Before I had any relationship with stinging nettle, I only knew of its reputation for being a painful nuisance to gardeners. Many years ago, a former housemate and I actually insisted that my husband Aaron remove the nettles he had planted in our garden! I find this rather comical now as I’ve since cultivated two patches of nettle in our home garden and Aaron has become the concerned one. As an herbalist, a whole foods enthusiast, and an advocate for sustainable food production as well as increasing biodiversity- Knowing what I know about this plant, I just couldn’t imagine ever having a large enough patch of nettles!
I don’t believe that I could write a blog entry that would even scratch the surface about this amazing fellow Earth-dweller, but I’m going to give it a try. It is thankfully a rather common wild edible and medicinal plant, but being one of my absolute favorites, I could not pass up an opportunity to sing nettle’s praises.
Not only is nettle a powerhouse of vitamins, minerals, and plant protein, it’s considered to be one of the most generally useful herbs in western folk medicine! In addition to it’s reputation of being a nourishing and “blood cleansing” spring tonic; it’s also used for a wide range of health conditions ranging from kidney and urinary tract problems, to anemia, inflammatory muscle and joint problems, skin problems and more. I’ll be going into a lot more detail about our friend below, and later on I will also share some information about folklore and magic of nettle, as well as recipes for cooking and making remedies with stinging nettle.
So welcome nettles and welcome spring! So glad to have you back.
Stinging Nettle Plant Profile
Botanical name: Urtica dioica (pronounced: UR-tih-kuh dy-OH-ih-kuh)
Common names: Nettle (English), Große brennnessel (German), Esinsin (Yoruba), Urtiga (Portuguese), Ortiga verde (Spanish), Ortie dioïque (French)
Range/Habitat: Native to Asia, Europe, North Africa, North America and has been introduced widely elsewhere. Nettle is abundant thoughout Canada and the US, especially in the Pacific Northwest and areas with high annual rainfall.
Parts used: Leaves (edible), roots, seeds (medicinal), stalks (craft)
Identification/Life cycle: Stinging nettle is an herbaceous perennial that grows in a range of soils – clay, sandy, or loamy and either in direct sun or partial shade. But it needs moisture! It can be found pretty commonly in fields or ditches in the countryside, and would grow well in many urban environments if folks didn’t mind having this prickly fellow around! Nettle grows quickly, sending up its “hairy” square-stemmed stalks with heart-shaped, deeply serrated leaves- growing up to 4 feet in height. The plant is covered in “stinging hairs” which are hollow, needle-like spines containing a substance consisting of histamine, serotonin, formic acid, and other chemicals, some unidentified. When the little spines make contact with skin and break, the compound is released and causes the irritating and inflammatory reaction, which can be relieved by applying the juice of fresh nettle, dock, or jewelweed, which often grows nearby.
In May through October, nettle will produce flowers that are either male or female (hence the name dioecious, meaning “two houses”) and if both types are present will then produce seed. Nettles can be propagated by the cut tops, runners, or by seed sown in fall or spring. The patches will not frost-kill.
Harvesting: For food usage, harvest the young leaves in spring, snipping the stem just below the top 3 segments of leaves, these are the best texture-wise. Always leave plenty of these young nettle tops alone because Red Admiral butterflies lay their eggs on those leaves and these hungry little caterpillars are reliant on this forage. For fiber usage, the old stalks should be harvested late in the season, around August when they’re tall and leaves are yellowing but stalks still have moisture in them.
If collecting for drying, the leaves should be gathered when the sun has dried off all dew, and then hang to dry in an area without moisture, where airflow can pass through. Do not harvest the leaves of stalk of plants that have already flowered.
Edibility & Nutrition
I feel tempted to write a big ol’ “DUH” under this one and leave it at that. Nettle greens are hands down my favorite “wild food” because its so versatile and you don’t need to mask the flavor to make it palatable. People often compare it to spinach, but I think that’s only because it can be prepared in a similar way and it’s very… well, green tasting? I don’t know how else to describe it! I actually prefer the flavor and texture of nettle to spinach. Nettle is often referred to as a vitamin and mineral powerhouse and research has shown nettle to be one of the highest sources of plant protein, contains a very high amount of calcium, and iron in a form that is easily assimilated by the body. Other minerals present are potassium, selenium, magnesium, and zinc. Nettle also contains high levels of vitamins A, B-complexes, C, D, K, P, and E as well fiber, chlorophyll, and amino acids.
