Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica)

Family: Urticacaeae

Stinging nettle is a plant that is often avoided and steered clear of.  And yet this is a treasure of a plant that grows abundantly around here. It can be found in woods, roadsides, field edges, gardens. Well practically everywhere. Something that grows abundantly here is a rarity in other places and that tells us something about how it suits this climate and this people. An 11th century manuscript called the Lacnunga refers to the healing properties of nine powerful herbs (nine sacred herbs) and nettle is one of those. But somewhere along the way it fell out of favour. In these parts it was said that nettles were used in the 1840s when the potato crops failed and afterwards were associated with poverty and starvation. That may be so but it’s time for a revival now.

The parts used mostly depends on the time of year: leaves in spring, flowers in early summer and seeds and roots in autumn.

Just focussing on the leaves for now, the top growth of the plant is collected in early spring.  Once it flowers, the leaves are probably too tough for cooking and older leaves further down contain calcium atoms (cystoliths) that can irritate the kidneys. However if you are not foraging from the wild you can cut back the plants to get several crops of young tender leaves throughout the year.

 

It is more appropriate that nature has given this plant the protection of stinging exterior. Without it, we should probably never have the opportunity to benefit from its healing power. Animals, with their instinctive knowledge of what is good for them, would not leave us even one leaf (Dr Vogel)

There are hairs on the underside of the leaves and when brushed, those hairs break and inject the chemicals that make the burning sensation. Even though there is formic acid (same as a bee sting) in the leaves, the amount contained in the leaves is not enough to cause the stinging effect but a combination of acetylcholine and formic acid, histamine, serotonin causes the sting. Some people don’t mind the sting at all but use rubber gloves to protect hands if that is not your thing.

Nettle Nutritional Profile (per 100g of dried plant): Calcium: 2900 mg, Chromium: 0.39 mg, Dietary Fibre: 43.0%, Iron: 4.2 mg, Magnesium: 860 mg, Manganese: 0.78 mg, Niacin: 5.20 mg, Phosphorous: 447 mg, Potassium: 1750 mg, Protein: 25.2%, Riboflavin: 0.43 mg, Selenium: 0.22 mg, Vitamin A: 15,700 IU, Vitamin C: 83.0 mg, Zinc: 0.47 mg  (Source: Nutritional Herbology: A Reference Guide to Herbs by Mark Pedersen)

The list of uses of nettle is so long, it runs the risk of sounding like a miracle cure infomercial but there’s no point in shortening the list just to make it seem more credible. This really is a tremendous plant with a huge array of benefits.

  • The early spring leaves are used as a blood tonic, liver detoxification and spring nourishment – ideal after a winter of heavy foods. It rivals spirulina, wheatgrass etc as a superfood and its abundance in our hedgerows and ditches shouldn’t be seen as an indicator of its potency. It just means that this superfood is readily available to everyone without a high price tag.
  • With its high iron content it treats anaemia and cleverly it improves the body’s ability to use iron.
  • Nettle leaf combines well with raspberry leaf during pregnancy and throughout a woman’s life (especially for excessive menstruation). Post-pregnancy, it regulates the flow of breast milk production (amphoteric effect).
  • Nettle leaf is used to treat skin disorders like psoriasis and eczema and rashes in general that result of poor metabolic function)
  • Liquid fertiliser – some say not to do this while in seed or they’ll germinate everywhere. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing!
  • Antihistamine effect on hayfever and asthma
  • Reduces blood sugar levels and stimulates circulation.
  • Dialates peripheral blood vessels and promotes elimination of urine which helps lower blood pressure
  • When rubbed or beaten onto the skin (urtification), intense irritation occurs which brings more blood to the area and removes the rheumatic toxins. This has also been proposed for sprains, sciatica, repetitive strain injuries.

Heat will deactivate the acid so poor boiling water over the fresh leaves to make a drink that is not sweet but tastes smooth and nourishing and is strangely addictive. The leaves are traditionally used to make a soup but wherever you would normally use spinach in a recipe, it can be replaced with nettle leaves. For me, nettle tea is a drink I enjoy so much that I don’t like to mix it with other ingredients in cooking. If you’re hesitant about nettles or don’t like the taste of tea then nettle pesto or nettle soup might be a good starting point.

Because the spring new growth is best for teas, it’s a good idea to pick some extra leaves in spring and dry them for later. Pick early in the morning when the leaves are naturally dry. I use a dehydrator but you could just lay them out on brown paper in an airy room.

As an aside, the nettle seeds at this time of year are a remarkable source of vitality and particularly good for the kidneys and adrenals. For people who feel worn out and tired and are stressed by long to-do lists, nettle seeds will work wonders. I’ll write a separate post on nettle seeds, because collecting and drying need a description in itself.

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