Anyone who has ever touched a stinging nettle has quickly found out that this innocent-looking weed more than lives up to its name. Its three- to four-foot-tall stems and both sides of the dark-green, heart-shape, toothed leaves are covered with countless tiny stinging hairs. The sharp hairs are hollow and contain a mixture of irritating chemicals. Just lightly brushing against the plant will cause the hairs to penetrate the skin and inject the toxins, causing an immediate burning sensation and itching.
It seems ironic that this prickly plant that we try to avoid has been used for clothing, food, and medicine for almost 3,000 years. Nettle’s tough fibers have been used to weave fabrics ranging from fine linen to cloth as coarse as burlap. Sails were once made of it, as was the rope to hoist them. In the late 1800s, flax and hemp replaced nettle for these purposes only because they could be grown more easily and on less-fertile soil. When cotton became scarce during World War I, the Germans raised over five million pounds of stinging nettle to be made into army uniforms.
Rich in iron, calcium, and vitamins C and D, nettle is a nutritious and tasty vegetable. New shoots are unarmed and can be eaten raw in salads. When dried or cooked, nettle loses its sting. Leaves and stems are delicious steamed or boiled, and the pot liquid can be made into a tasty soup.
Throughout the ages, nettle has been used to treat a host of maladies, including stomach cramps, internal bleeding, poisoning, and baldness. At one time, it was thought that flogging an affected area with bunches of nettles could cure gout and arthritis. Nettle tea was prescribed for breathing difficulties and is still used by modern herbalists to treat asthma and allergies.
Nettle grows best on fertile ground, so it is often found as a weed in the vegetable garden. Don’t be too quick to glove up and pluck it out, however—nettle helps the vegetables and fruit of surrounding plants to resist spoiling and increases the content of essential oils in many nearby herbs.
Beneficial garden insects as well as butterflies are attracted to stinging nettle, giving gardeners another reason to say “Hands off!” when it comes to pulling this helpful weed.