If that’s not reason enough to incorporate this green into your diet, I don’t know what is! Harvest as I stated up above, and either cook it or puree it completely to deactivate the sting. Prepare it like you would spinach – on the stovetop with oil and spices, with eggs in an omelette or scramble, sub for spinach in a spanikopita, puree it into pesto or sauce – or add the puree into baked goods like muffins or CAKE! Trust me, it’s delicious and it gives a fun color.
Every week I drink at least 3 quarts of nourishing herbal infusions, and dried nettle leaf is always in the rotation. Check out Wise Woman Susun Weed’s instructions on making and drinking herbal infusions and prepare to have your life changed!
Actions: Astringent, diuretic, tonic, hypotensive
Energetics: Cool, dry
Forms of preparation: Fresh plant as food, dried herb for tea/infusion, tincture of aerial parts, tincture of root, dry or fresh seeds
One of the longest known medicinal uses of nettle is for reducing pain and inflammation of joints by a process called “urtication”. A fresh stalk of nettles was used to self-flagellate, or deliberately sting an affected body part. Following this administration, the original pain and stiffness will subside- usually from 4 to 8 days. In case you don’t trust that our elder folk who have been walking through stinging nettle patches to cure their achey bones for hundreds of years knew what they were doing, there are now clinical studies to back it up. I reckon they wouldn’t subject themselves to the pain if it didn’t work. Of course, the side effect of the process might be itchy welts, but those are arguably less damaging in the long term than taking NSAIDs for arthritic pain over the course of months, years, or the rest of a person’s life.
As a remedy for gout and rheumatic conditions, the alkalizing minerals in nettle leaf are thought to break down and remove acid waste buildup in the tissues and round the joints and the diuretic action flushes them from the body through the urinary tract. This application has been known since Medieval times in Europe.
Traditionally known as a “blood cleanser”, nettle is perceived to have a stimulating effect on the lymphatic system and supports the body’s natural ability to cleanse and remove toxins and waste through the eliminatory system. Used internally, nettle is considered a remedy for acne, childhood eczema, and may also be effective for adult eczema when used in conjunction with burdock and dandelion root. According to herbalist David Winston, the fresh or dried seeds are trophorestorative, and the tincture is used for kidney failure.
The extract of nettle root is an accepted treatment for enlarged prostate, also called Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia or BPH. Although Saw Palmetto is the most famous of the “male herbs” for treating BPH, nettle is showing promise in trials to reduce the size of enlarged prostate.
Both root and aerial parts of the plant are diuretic, improving flow of urine and encouraging thorough emptying of the bladder, reducing the frequency of needing to urinate which is a common symptom with BPH.
Nettle’s high iron content makes it useful for anemia, and its ability to “build blood” makes it an ally for women prior to and after menstruation to replenish lost blood. Regular consumption of nettle may also alleviate painful cramping as calcium has been shown to relieve muscle tension. Nettle has a hemostatic action, which is why I choose not to drink the herbal infusion the week of menstruation as it may slow the cycle down, but for folks who menstruate very heavily, this could be a deliberate application.
Because of this hemostatic action, many midwives recommend regular use of strong nettle leaf infusion during the last trimester of pregnancy to reduce the likelihood of postpartum hemorrhage. Nettle is also a galactogogue, helping to increase the flow of milk in nursing mothers.
There is gaining evidence that supports nettle as an adaptogen that quickly improves many symptoms associated with chronic stress. Herbalist Kiva Rose recommends the crushed or chewed fresh seeds for adrenal burnout.
Fresh or freeze dried and encapsulated nettle is used as a remedy for asthma and hayfever. The formic acid is responsible for curbing allergic responses by mildly desensitizing the mucosa in the body that is overly sensitive to irritants like pollen, essentially blocking the histamine receptors.
According to Matthew Wood, nettle helps to build proteins in the blood, keeping plasma in the vessels. Without those proteins, fluid can leak out causing low blood pressure. This makes nettle an effective remedy for low blood pressure, however if you have high blood pressure, you may want to be cautious about therapeutic use of nettle.
Safety considerations: The fresh seed may be a little too stimulating for some. Fresh nettle causes urtication, the irritation and inflammation caused by the stinging hairs. May affect the efficacy of anticoagulant drugs.
Nettle has a long history of use in Native American and European cultures for use as a hair rinse. It was even said to cure baldness. I have used dried nettle leaf as a hair rinse off and on for some years now, and I can attest to its leaving the hair feeling soft and silky, but I’m not quite convinced about its claims for reversing baldness. I have a hunch that using a tea made from freshly boiled nettle leaves would be more effective for stimulating the scalp and encouraging hair growth, and it might also be useful as an infused oil to massage the scalp with.
