Today’s featured plant is stinging nettle, Urtica dioica.
Stinging nettle is also known as common nettle, slender nettle, tall nettle, stingers, wild spinach, plaything and devil leaf.
Range and Identification of Stinging Nettle
The Wisconsin University Bioweb states:
Urtica dioica was originally found in the cooler regions of northern Europe, Asia and the United States. Now stinging nettles can be found in many areas of the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. The stinging nettle flourishes in temperate climates where it can receive plentiful sunlight.
The plants are commonly found along rivers, lakes and streams. However, they survive well in areas that have been subject to human destruction such as in ditches, along rail road tracks, at the edge of woods, in abandoned farm fields and in empty lots. Nettles are often plentiful in these areas because of the high nitrogen levels in the soil left behind from waste such as decomposing hay and animal feces.
I first noticed them on our property growing along an old fence line near the driveway. I thought about harvesting them, but wasn’t keen on ingesting driveway fallout and didn’t want to fuss with moving them. Last year I discovered a new patch in the remains of an old manure pile, so this year I should be well stocked with nettle. I cleared out the patch early this spring to give the plants plenty of room to grow. Here’s a photo or the early spring growth.
The mature leaves are oblong, the entire plant is covered with fine hairs and grows from 3-7 feet tall. Touching the plant with bare hands will produce a stinging or burning sensation. Nettles have male and female plants. (If you want to learn more about nettle love, check here.) We’re mostly interested in the young leaves, although other parts are also useful.
Stinging Nettles as Food for Wildlife and Humans
Stinging nettles play host to a wide variety of insects and provide food for many other critters. They are the only food source for the larval form of the red admiral butterfly. When I was a little girl, my mom would always add some chopped nettles and sour milk to cow feed to feed to the baby ducks and geese.
Nettle can be used as you would any cooked green and is rich in vitamins and minerals. Don’t eat it raw or undercooked, as it will produce a stinging sensation in your mouth and throat, and possibly a mild itching sensation all over your lower jaw like the one I’m experiencing now….
Like all edible wild plants, be careful to make sure to clearly identify the plant and test a little at first before consuming in quantity. I did not react to a dried nettle infusion. I did react to fresh nettle infusion. Nothing serious, and the itch is already fading, but I’ll make sure to thoroughly cook or dry my nettles before consuming them in the future. Note: Healing Wise has a very nice assortment of nettle recipes for food and for hair and skin tonics.
Nettles as a Herbal Rennet Substitute for Cheesemaking
You can use nettles and some other herbs as a rennet substitute in cheesemaking. (The book Stillroom Cookery mentions cleavers and Jerusalem artichoke as other options as well.) Susun Weed gives a recipe for nettle rennet in Healing Wise:
- 1 quart nettles
- 1 quart water
- 1 teaspoon salt
Cook nettles in simmering salted water in well-covered pan for ten minutes. Strain and add to warm milk. (Each cup of this will curdle 4 quarts (1 gallon) of milk.)
Medicinal Uses of Stinging Nettle
In Healing Wise, Susuan Weed sings the praises of nettle for just about everything, lauding it as a hair and skin tonic, adrenal booster, bone builder, gout healer and more. It’s very high in many vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, and also contains natural antihistamines.
I’ve seen numerous sites recommend the use of nettle capsules leading up to allergy season to reduce seasonal allergies (and heard that it works from friends who have tried it). Given that gout responds to magnesium, it would make sense that nettle would aid gout sufferers.
For a more in depth discussion of nettle’s healing properties, please read “Medicinal Qualities of Stinging Nettle“. Susun Weed also has a very thought provoking article titled “Healthy Bones the Wise Woman Way” in which she details an effective natural strategy for keeping our bones strong and resilient as we age.
To make a nettle infusion, simply pour boiling water over one ounce dried chopped leaves (by weight), cover and steep 4 hours or overnight. Strain out plant material and drink. Refrigerate any leftovers and consume within 48 hours. As I mentioned, I did have a slight reaction to fresh nettles, so dried may be safer.
If you can’t find nettles in your area, Mountain Rose Herbs stocks nettle seed (for planting) as well as an assortment of dried nettles.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. If so, please pass it along, or Pin It so you don’t forget about the goodness of nettles.
Featured on Fat Tuesday.