Nettles
(Urtica species,

Laportea canadensis)

Syringe with Plant

Illustrations and photos by "Wildman," clipart from Clipart.com

Stinging NettlesThese annual or perennial native and European herbaceous plants are distinctive for many reasons, as you'd quickly discover if you ever encountered them wearing shorts. Nettles are covered with tiny, nearly invisible stinging hairs that produce an intense, stinging pain, followed redness and skin irritation. The generic name comes from the Latin word, "uro," which means "I burn." Nevertheless, they're superb, non-stinging, cooked vegetables.

Nettles usually appear in the same places year after year. Look for them in rich soil, disturbed habitats, moist woodlands, thickets, along rivers, and along partially shaded trails.

They grow throughout most of the United States Here are a few of the most common species: Stinging nettle's (Urtica dioica) rather stout, ribbed, hollow stem grows 2-4 feet tall. The somewhat oval, long-stalked, dark green, opposite leaves are a few inches long, with a rough, papery texture, and very coarse teeth. The leaf tip is pointed, and its base is heart-shaped.

This is a dioecious plant, with male and female flowers growing on separate plants. The species name, dioica, means "two households" in Greek: By late spring, some plants have clusters of tiny, green female flowers, hanging from the leaf axils in paired strands.

Stinging Nettle in Flower

Note the paired, long-stalked, coarsely toothed leaves; the strands of tiny flowers; and the unbranched stalk covered with stinging hairs.

Stinging Nettle Stingers
Stinging Nettle Stingers

The stinging nettle is covered with nasty hypodermic needles, evidence that this plant evolved in The South Bronx!

Stinging Nettle photo
Young Stinging Nettle

Some people have learned to handle nettles without getting stung, but I find it's much more simple to strip off the leaves quickly with work gloves, rinse, and steam.

Stinging Nettle Shoot
Stinging Nettle Shoot

You can eat the stems as well as the leaves of this very young plant.

Female Stinging Nettle in Flower
Nettle Female Flowers
Female Stinging Nettle Flowers
Other plants possess diagonally upright male flower strands, poised at the tops of the plants.
Male Stinging Nettle Flowers
Male Stinging Nettle Flowers
Slender nettle (Urtica gracilis) is similar, with sparse stinging hairs and slender, opposite leaves.
Slender Nettle
Slender Nettle
Slender Nettle in Flower
Slender Nettle in Flower

Note the diagonally-upright male flowers in the upper right.

Wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) has fewer stinging hairs. The leaves are alternate rather than oppositeóthey're larger and wider, with more rounded bases than the ones stinging nettles have.
Wood Nettle
Young Wood Nettle
Wood nettle has flower clusters on top as well as in the leaf axils.
Wood Nettle in Flower
Wood Nettle in Flower
Wood Nettle Flowers
Wood Nettle Flowers

Other true nettle species are also edible.

You'd think the stinging hairs would make nettle identification easy. Nevertheless, I once ran into some people in the woods who insisted that clearweed (Pilea pumila), a similar-looking, nonpoisonous plant with a translucent stem and no stinging hairs, was stinging nettles. They had been eating this unpalatably inedible nontoxic plant, which I had always rejected as unpalatable, all summer.

Clearweed
Clearweed

Sometimes nettles grow near catnip, another similar-looking plant. Mints, of course, have no stinging hairs, and catnip is fragrant. Catnip and nettles are an excellent combination for herb tea.

Collect nettle leaves before they flower in spring. They may be bad for the kidneys after they flower. New nettles come up in the fall, and you can pick them before they're killed by frost.

People have been using nettles for food, medicine, fiber, and dyes since the Bronze Age. Collect them using work gloves, and wear a long-sleeved shirt. If you happen upon nettles when you have no gloves, put your hand inside a bag. The young leaves are the best part of the plant. They come off most easily if you strip them counter-intuitively, from the top down.

Whenever any of my tour groups find nettles, I announce that someone will volunteer to get stung, to demonstrate how jewelweed cures the rash. Sure enough, someone accidentally gets stung, and we cure it. Once I was the careless one who got stung, but I kept my mouth shut treated myself surreptitiously. Plantain and dock also work. "Nettle in, dock out!," say the English. Surprisingly some people (masochists?) actually find nettle stings invigorating, and use them to wake up the body.

I have to travel quite a distance to find a place where they grow like "weeds." As you can imagine, I pick in quantity, steam them, freeze them, put them in soups, stews, and other dishes. I dry them, tincture them in alcohol, and sometimes get stung by them. They get used up quicklyóeveryone loves themóand I'm back at the nettle patch soon enough.

