Stinging Nettle: A Delicious Medicine Covered in Glass Needles Full of Acid
Throughout human history, there have been, are, and will always be trials of bravery. Do you have a heart full of pine-tar and rusty nails or is there a small kitten tottling around on a lacy pillow in your chest? If you are a secret badass, but you wish to unmask yourself before the world, what feats of valor should you perform?
How about identifying, clutching, and eating an ancient vegetable covered in glass needles full of acid?
Perhaps that counts?
If you fear the stinging powers of the nettle, be assured, they are swiftly destroyed through cooking or drying. Once defanged, the stinging nettle makes for a gentle and ancient medicine, delicious “tea,” and culinary ingredient mentioned in The Bible and by authors prior.
I forgot to mention, U. dioica stings because it is covered in thousands of glass needles that are full of acid. Allow me to repeat that:
This is a plant that is covered in glass needles full of acid.
So, welcome to the story of U. dioica; it’s a story that is both ancient and ongoing.
U. dioica can be anywhere from 1 to 9 feet tall. The leaves are opposite, simple, and coarsely toothed at the margins. Now, here is a big giveaway: the leaves are covered with tiny hypodermic needles which resemble hairs all over their surface. These silica-laden trichomes contain a cocktail of histamine and acetylcholine as well as tartaric, oxalic and formic acid which is irritatingly injected into the skin of anyone who touches it . The small green axillary flower clusters can be found on the upper leaves.
Nettles like “wet feet,” meaning well forested areas with moisture and shade, or riparian areas near a body of water. Unlike many other “weedy” plants, Urtica spp. thrive in rich undisturbed soil. Since the nettle prefers partial shade, I can attest that it grows quite well as a houseplant.
The Sustainable Harvest of Nettles
While the stinging nettle is considered to be invasive, there is no need to kill the plant while harvesting from it. Simply snipping the tender tops, and a few leaves here and there, is all you will really need to do.
Culinary Uses of Nettles
Pliny the Elder (23–79 A.D.) touted the roots of Urtica spp as being effective at tenderizing meat . The sprouts are said to be healthful and I can attest to the quality of their flavor . The taste is sharp, and mimics both spinach and tea. Speaking of, the dried leaves of U. dioica do a fantastic caffeine-free tea impersonation. The tender/young leaves are used for making soup and as a healthful pot-herb. I can personally attest to it making a FANTASTIC broth with nothing more than reduced nettle water, salt, pepper, olive oil, and onion powder.
Further, nettle wine and nettle beer are both celebrated brews (See: Music below).
Nettles in Music
I'd never heard of Ralph McTell before this article; such is the unexpected power of plants. The below song is likely to charm your pants off assuming you do not have a huge aversion to the folk music of the 60's.
"In my country garden, underneath the mountain
With dead-nettles growing all around the door
Early every morning the sun comes up the mountain
Setting in the sea in the evening once more.
Taking water from the brook
Wondering who it was that took the stones from the mountain to build the cottage here
Two up and two down, miles from the nearest town
I wonder who he was but the reason why is clear
Take a bunch of nettles, add a little water
Drawn from the stream running outside the door
Leave it for a month or two, bottle it and drink the brew
Watch the suns go down in the sea once more.
Take some wood to build a fire
Could you really get much higher than standing in the doorway with a glass of nettle wine
My lady beside me, the mountain behind me
Before me the sea and the red skyline."