The nutrition that nettle brings to the body that is responsible for healthy skin would benefit the nails and hair growth from inside out as well.
In the garden, on the farm:
Fresh nettle left to decompose for 3 weeks in a 5 gallon bucket of water will produce a nutrient-rich liquid fertilizer. It is quite stinky, but oftentimes, stinky things make for excellent soil amendments for our gardens (Ahem, manure). This mixture can also be prayed on plants to promote folliar health and deter aphids and mildew.
Planting stinging nettle near other plants is said to increase their volatile oils.
Nettle has been used for thousands of years for in European fiber crafts. It was carded and spun into thread for fabric, garments, sacks, sails or made into cordage and used for rope and nets. Gradually, it was replaced by more southern-dwelling plants like flax and hemp.
It can also be used as a natural fabric dye, yielding various shades of green. Check out this blog post by Katie Grove.
Folklore, Mythology & Magick
When it comes to a character like stinging nettle, so commonly abundant, yet with an unforgettable personality (attitude!) you’re bound to uncover loads of lore and folk customs surrounding its use.
The deity association that I’m most familiar with is that of Thor, the God of Thunder in Norse mythology. He is a mighty warrior, a God of the heavens, son of the Odin and a giantess named Jord. He is both of celestial and Earthly pedigree- arrogant and rather narrow minded, yet a loyal and fierce protector of loved ones and humanity In many ways, he is representative of our condition, the Human Story on Earth. Thor wields powerful tools: Mjolnir- a mighty hammer that none but Thor can wield, iron gloves, and a power belt called megingjord. Thunder and lightning in the sky was thought by Germanic and Scandinavian peoples to be Thor, battling with destructive forces of nature that would threaten our well being. He was and still is held in high regard and his plant association is the stinging nettle! Recently I got to thinking about the three magickal possessions of Thor and their connection to traits of nettle. First, the hammer that is associated with thunder and lightning. Nettle’s sting feels rather like an electrical shock, a zap and when you brush against the welt later it feels to me like a sort of gentle electrical current passing over the skin. I’m not sure what the connection would be with the iron gloves- it could have to do with nettle’s high iron content, or something else to do with the chemical makeup of the plant that conducts or controls the flow of energy. The power belt is the most intriguing to me at this point. Thor’s power belt wraps around his waist, covering the kidneys and adrenals, and its said to amplify his power threefold. Nettle has a strong affinity for the kidneys and the seeds are highly energizing and an adrenal restorative. Coincidence? Yeah, I don’t really believe in those… Myths are not truth, but they contain truths and our ancestors were not dummies. I think its also very interesting that nettle is associated with Shango, the West African orisha, who was once a king and became an ascended master. He shares similar personality and character traits to Thor, such as being a deity of thunder and lightning, wielding a 2 sided axe (which looks similar in shape to mjolnir) and having originated as human, has a physical and celestial connection as well. Ah, more synchronicities.
There is a story by Hans Christian Andersen about two brothers who had been turned into geese by a witch. In order to break the curse, their sister was instructed to harvest nettle at night, card and weave the fibers and make them into coats. She ran out of time and could’t complete the sleeve on one coat, so that brother was stuck with a goose wing for an arm.. at least until (as I understand it) he cut it off later on in the story.
Mineral-Rich Nettle Vinegar
Pack a small glass jar with fresh nettle leaves and stems (tender tops) and fill to about an inch from the rim with apple cider vinegar. Push the herb down with a wooden chopstick until submerged and air bubbles are out. Cap it with a plastic, or other non-metallic lid, or use wax paper over between the jar and metal lid to avoid corrosion. Let it sit somewhere cool and out of direct sunlight, steeping about a month before straining and using. Excellent in salads.
Sources: Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism. Healing Arts Press, 2003. Vill. “https://www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Urtica+dioica” Plants for a Future, 1996-2012. Web. . Web. M. Grieve, “https://botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/n/nettle03.html#gre” Botanical.com, 1195-2017. Web. Kiva Rose, “http://kivasenchantments.com/nettle-seed-as-adrenal-trophorestorative-adaptogen.html”, kivasenchantments.com, The Medicine Woman’s Roots 2013. Web. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/, “https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4708629/”, Copyright © 2015 The Authors. Food Science & Nutrition published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Web. Green, James. The Male Herbal. Crossing Press; 2nd ed. edition (April 1, 2007). Print. Weed, Susun. Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year. Ash Tree Publishing, 1996. Print.