Clean and chop nettles wearing rubber gloves. Once youíve cooked them a little, the stingers are deactivated, and the plant becomes wonderfully edible.

Nettles have a bad reputation as an unpleasant-tasting survival food in some circles. That's because people don't know how to prepare them. They often boil them, which is awful. Nettle leaves are good simmered in soups 5-10 minutes, but my favorite method is the waterless steaming method, recommended for spinach in a 1699 cookbook by John Evelyn, and described in the cooking section.

I enjoy nettles as a vegetable side-dish with rice and beans. Sometimes I make creamed nettlesómuch more satisfying than creamed spinach. Because nettles have the richest, hardiest taste of any green, I often combine them with lighter ingredients, such as celery, zucchini, lemon juice, or tomato sauce.

I also dry nettles for winter use and tea. Sitting here writing this book, I frequently sip on warm nettle tea. Itís one of my favorites. It doesn't taste like a normal teaónot bitter, spicy, minty or lemony. Itís more like a strong stock of a rich, deep, green plant essence, and it's one of the most nourishing drinks of all. Whenever I feel run down, tired, or even irritable, I think of making myself some.

As food, this tonic is good for rebuilding the system of chronically ill people. Nineteenth century literature is full of so-called constitutionally weak people, who usually die on the last page. In Russia, they were given freshly squeezed nettle juiceóa tonic loaded with iron and other nutrientsófor iron-deficiency anemia. This often worked.

Many of the benefits are due to the plant's very high levels of minerals, especially, calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, phosphorous, manganese, silica, iodine, silicon, sodium, and sulfur. They also provide chlorophyll and tannin, and they're a good source of vitamin C, beta-carotene, and B complex vitamins. Nettles also have high levels of easily absorbable amino acids. They're ten percent protein, more than any other vegetable.

The substances in the stingers have medicinal uses: In the late 1980s, scientists studying the differences between dried and freeze-dried herbs accidentally discovered that freeze-dried nettles cured one of the researcher's hay-fever. Subsequently, a randomized double-blind study at the National College of naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon showed that 58 percent of hay-fever sufferers given freeze-dried nettles rated it moderately to highly effective. Nettles are a traditional food for people with allergies.

Nettles sting you because the hairs are filled with formic acid, histamine, acetylcholine, serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine), plus unknown compounds. Some of these substances are destroyed by cooking, steeping, or drying, but not by freeze-drying or juicing. Unfortunately, you need a vacuum chamber to freeze-dry herbs. However, you can purchase freeze-dried nettles in capsules for hay-fever.

As an expectorant, it's recommended for asthma, mucus conditions of the lungs, and chronic coughs. Nettle tincture is also used for flu, colds, bronchitis and pneumonia.

Nettle infusion is a safe, gentle diureticóconsidered a restorative for the kidneys and bladder, and used for cystitis and nephritis. Itís also recommended for weight loss, but you may shed more pounds of water than fat.

Nettle tea compress or finely powdered dried nettles are also good for wounds, cuts, stings, and burns. The infusion was also used internally to stop excessive menstruation, bleeding from hemorrhages, bloody coughs, nose bleeds, and bloody urine. It helps blood clot, but major bleeding is dangerousóindicative of a serious underlying condition. Consult a competent practitioner in such cases. Use for minor cuts.

Other uses include treating gout, glandular diseases, poor circulation, enlarged spleen, diarrhea, and dysentery, worms, intestinal and colon disorders, and hemorrhoids. Nettles are usually used along with other herbs that target the affected organs.

German researchers are using nettle root extracts for prostate cancer, and Russian scientists are experimenting with nettle leaf tincture for hepatitis and gall bladder inflammation.

Eating nettles or drinking the tea makes your hair brighter, thicker and shinier, and makes your skin clearer and healthierógood for eczema and other skin conditions. Commercial hair- and skin care products in health food stores often list stinging nettle as an ingredient. Nettles have cleansing and antiseptic properties, so the tea is also good in facial steams and rinses.

Nettles' long, fibrous stems were important in Europe for weaving, cloth-making, cordage, and even paper. Native Americans used them for embroidery, fish nets, and other crafts. You can even extract a yellow die from the roots.

Nettle tea is given to house plants to help them grow, but the strangest use I've ever heard is for severe arthritis. You must whip the victim over most of the body until an extensive rash develops. This flagellation or "urtication" may stimulate the weak organs, muscles, nerves and lymphatic system, and increase circulation. Or it may cause so much pain, the victim forgets about the arthritis.

Stinging Nettles photo
Young Stinging Nettles
101 Uses for Stinging Nettles, A new book by smallholder and author Piers Warren
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