Stinging nettle has its place among our best medicinal plants. Its name “Nettle” derives from the english word “needle” and refers to tiny stinging hair on their stems and leaves that cause a burning sensation. In latin Urtica means “to burn”. Nettle developed this form of protection in an effort to discourage those who wanted to use it too often for its nutritional value. The plant is therefore evolutionarily protected against animals.
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.As my favorite Austrian-Czech herbalist Maria Treben once wrote in her book "if people knew how medicinal it was, they would only grow nettles." Nettle is all medicinal, from the rhizome through the stems and leaves to the flowers and later the seeds. They have been highly respected in ancient times. While Ancient Egyptians used stinging nettle to treat arthritis and lower back pain, Roman troops rubbed it on themselves to help stay warm (1).
For its high level of nutrients nettle is used for a variety of health challenges, internally as well as topically.
Other common names
common nettle, stinging nettle, in latin Urtica dioica
How to identify stinging nettles
Belonging to the same botanical family as mint, nettles are easy to identify. Their hairs (called trichomes) on the stems and leaves are easy to see and if you are not sure, just simply touch it, for real. Use the back of your arm and gently brush it against to feel them.
Nettle leaf has sharply toothed, somewhat heart-shaped opposite leaves with prominent veins. They range from bright green to a purple color. While their underside leaves are covered in tiny silica burbs the top side is not.
Their square fibrous stems with stinging barbs and opposite leaves can reach a height of almost 6 feet (2m) by maturity. Nettles can even grow taller if their conditions are ideal.
Dangling clusters of tiny blooms come out at the main leaf junction around mid of spring. Their appearance indicates that the time to forage the nettle greens is over.
Seeds are the most nutritious part of the nettle however one must be careful to harvest them from female plants only not a male. They appear in late summer to early fall.
Roots we collect in autumn or early spring. It appears to have different medicinal properties than the leaves.
When in doubt, choose nettle.
-David Hoffman herbalist, author
Tips for harvesting fresh nettle greens
When to forage
The best time to harvest fresh nettle leaves is before the blossoms develop in spring and early summer. These leaves are crunchy and nutritious. On their own they might taste a bit “grassy” but when paired with butter or cream, they are very tasty. If you want to use nettle during the year you can always order high quality dried from Mountain Rose Herbs.
After they go to flower the leaves will become tough, bitter woodier, and less edible. They may also irritate the urinary tract of some people.
How to forage
Collecting just the leaves takes longer than cutting the stems about 5 cm (2 inches) above the ground level. By cutting just above the spot where new leaves opposite each other are emerging you encourage new growth.
Places to forage
Nettle grows in nutrient-rich soils, often on the top of compost or near a hen enclosure. They are both sun loving and shade tolerant growing in areas from sea level to sub-alpine regions.
Find places away from busy roads, highways and free of any chemicals.
Tools that you need
What to do before eating nettle leaves?
Once you collect your leaves or stems give them a shake before you bring them home to prevent insect or spider visitors.
Remove leaves from the stems, using gloves. Wash the leaves in a salad spinner and let them dry before using them in the kitchen. If you plan to use them within a few days just store them the same way you store salad leaves or fresh spinach leaves. You need to wear gloves as the leaves sting till you smash the needles in a blender or with a sharp knife or till you use heat (steaming, frying, boiling). Once the needles have been smashed or treated with heat they will no longer sting you. Alternatively let them dry out or dehydrate them to get rid of their stinging ability.
If you get stung with nettles
I was wearing garden gloves but still got stung and felt a slight tingle in my fingers. Stems and leaves are covered with countless stinging hairs. These hairs are hard and brittle like glass, so they break when touched. They contain a mixture of histamine and formic acid that forms small blisters, which itch and burn. You can apply leaves of plantain (plantago lanceolata) or dock leaves that you simply grind between your fingers and apply on the sting. Moisture from the leaves has a soothing and cooling effect on the skin. Let it sit for a while and see if it works. What also might help is to remove the nettle hair with a magnifying glass and tweezers.
