Weedy Wonders: Stinging Nettle
I absolutely adore stinging nettle. It's one of the most beneficial and widely applied herbs there is. It's used as a food source, treatment for arthritis and skin problems, as natural pesticide, and compost booster for gardens.
Unfortunately, my relationship with nettle began with a very rocky start. A couple years ago, we had a bit of a weed problem here at my home garden. At one end, there was a group of menacing stalks that were gradually closing in on the vegetables, and the other half of the yard was covered in short purple-ish green plants that resembled mint. These weeds were quite pretty, but I was afraid they would take over the garden completely. My roommate Rachel and I agreed that it was time for some serious garden maintenance. I hadn't taken into account, however, that these invaders had been purposely planted there by another roommate (my wonderful partner, Aaron). He revealed to us that these weeds were in fact two types of nettles, and they are a source of food. Rachel stated that they had stung her while gardening and since a painful rash had developed she would prefer them to be removed. Planting nettles in a domestic garden didn't make much sense to me, either. The women of the house eventually bullied Aaron into letting us remove the nettles, and it was quite a painstaking process to do so.
Stinging nettle, one of the most widely beneficial herbs, is a perennial native to Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America, but grows readily throughout western Canada, and some parts of northern Mexico. The sub-species Urtica dioica L. is found abundantly in the Pacific Northwest, preferring climates with high annual rainfall. It is commonly found growing near marshes or in moist woods in rich soft soils, but can also be found near roads and old fields where the ground has been disturbed.
The physical characteristics of stinging nettle are a hollow squarish stem, large, dark green, long serrated heart-shaped leaves that come to a point, and small, green or brown flowers. Urtica dioica's very distinct identifying feature is of course it's stinging hairs that cover the aerial parts, called trichomes. These plants can grow 2 to 4 feet tall during the summer, depending on conditions.
Nettle's generic name "dioica" comes from Greek "Dioecy" meaning "two households", since they can either bear male or female reproductive parts, unlike most plants which bear both. Division is by rhizome and seed.
Usable parts of stinging nettle are the leaves, stalks, rhizomes, flowers, and seeds. It's uses range from food and medicine, to use as textiles and dyes. Natives of the Pacific Northwest would use nettle to stay awake on whaling expeditions by self-flagellation, that is, hitting themselves with nettle's stinging hairs. There are also reports of Roman soldiers using this practice to stay warm. If the encounter with nettle's sting wasn't intentional, if can be relieved by either jewelweed (Impatiens), or Dock (Rumex). Either yellowdock or broad leaf dock will work. Mud, saliva, or the spores on the undersides of ferns may also provide relief. Because of the high nitrogen content, nettle makes a great compost for the garden.
Collection of nettle should be done in spring before the plant flowers. There is speculation that they may be bad for the kidneys after this point. Another round of shoots come up during the fall, and this is also a good time to harvest nettle, as they die off in winter.
As an edible food, nettle is highly nutritious. It is high in chlorophyll, protein, vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Young green nettle shoots are especially good to eat. Foragers have found a way to eat nettle leaves without boiling them, but I personally would not recommend trying this unless an emergency food source is needed. The leaves are harvested and the stinging hairs removed by rubbing the nettle leaf in on itself. Nettle makes a great herbal vinegar which can be used in salads, and I find it a tasty addition to most vegetable soups.
Medicinally, all parts of nettle can be used, however, the most widely applied areas of this plant are the leaves and roots. They can be used in just about any form- teas, tinctures, salves, or oils. Nettle has a slightly diuretic effect, which is useful for treating urinary problems. It can be used to treat iron deficiencies, or conditions requiring hemostasis. Encapsulated, this herb is also beneficial for asthmatic issues, allergies, and it is often given to treat hay fever. Nettle is a galactogogue, which increases milk production in nursing mothers. It is also prescribed to new mothers after giving birth, as it can help rebuild the blood lost from childbirth. In fact, nettle is one of the few herbs that are not only deemed safe to take throughout pregnancy, but is actually recommended for use, along with raspberry leaf. Rheumatic pains can be alleviated by flagellation, or in tincture form, applied topically. This reduces some of the irritant's action. Nettle root is widely used in Britain for BPH, benign prostate hypertrophy, or enlarged prostate.
These days, I give nettle the recognition and appreciation it deserves. While it may not be ideal for most home gardens, Stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, has become a staple in our house, and Aaron is delighted that I've come around. The other purple and green nettles have been identified as Red Dead Nettle, Lamium purpureum, which is actually related to mint. In a short time, I have learned so much about Urtica dioica, and still there is much more to be discovered.