Plant Profile: Nettles

Stinging nettle, or 'Urtica Dioica'

 

 

USES/ HISTORY

A deeply nutritive blood building herb with salty savory mineral taste, nettles are rich in calcium and iron, as well as vitamin C, vitamin A, and potassium. The leaves hold stores of a-linoleic acid and omega-3's. This is an ideal plant ally for anyone who is demineralized by stress/ adrenal fatigue, experiences heavy menstrual flow regularly or is experiencing the fatigue of anemia. 

 

Nettles have been close to humankind for thousands of years as a wild food and healing plant, but also as clothing! The stalks are fibrous enough that they can be used like linen (from flax), and have been worn by various cultures for over 2,000 years. In fact, German army uniforms in WWI were made of nettles during a cotton shortage. There is also a UK World Nettle Eating Championship!

 

HOW TO PREPARE

When harvesting your own nettles, be cautious of the sting - wear gloves, long sleeves. Fresh nettles are easily made edible. Simply soak in water to remove the sting. Or cook with steam, as a green vegetable - treat like spinach - and the heat will remove the sting. Pesto, soup, polenta, etc. Nettles are so flavorful they taste delicious almost any way they're served. 

 

If you don't intend to use the fresh plant, air drying in a cool place is a great way to preserve an abundance of nettles. When brewing the dried leaves for tea, I like to mix them with holy basil and oat straw, a mild tasting blend that calms and supports the adrenals. I also prefer to use a french press to brew tea, so that I can press the leaves and release the beneficial oils. The tea is somewhat astringent (drying); less than three cups per day is recommended. 

 

WHERE TO FIND

Nettles are easy to find, but be sure to only pick non-flowering plants no higher than 6 to 8" tall. When flowering and/ or beyond this height, the plant has produced 'cystoliths', gritty particles which irritate the kidneys and urinary tract when consumed. 

 

Stinging nettles will usually grow in wetter environments with some shade, near sources of water or where water collects; barnyards, streamsides. However they can sometimes be found in more exposed places like meadows. They spread quickly once established, much to the frustration of many gardeners, whose efforts to remove the plant are usually futile and result in the sting of any exposed skin. This stinging sensation is caused by hollow stinging hairs along the stem called 'trichomes', which act as needles, injecting a slew of histamines and chemicals upon contact. 

 

The stinging reaction can include persistent itching for days after contact, and may be difficult to treat, though some may find relief with calamine lotion. There are lots of folk remedies recommended to soothe the sting... mud, saliva, baking soda, oil and onions, lemon juice, and more. If you find that any of these work for you please let one of us know! Personally, I have only let the reaction take it's course, which has long been considered a treatment in itself - many believe it can be deliberately applied to treat joint pain. 

 

HOW I GOT TO KNOW STINGING NETTLE 

 

(trigger warning: body trauma)

 

H - My own up-close-and-personal experience with nettle started with a serious bike accident. I was hit by a car one night in early April five years ago. 

 

The accident was a hit and run, and I was left on the side of the road, in the rain, with a head trauma, in shock. I took the impact on my left side; my hips and my head hit the ground hardest, and I wasn't wearing a helmet. I had to roll out of traffic to avoid being hit again. The wind was knocked out of me and I went into shock. A very kind person who witnessed the accident stopped to help and wound up calling an ambulance. I remember waiting anxiously, crying and holding my head in my hands, feeling my skull straining as my brain started to swell. I thought I was dying.

 

In the hospital they scanned and checked me out, no internal bleeding, no brain hemorrhage, nothing worth keeping me overnight for. I was badly bruised, my abdomen swollen, my head swollen. They fitted me with a neck brace and I managed to contact a roommate who came to pick me up. Once they showed up I was given morphine for the pain and sent home. My main concern was actually not the state of my body, but my Homestead Herbalism class which started the following morning. 

 

Though I hardly slept that night, I did make it to class, thanks to a generous friend who drove me all the way out to rural Pennsylvania early in the morning. I was shaken up, had bruises everywhere and was so sore I could barely walk but I was determined to be there. Farm at Coventry is where the class took place, led by herbalist Susan Hess (who learned from David Winston, founder of Herbalist & Alchemist, east coast equivalent of Herb Pharm). She greeted us all warmly that beautiful spring morning as we trickled one by one into the house, and instantly I knew I was in the presence of a gifted healer. 

 

We sat at the big table, made our introductions and when it was my turn I spoke of my desire to learn the ways of traditional plant medicine. I also told in fragments what had happened to me the previous night. I was suddenly aware that I hadn't told my father and it was his birthday and we hadn't talked in a long, long time. I mentioned this to the group while visibly struggling to contain mixed emotions. Everything became a dull roar of heartache and friendly concerned classmates reaching out to offer support. Susan invited me to talk with her after class. Wrapped in the embrace of my new community, I felt an inner shift beginning. 

 

Our first task of the day was to gather nettles around the farm. We filled many bags with young nettle shoots and each of us took one bag home. We also received our Materia Medica that first day, our reference book of plant knowledge. We reviewed the curriculum. We shared plant stories. Susan fed us nettle foods and nettle tea, all so delicious and nourishing, and sent us home full of ideas to try in our own kitchens. 

 

Charged with healing energy, I spent the next few days mostly brewing nettle tea, applying arnica, and sleeping. I slipped into a fog of sadness and physical pain, but it was illuminated. I had put myself in the way of healing more than I knew at the time. The bike accident was a catalyst for necessary change in my life. Looking back, I see just how supported I was by my close relationship with plants, especially nettles. I'll always be grateful to nettles for rebuilding me, for filling my blood and bones, and for giving me strength. 

 

 

 

S - Nettles opened me to the world of plants, it was was one of the first plants I got to know up close and personal. One of the first plants I wild foraged. One of the first plants with which I was able to positively identify. Nettles brought me warmly into the love I have for plants and traditional plant healing. 

 

The first time I harvested nettles I was with a friend of mine on the coast we were looking for seaweed and stopped by a marshy area to do some bird watching. As we wound around the marsh my friend spotted nettles, a mesmerizing plant. This particular nettle plant was very tall and wide full and a deep green. The life beaming out of it was pure magic. I wanted to touch it and feel it, I knew they were stinging but this plant drew me in. I reached out and slowly felt a leaf, a jolt of energy pursed through my hand. I was buzzing. I was full. 

 

After feeling hypnotized by this plant we ceremoniously gave thanks and laid down our scarves to wrap up this powerful medicine. We wrapped up our treasures and walked back to the road silently; listening to the ocean waves, the birds, and the plants.  Feeling so grateful for the land around us. 

 

That place has become one of the most special places to me, where I was jolted into life - plant life. I now have a seasonal ritual of harvesting nettles. With friends and on my ownI make sure to spend ample time with nettles collecting and processing. They are powerful healers. I love to have nettles around me in all possible ways - teas, cooked, powdered, and tinctures. I am so grateful for nettles. I am still buzzing. I am still full. 

 

REFERENCES/ RESOURCES

Hess, Susan (2011) Homestead Herbalism Materia Medica. Pottstown, PA: Susan Hess.

 

Lockboy, Bray (2016,4/22) Stinging nettles. Retrieved from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urtica_dioica