On the other hand, urtication (using fresh nettle ) has been used for its therapeutic effect to reduce muscular pain and painful joints caused by arthritis.
Health benefits of stinging nettle greens
Why would one bother to forage nettle? As I already mentioned earlier nettle is one the most nutritious plants that has many medicinal benefits for our body, skin and hair.
A universal cleanser of our body
Nettles are a great cleansing herb. Nettle is rich mainly in vitamins B2 and C, it also contains a unique combination of minerals (iron and magnesium), antioxidant dyes (carotenoids, flavonoids, chlorophyll) and acids, which help thoroughly cleanse the body while having antiseptic effects.
According to this study, nettle leaves contain a significant amount of chlorophyll that accelerates cleansing and detoxification. The nettle leaves cleanse the digestive system and fight bloating and bad breath. In addition, chlorophyll promotes the regeneration of cells and helps heal wounds.
For healthy bones and teeth
Nettle is extremely rich in organic minerals such as calcium and magnesium that are important for our bones and teeth. Moreover our body can easily absorb them unlike calcium supplements.
relieve with first signs of hay fever
The ability of nettle to inhibit inflammation may help with seasonal allergies such as hay fever. This research shows that by blocking histamine receptors nettle stops immune cells releasing chemicals that trigger allergy symptoms.
Reduce the level of blood sugar
Nettle contains compounds that may mimic the effects of insulin . In this randomized three month study 46 type 2 diabetic patients took 500 mg nettle extract three times a day that significantly lowered their level of blood sugar compared to a placebo. However despite promising findings more research is necessary.
Relieve joint pain
Health benefits of stinging nettle for skin and hair
Stinging nettle is very rich in minerals such as magnesium, phosphorous, silicon and a lot of calcium and iron. It also contains three times more vitamin C than broccoli. And other vitamins A, E and B as well as valuable enzymes and proteins.
Boost hair growth
These valuable sources can boost hair growth and enhance hair quality. In addition, nettle extract enhances blood circulation that is essential for hair roots to get a sufficient supply of nutrients. It also contributes to hair regrowth, its leaves contain sulfur and silica that make your hair healthier and shinier.
Might help with alopecia and and promote a healthy scalp
This study confirms that its antiinflammatory and antioxidant features allow using nettle extract for the treatment of alopecia and a healthy scalp. Nettle is very effective to relieve dry, tense scalp that usually contributes to alopecia (baldness).
Heal burns and sunburns
A powerful herb – nettle possesses healing properties and helps with burns. This study confirms the high healing rate of nettle extract on second degree burn wounds in rats in comparison with silver sulfadiazine and vaseline.
Preserving stinging nettle greens
Freezing the nettles
as I already mentioned the best stinging nettle leaves are the young ones that grow in early spring. So when you have an opportunity to forage these, just freeze them. Before that, it is advisable to steam them or blanch them in salted water so they lose their sting. Drain them by squeezing out excess water, pack them into a ziploc, label them and freeze them. They will lose their freshness but will be good for soup, pasta or puree.
Drying the nettles
Place them on parchment paper and let them dry for 3-4 days. When dried, they are safer to use as they no longer sting. However, the barbs are still there and can irritate the skin. When the stems snap they are ready to be stored in a glass container for later use.
Dry them in a dehydrator
Hang them to dry with a stem tied with a string just make sure they don’t lose their green color during the drying process as they might turn brown or black and this is not desirable.
Children below 15 years of age as well as people taking medications for diabetes or high blood pressure should consult its uses with a health professional. Pregnant and breast-feeding women can take nettle for no longer than 21 days or if they have problems with iron deficiency.
The stinging nettle hairs are hard and brittle like glass, so they break when touched. They contain a mixture of histamine and formic acid that forms small blisters, which itch and burn.
you can apply spit poultice from fresh leaves of plantain (plantago lanceolata) or dock leaves – where you chew a few fresh leaves, then spit them out to apply this ‘spit poultice’ to the affected area or just simply grind the leaves between your fingers and apply on the sting. Moisture from the leaves has a soothing and cooling effect on the skin.