Plant Profile: Nettles
Urtica dioica (stinging nettle)
Urtica urens (dwarf nettle)
Leaves, roots, seeds
As much as I want to be a great gardener, I have a long way to go. No amount of reading can teach as well as doing, mistakes and all, so my backyard seconds as my classroom. Herbalists say plants make the best teachers; nettles being mine. First lesson, plant seeds sparingly because nettles grow weedy. When it grows it grows abundantly, in places you may not want. The merit to planting some nettle seeds is that you will know for sure they are there and to be careful Second lesson, plan carefully when you plant nettles in a place where it can grow and you do not have to worry about the sting. The genus name urtica is derived from the Latin word for burn, uro. Always best known as stinging nettles, the burn is from tiny stinging hairs that provide armor for nettle leaves and if touched cause a painful, prickly, hot sensation that develops quickly into a rash if not treated. Third lesson, a pair of protective garden gloves is your best friend. Nettles are easy to identify once you have seen them, leaves are shaped like a heart that comes to a distinct point at the end and framed with what resembles little fine teeth all around. Wear the gloves whenever you are near and be careful of bare arms or legs. Fourth lesson, when the first young leaves appear in spring cut them back a lot and keep doing so. If eating the nutritious nettles is part of your plan, this young leaf supply is essential as this is not a green you go to the grocery store to buy. Alternatively drying will take out the sting and preserve the plant for later use.
Nettle is a flowering perennial plant, growing anywhere from 2-4 feet in height as the leaves spread shrub-like, a flower stalk of clustered tiny purplish, pinkish, yellow flowers shoot up through them when spring turns to summer. The Latin species name, dioica means two houses and refers to the fact that flowers either have male parts or female, but none have both. Nettles, then, has adapted for wild fertilization through wind scattering pollen; thus, its weedy nature. By late summer, the flowers have turned to brownish seeds and the medicinal quality of the leaves has become a bit harsh. To collect fresh nettles for drying, do so just prior to the appearance of its flowers. Cut just above the root. As long as the leaves are free of insects or discoloration, there is no need to wash before drying.
The sting of fresh nettles, understandably a deterrent to their use, is the likely reason they are strangers to grocery store produce departments. If you are not a gardener, do not have access to farmer’s markets or know a forager, the next best thing is to buy dried nettles. Drying takes the sting out and is a gateway to many medicinal uses. It is possible to purchase fresh seasonally from herb farmers who also have online stores such as Zack Woods Herb Farm. Dried nettle leaf is also available.There are three distinct parts to nettles that all have different medicinal qualities and each is available in dried form. Mountain Rose Herbs sells nettle leaf also as powder or liquid extract and also in capsules.
A personal favorite herb grower, Healing Spirits Herb Farm in the Finger Lakes Region of New York, offers nettle leaf, root, and seed dried and tinctured. Herbalist & Alchemist also offers tinctures for each plant part, as well as formula combinations and nettle leaf in a capsule formula called Osteoherb. Nettle tea bags may also be purchased at most places where herbal teas are sold and also from online sources such as Amazon.
Sting, more than just a name. The painful stinging hairs of nettle easily pierce through skin with even the slightest touch or pressure, ejecting an irritating fluid that causes inflammation and burning. The nettle rash leaves large, red, sore welts that itch and throb. I have never had a nettles rash but my arm has brushed up against them, which caused an immediate tingling and warned me to back off. Nature provides and the best rash anecdotes often growing nearby as companion plants. Jewelweed, the best known, plantain leaves, burdock leaves, chickweed, and yellow dock all cool the burn and relieve pain. If none of these are near, the itchy rash is not long lasting. Formic acid. responsible for this reaction does not hold up well to age or heat, both of which inactivate the chemical in the venomous fluid. So using cooked or dried nettles unlocks the potential of this powerhouse medicinal herb. Nourishing, cleansing, restorative, tonifying, and nutrient rich nettles have long been used as an end of winter celebration and spring clearing cleanse. Nettles tip the top of the scale for protein content in a green vegetable. Many minerals and phytonutrients that we lack in our daily diets are abundant in the nettle leaf. Calcium, iron, potassium, sulfur, silicon, trace elements, flavonoids, carotenoids, vitamins C, A, and K, all are readily available. Chlorophyll, a needed diet supplement for help with detoxification and liver support abundantly lives in nettles. Chemical constituents include formic acid, mineral salts, ammonia, and carbonic acid. Energetically cool and dry, nettle encompasses multiple herbal action categories including stimulating tonic, astringent, anti-asthmatic, alterative, nutritive, styptic, and restorative to the kidneys. Besides the physical contact precautions, nettles have no safety precautions.
