Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Stinging Nettle - Herb of the Week

Recently I have been in three conversations about the benefits of Stinging Nettle, so I decided that it was time to research it for the herb of the week.

This week's Herb of the Week is Nettle, Stinging (Urtica dioica)

Found all over the world.  It is widespread on wasteland, especially on damp and nutrient-rich soil.  The scientific name comes from the Latin "uro" meaning I burn.  There are compounds in the leaves and sap called formic acid and histamine which cause allergic reactions in some that sting and cause blisters and hives.   Despite this drawback it was a popular plant in several countries.  In Scotland the plant was used to create a linen-like cloth that was used for sheets and tablecloths. It also has a history of magic, being associated with elves marking their dwelling place and as a protection against sorcery.  It was also used to protect milk from house trolls or witches.  In the 1600s it was discovered in New England having been brought over accidentally by early settlers, it became instantly naturalized. The common name stinging nettle is an Anglo-Saxon word for needles.  

To Grow
female flowers

Male flowers
Stinging nettle is the scourge of the gardener and the farmer because the leaves have the ability to cause a burning pain followed quickly by itching.  This is caused by a combination of chemicals in the leaves and hairs on the leaves. A tough spreading perennial, the stem will grow to 5 feet, and the root is much like mint and can spread infinitely.  Hardy to Zone 3, this plant really can grow just about anywhere. The male and female flowers are on separate plants and the plant wind pollinates so its flowers are not showy because there is no need to attract pollinators. The female flowers hang down in clusters, the male flowers stick out.  The color for both is yellowish green and they appear in mid to late summer.  They are actually located at the base of the leaves near the top of the plant. The leaves are dull green, with toothed edges covered on the underside by the stinging hairs.  This is the variety that can be eaten when young.

Nettles can be grown from seed sown in the spring.  But I am sure any one of your friends with a garden would be happy to give you a root.  Divide established roots early in spring before they out on much leaf growth, and the sting is least strong.  Stinging Nettle looks bushy, but it is actually an individual stalk with no branches.  The roots spread underground runners that generate new stalks giving it a bushy appearance.

The plant prefers a rich soil a bit on the moist side, however, it can grow just about anywhere and waste ground, field edgings, by ruins or pretty much in any nitrogen rich soil will support Stinging Nettles.  They are rather plentiful in the wide so in some areas it is not always necessary to grow your own. Be careful when dividing existing plants, as you can feel the plants wrath.

The plants will need to cut back in the summer to keep them from being invasive.  Before frost you want to cut them down hard to the ground.  They are fully hardy and will have no trouble returning in Spring.

To Use

The earliest uses of Stinging Nettle was as cloth.  Archaeologist found nettle fabric in a Bronze Age burial site in Denmark.  It was assumed it had medicinal properties in ancient times as well.  it was believed to be an antidote to other poisonous herbs, like henbane.  Seeds and flowers were used to create a tonic in wine that was taken to combat fevers accompanied by chills. 

Although they do cause some people unpleasant harm (I am one of those people!) Nettles are useful in the garden attracting butterflies and moths and making an excellent caterpillar food. 

A tea crafted from the leaves was combined with a sweetener to make an expectorant.  The tea is said to stimulate the kidneys, rid the body of worms, cure diarrhea, stop internal bleeding, and purify the blood. Nettles are high in vitamin C,which may account for years of using it as a spring tonic. A tea from the leaves has also been used to curdle milk in making cheese. 

Only young leaves of Nettle can be eaten.  Do not eat old plants uncooked.  Young shoots won’t sting and some people have consumed them raw, tossed into a salad.  The greens can be cooked much like kale or spinach.  Once boiled the hairs are rendered harmless. 

However, they should not be eaten in excess as they can produce kidney damage and symptoms of poisoning.  The plants must be cooked thoroughly to be safe.

It is worth the trouble of cooking them to eat, as they are rich in vitamins and minerals.  Whole plants will yield a week greenish, yellow woolen dye. It has a reputation for helping with hair loss and making the hair soft and shiny, as well as eliminating dandruff. 

The herb is considered a boost to other herbs increasing their essential oil.  It was even fed to livestock and chickens to increase the nutritional value of the meat and eggs. It is very high in nitrogen so making a strong nettle compost liquid can be used to fertilize the garden.  You can also compost it thus enriching you compost.  Take a bucketful of nettles, pour rain water over them and let soak for a week.  Strain the liquid and put it in a spray bottle, then spray on aphid infected plants to repel these damaging insects.  You can also pour the liquid into your container plants as a fertilizer.


Nettle is an herb used in many different types of preparations, as a result I have suggested recipes using it in the past several times.  Here are a list of other recipes to look at too:

Cough Relief Tea

Herb Remedies for Hair issues

Summer Body Splash

Nettle Soup 

1/2 lb. young nettle leaves
2 ounces oil or butter
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 lb. cooked potatoes, peeled and diced
3 3/4 cups of milk
1 tsp. marjoram, fresh chopped
1 tsp. sage, fresh chopped
1 tsp. lemon thyme, fresh chopped
1/2 tsp. lovage, fresh chopped
2 Tbls. cream
2 Tbls. flat parsley, chopped

Pick only the young nettle leaves, and wear gloves to remove from the stalks and wash them.  Heat the oil in a saucepan, add the chopped onions, slowly sweat them until clear.  Then add the nettles and stew gently for about a further 10 minutes.  Add the chopped potatoes, all the herbs, and milk and simmer for a further 10 minutes.  Allow to cool then put all the ingredients into a food processor and blend.  Return to a saucepan over gentle heat.  Add a swirl of cream to each bowl and sprinkle some chopped parsley over the top.  Serve with French Bread.

Nettle Rinse and Conditioner 

Use this as a final rinse after washing your hair or massage into your scalp and comb through the hair every other day.  Keep it in a small bottle in the refrigerator.

1 big handful of fresh cut nettle stems with leaves
1 pint of water

Wear rubber gloves to cut the fresh nettles.  Wash thoroughly and put the bunch into an enamel saucepan with enough cold water to cover.  Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.  Strain the liquid into a jug and allow to cool.

1 comment:

  1. I love cooking with stinging nettles but I didn't really know much about them. I enjoyed this post!


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