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Stinging Nettles: Multipurpose Superplant

April 16, 2012

Young nettles emerging in the raspberry patch.

Credit: Margaret Boyles
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You’ll know if you accidentally run into a patch of stinging nettles.

When you brush against them with bare skin, the delicate, needle-like hairs that cover their stems and leaves break off and inject you with irritating chemicals that feel like a host of wasp stings.

But if you do suffer such encounter, count your lucky stars. Guard the spot carefully. Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a plant of a thousand uses—nutritious food, medicine, tea herb, cheese-flavoring agent, beer, herbal fiber for weaving, fertilizer, dyestuff, laydybug attractant, important food source for butterfly larvae.

Although alarmed when I first found nettles running amok in my raspberry patch, I’ve found the job of preventing them from taking over furnishes me with good foraging every spring.

I’ve since found a much larger wild patch a few miles down the road. I keep that spot a secret.

Gobble ’em up

Young nettles rank among the yummiest, most nutritious of green vegetables. Light cooking eliminates the sting. A rich source of calcium, iron, magnesium and other minerals, and of
vitamins C, A and B complex, they also contain more protein than other green vegetables (dried leaves are 25 percent protein).

Cook them like spinach as a side dish; turn them into delicious pesto; or add them to soups and quiches. You can freeze or dry them the way you would spinach or parsley.

For the best eating, pick the top three or four set of leaves while the plants are just a few inches tall. To harvest stinging nettles without getting stung, wear long sleeves and rubber or leather gloves. Rinse them well in a colander, remove any debris, and wear kitchen gloves if you plan to chop them.

Other uses

For centuries, nettles have served traditional cultures as medicine to treat a variety of ills.  Dried nettle leaves and roots make both delicious tea and a nourishing hair rinse.

Gardeners have long used fermentations of nettle leaves to fertilize and protect crops. 

Dairy farmers use nettles as a flavoring ingredient (or wrapper) for gourmet cheeses.

And some hearty souls enjoy tipping a pint of nettle beer, perhaps along with a savory dish of nettle pasta

Another innovation you may find soon at your local trendy clothing boutique: clothing made from nettle fibers

 

Be nice to nettles

The wise Brits of the Cramlington Organization for Nature and the Environment so value the role of the nettle in the natural world, that they sponsor a Be Nice To Nettles Week

And if you have bit of a moist, rich soil lying fallow and find a patch of nettles going to seed, perhaps you’d like to create your own backyard nettle patch.

 

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Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

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Comments

I am an EMT, and I also am a

By Angela B

I am an EMT, and I also am a home health nurse. I have a severe problem with recurring kidney stones. I read that making tea from fresh picked stinging nettle leaves helps clear up kidney stones... i am willing to try ANYTHING as i have passed 3 in the last 5 days. I would pay a million dollars to find them. Or buy some fresh!!!! My email is included.. :'(

I'm not a medical

By Margaret Boyles

I'm not a medical professional or herbalist, Angela, though I have read that nettles have a history of use in urinary-tract and other problems. http://bit.ly/Zmn9Nv Make sure you check with your own healthcare provider.

You might try growing your own fresh nettles (http://amzn.to/Zml3wT), buying dried-nettle tea or capsules, or even buying some fresh http://bit.ly/ZWHMvx.

Good luck!

Nettles are surprisingly rare

By Scruffy

Nettles are surprisingly rare in my area (argh) so I have to resort to drying them until I have enough to do anything. Would it still be possible to make this using dried leaves or will they lose something important in the dehydration process?

Dried nettles make a nice

By Margaret Boyles

Dried nettles make a nice tea; you could also crumble them and sprinkle them into a soup.

As for "losing something" in the drying process, constituents such as vitamin C, might be reduced; more heat-stable phytocompounds might increase.

By the way, if you dare, you can easily get nettle seeds to grow your own: http://amzn.to/Zml3wT

I'd cut the seedheads before the seed matures, since nettles are notoriously aggressive, spreading via both underground rhizomes and thousands of tiny seeds, especially if they fall onto rich, moist soil.

I got into a patch of

By gardengurl

I got into a patch of stinging nettles a few years ago when weeding my garden. The description above of feeling like I had walked into a hornets nest is right on. Luckily I also grow Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). I broke a piece off one of my plants and rubs the sap all over the abrasion. I stopped the stingging right away but I was left with the numbing sensation in my hand for 2 or 3 days.

I find the tips for using

By S. Pennlowe

I find the tips for using local vegetation very interesting, and would like to try my hand at it.

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