The rich, green, mineral salt taste of nettles speaks to its powerful nutrition. Cooked fresh nettles have similar taste to spinach, a sweet, slightly bitter, earthlike flavor. Mint and lemon both marry well with nettles.
There are not many plants that conjure the color green from the olfactory experience more than nettle. It smells green like grass, but gentler like mild spinach.
Studying the etymology of the Latin genus, Urtica, unravels some interesting nettle history. Urticaria is a medical term for hives, itchy red or white raised patches on the skin caused by an allergic reaction. Nettle rash has been informally referred to as hives. Urtication describes the itching, burning sensation of the hives. Ironically, urtication in ancient Roman times denoted a remedy used to counter-irritate skin, in other words a treatment that used nettle’s stinging chemicals as advantage. Stalks of nettles tied together were rubbed, chafed, or flogged onto a numb or stiff or arthritic limb or joint. The resulting nettle rash stimulated circulation to warm numbness and relieve pain. This remedy proves as effective as some modern arthritic pharmaceuticals. Urtication seems to have originated from Roman soldiers who used it while they were on conquest invasions. There is ancient documentation that nettle seeds were originally planted in Britain when Julius Caesar made his first unsuccessful invasion around 50BC. Roman soldiers heard that Britain was much colder than Rome so brought seeds to be prepared. Nettle itself has a meaningful etymology; deriving from the Dutch noedl, needle. Perhaps this comes from nettle’s employment as thread. The plant’s stalk fibers resemble hemp or flax and were used to make cloth. Hans Christian Andersen wrote in his fairy tale, The Princess and the Eleven Swans, of swan coats woven with nettle. In real life, strong nettle thread was used for linens and fishing twine, especially in Scandinavia and Scotland. The strength and sting of nettle evolved to a folkloric belief that this plant provides protection from terrors such as lightening, home invaders, and hostile spirits. Additionally, this green goddess offers mother-like nurturing through its nutritional abundance and nourishing support. Nicholas Culpepper considered nettles to be astrologically linked to Mars with heat that burns away winter coldness and damp to restore vitality in spring with pure freshness. Appropriately, it is also associated with the fire element.
Culinary and Cooking
Fresh nettles epitomize seasonal eating. The only time to eat nettles is when the leaves are young, which means springtime dining on this nutrient dense green. By the start of summer, older leaves garner a grainy quality when cooked which is unappetizing as well as indicative of undesirably edible chemicals such as chysataliths that may irritate the digestive and urinary systems. As the weather turns cooler in September and October, new growth may sprout and these leaves would again be appropriate for eating. Beyond wearing gloves when handling fresh nettles, steaming for at least 15 to 20 minutes will assure the stinging chemicals are inactivated. Maude Grieve, in her classic work, The Modern Herbal, (it was written in 1931, so really not modern at all) offers detailed instructions, which seem to make good sense. See under Herbal Preparations, below. Mrs. Grieve additionally provides a recipe for herbal beer, which she describes as a refreshing summer drink alternative to ginger beer. The recipe calls for a pailful of washed nettles, other nutrient dense herbs such as dandelion and cleavers, and 2 gallons of water. Ginger and a fermenting yeast mixture round out the brew that has a remedy history for relief of gout and rheumatic pain. As the quest for better nutrition continues, interest in wild greens grows. Wild food foragers would not blink an eye if served a plate of steamed nettles for dinner; however definitely would if raw in a salad or smoothie. Do not eat raw nettles or handle them raw with your hands. Wear gloves or pick them up with tongs. Upon getting past the initial obtaining and preparation of fresh nettles, they can be used as any other green and are an excellent, nutrient dense addition to eating regimes. Nettle soup, an easy and popular way to cook nettles, also locks in the nutrients. Here is an easy recipe. Culinary options are limited only by your imagination. Nettles can substitute for spinach in anything. They can be added to breads, potatoes, rice, pasta, blended to pesto, infused in vinegar for salad dressing, and as a tea can be used as a beverage or substitute for broths.
