Retrieved 2021-04-20.
Burrows, C. J. (1996-06-01). "Germination behaviour of seeds of the New Zealand woody species Melicope simplex, Myoporum laetum, Myrsine divaricata, and Urtica ferox" New Zealand Journal of Botany. 34 (2): 205–213. doi:10.1080/0028825X.1996.10410685. ISSN 0028-825X.
Eagle, A. (1986)." Eagle’s tree and shrubs of New Zealand: volume one revised". Auckland, New Zealand: Williams Collins (NEW ZEALAND) Ltd
Wardle, J. (2011). "Wardle’s Native Trees of New Zealand and their story". Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Farm Forestry Association
Webb, C.J., Johnson, P.R., Sykes, W.R., (1990). "Flowering Plants of New Zealand". Christchurch, New Zealand: Botany Division, D.S.I.R
Salmon, J.T. (1998). "Native Trees of New Zealand 2". Auckland, New Zealand: Reed Books
Kanzaki M, Tsuchihara T, McMorran D, Taylor P, Hammond-Tooke GD.,"A rat model of Urtica ferox neuropathy." Neurotoxicology. 2010 Dec;31(6):709-14
Poisonous native plants, Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand
Cynric Temple-Camp,
CRANWELL, L. M.; MOORE, L. B. (1935). "Botanical Notes on the Hen and Chickens Islands". Records of the Auckland Institute and Museum. 1 (6): 306. ISSN 0067-0464.
Landcare research.(2005). "Red Admiral." Retrieved from
Cowan, P.E. (1990) "Fruits, seeds, and flowers in the diet of brushtail possums, Trichosurus vulpecula, in lowland podocarp/mixed hardwood forest, Orongorongo Valley," New Zealand New Zealand Journal of Zoology,17,549–566
Brockie, R. (1992)."A living New Zealand forest." Auckland, New Zealand: David Batemann Ltd
Rollwagen, A.(2006). Species Profile: Tree Nettle. Retrieved from Canterbury Nature:
"Urtica ferox. Ongaonga. Tree nettle". Landcare Research Manaaki Whenua. Landcare Research New Zealand. Retrieved 17 January 2016.
Adames, O.(1945). "Maori medical plants." Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland Botanical Society Bulletin.
Wardle, J. (2011). "Wardle’s Native Trees of New Zealand and their story. "Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Farm Forestry Association
DoC.(2006, March).Retrieved from Department of Conservation:

Best, E. (1903). "Food products of Tuhoeland: being notes on the food-supplies of a non-agricultural tribe of the natives of New Zealand; together with some account of various customs, superstitions etc. pertaining to foods." Wellington, New Zealand: Transactions of the New Zealand Institute.

Further reading
Connor, H. E. (1977) [1952]. Poisonous Plants in New Zealand (DSIR Research Bulletin 99) (2nd ed.). Wellington: Government Printer. ISBN 0-477-01007.
Crowe, Andrew (1999-09-07). Which Native Forest Plant?. New Zealand: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-028631-4.
Hutching, Gerard (1998). Natural World of New Zealand. New Zealand: Viking (Penguin). ISBN 0-670-87782-4.

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