Ethnobotany of Nettles
The Abnaki and Quinault peoples used Urtica spp, in powdered form, as a snuff to treat nosebleeds; the Bella Coola, Chehalis, Paiute, Pomo, Kashaya, Tanaina, and Quileute peoples used the plant to combat rheumatism by stinging/whipping areas affected by arthritis; the Cowlitz, Lummi, Quinault, and Squaxin peoples gave an infusion of the plant to women to aid in childbirth . The young shoots were considered diuretic (urine stimulating) and scurvy preventing in the early American medical lexicon . The stinging nettle was reported to be used to produce an “herbalist’s beer” presumably as an astringent diuretic tonic . Southern Confederate soldiers reported the use of this plant to combat rheumatism in much the same way the Native American’s used the plant . The stinging nettle was used to combat edema (swelling) and to treat festering wounds. A fistful of seeds placed into a bottle of claret was used to combat the symptoms of colic . An electuary was made of the nettle adding one part of nettle leaves with double the weight of wine mixed with honey . A decoction of nettle was said to combat the symptoms of diarrhea, hemorrhoids, scurvy, kidney stones, and bleeding . The juice of nettles was used in medieval times to combat tuberculosis . Nettle soup was prescribed by early medical practitioners to bring about sleep, to alleviate coughs, and gout . It is reported the Roman soldiers would flog themselves with stinging nettle to ward off the cold of winter and to warm the blood . In India, the whole plant is used to treat kidney stones, burns, anemia, rashes, internal bleeding, and diabetes .
A list this long, spanning many cultures and thousands of years, begs the question: does this oft-touted panacea of a plant carry medicinal properties that stand up to the rigors of science?
Pharmaceutical effects of Nettles
An incredibly thorough analysis presented in a paper titled, Pharmacological and toxicological evaluation of Urtica dioica, uncovered outstanding blood glucose lowering action in Urtica dioica extracts in mice. Further, the aforementioned study found antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects were both significantly present and synergistic in their action. Finally, the study concluded that the traditional use of this plant as medicine (in the context of Indian folk medicine) was justified. I encourage you to comb through this paper; it sounds as though there are several secondary metabolites in this plant with great potential to help people suffering with arthritis, infections, and diabetes mellitus.
Nettles in Magic
Pliny the Elder mentioned that the stinging nettle was used in religious services and was thought to ward away illness for a full year .
Interesting Factoids about Nettles
Much like yarrow, it is said that the Roman battalions would plant nettle in every area they were stationed . There, the plants may have remained.
This shade tolerant plant does just fine growing indoors. I’ve got a 6-month-old in a clay pot at our grandfather’s house now.
Nettle Soup (1913) 
“Take quite young nettles, well washed,
and treat them like spinach. Boil them; keep a
little of the water in which they were boiled, and mix
with it milk and a little cream. Season to taste, and
thicken with a little corn-ﬂour mixed smooth in cold
Nettles in Literature
“…another might have said, whether he would still
go on suffering the nettle to be drawn lightly over
him, stinging him to madness, or whether he
would grasp it in his naked hand boldly, and dare
E. Lynn Linton (1822–1898)
“Tender-handed stroke a nettle,
And it stings you for your pains;
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains.”
— Aaron Hill (1685–1750)
“In the clefts of the valleys must they dwell, in holes of the earth and of the rocks. Among the bushes they bray; under the nettles they are gathered together.”
— New American Standard Bible
“I have slept in nettle sheets and dined
off a nettle tablecloth and I have heard my mother say that she
thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen.”
–Thomas Campbell (1777–1844)
“But if thou shouldst otherwise decree, then may all thy skin be frayed and torn with thy nails,
yea, and in nettles mayst thou couch!”
— Theocritus (3rd century B.C.).
“Such a cold and cough it gave me
That I was obliged to fly, and
In the shelter of your bosom
Cure myself with rest and nettles.”
— Persius (34–62 A.D.).
Nettle is rich in vitamins A, C, and D as well as manganese, potassium, calcium, and iron .
U. dioica is used in making a green dye for wool . Stinging nettle was fed to hunting hounds by the English . It was also used widely as a fiber source in Scandinavia . A decoction of nettles was said to be used like rennet for the utility of making cheeses, and even to gum up leaks in tubs or vats . To make the rennet decoction, you must take one ounce of the herb and boil it with one pint of salted water . Nettle mixed with alum was said to make a yellow dye for Easter eggs .
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