Beneficial Qualities and Traditional Uses
David Hoffman, a well-known and respected herbalist, teaches when in doubt, give nettles, which speaks to its power and diversity as a readily available herbal remedy. When considering the vast healing potential for nettles, separating this plant into its parts helps understanding as each contains its own magic.
Nettle’s green leaves nourish through the richness of their nutrients supporting healthy blood, its flow through blood vessels and hard to reach areas like bones, hair, teeth, and nails. The nourishment of nettle leaves impacts weakened skin that tears and bruises easily. The nutritious offering of stinging nettle supports body structure and blood in an awe-inspiring fashion, providing essential nutrients often deficient. Nettle leaf tea has historic use as a remedy for scurvy and is well known as an alterative or blood purifier. Its mild alterative action gently stimulates the liver, digestion, and circulation It aids the body in waste product removal leading to traditional use for gout, gouty arthritis, kidney stones, excess phlegm or mucus. Folk herbalists employ nettles as a spring cleansing herb. Nettle leaf is particularly strengthening in anemia especially for pregnant women, osteoporosis and bone fractures, varicose veins and fragile capillaries, brittle nails or hair, and frazzled nerves.
Where nettle leaf seems to be a woman’s ally, the root may be a man’s. Nettle’s thin, hair-like roots are best known for support of a healthy prostate and the treatment of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). Especially when combined with other herbs such as saw palmetto, nettle root effectively relieves symptoms of enlarged prostate including decreased urinary flow, incomplete bladder emptying, post-urination dripping, and a constant urge to urinate. Nettle root contains sterols and lectins, which stimulate immune response to also make it useful for allergy relief.
All nettle parts benefit kidneys, but nettle seed seems to hold the strongest restorative ability. Herbalists have reported the ability to treat glomerulonephritis and restore function enough to decrease need for dialysis in some cases.
Tonic describes nettles appropriately as it truly can restore vitality and replenish energy through its amazing vitamin and mineral content filling in where depletion exists, by strengthening metabolism, liver function, weakened kidneys, alleviating allergies and symptoms of PMS, and supporting strong bones and joints. The nettle sting promises a gentle burn well worth the discomfort.
Nettle tea prepared with 1-2 teaspoons dried nettle leaf and 8 ounces hot water must steep longer than other herbal tea infusions. Best practice for optimizing extraction of minerals is a one-hour steep.
Wear garden gloves when gathering fresh nettles. When nettles have grown to just 6-8 inches in height, snip off the young tops. Place in sink and wash under running water, stirring with a wooden chopstick or spoon. Transfer to a saucepan with lid and bring to simmer without adding additional water, just water clinging to leaves after washing. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes.
To get the full nutritional benefit from nettles, dried and powdered nettle leaf eaten versus infusing is the desired preparation. There are two reasons, first eating the whole leaf is best, but second to that is using dried instead of fresh. Instead of attempting to find ways to eat dried nettles, taking them powdered in capsule form is an easy method.
Nettle makes the perfect herbal vinegar infusion because vinegar extracts a higher percentage of its minerals than water or alcohol. To prepare a culinary vinegar it is not necessary to exactly measure ingredients. Fill a clean mason jar approximately half full with dried nettles, add vinegar to cover by at least two inches. It is best to use organic vinegar, but the actual type is left to personal preference. Apple cider or balsamic vinegars are commonly used. Cover the jar with a bit of waxed or parchment paper and then jar lid. Keep in a cool place for 4-6 weeks and then strain, reserving liquid.
Standard tinctures use grain alcohol diluted with water to reach an alcohol percentage best known to extract optimized plant constituents. Nettle root and seed must be prepared as tinctures, not tea. The preparation for each is one part nettle with 5 parts menstrum. For example for 4 ounces of nettle root is best made with 20 ounces of a 30% alcohol mixture and 4 ounces of nettle seed is best prepared using 20 ounces of 45% alcohol water mixture. Nettle leaf requires the addition of vegetable glycerin. Tinctures once prepared must be kept in a cool, dry place for 4-6 weeks and then strained, reserving liquid.
Grieve M: A Modern Herbal. Barnes and Noble Books, New York; 1996.
Wood M: The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley California; 2008.
Gladstar R: Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide. Storey Publishing, Massachusetts; 2012.