One of my favorite plants is either highly versatile, or confused. On one hand, professional herbivores like deer refuse to touch it, but many people, myself included, gladly eat it every day it’s available. While contacting it is painful, it has been proven to relieve certain chronic pain. It is steeped in over a thousand years of folklore, at one point imbued with the power to cleanse away sin, yet medical science recognizes it as a legitimate remedy for many disorders. Some gardeners consider it a bothersome weed, while others cultivate it.
The stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, is native to Europe, Asia, and northern Africa but has been widespread throughout North America from northern Mexico to northern Canada for centuries. Experts disagree as to the number of species and subspecies worldwide, as nettles freely hybridize.
Nettles sprout little hypodermic needles on stems, leaves, and even flowers. Called trichomes, these glass-like, silica-based needles inject a mixture of irritating chemicals upon contact. The cocktail varies by species, but usually includes histamine, 5-HTP, serotonin, formic acid and acetylcholine.
So why would you place this well-armed adversary in your mouth? Well, cooking destroys the stinging hairs, and results in the tastiest cooked green, wild or domestic, I’ve ever had. It’s much like spinach, but sweeter. Nettles can be boiled, steamed, or stir-fried. They’re great by themselves or in soups, omelets, pesto, casseroles, and more.
Another reason I like nettles is that they’re some of the first green things to sprout after the snow melts. Only the tops of young plants are harvested, and can be easily pinched off. Frequent picking induces more young growth, and nettle season can last into June before they become lanky and tough.
On a dry-weight basis, nettles are higher in protein (about 15%) than almost any other leafy green vegetable. They’re a good source of iron, potassium, calcium, and Vitamins A and C, and have a healthy ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids. Because drying also neutralizes nettles’ sting, they have been used as animals fodder. Nettles are still fed to laying hens to improve productivity.
Studies show that nettles reduce symptoms of Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia in men. In terms of using pain to relieve pain, research also suggests that nettles can relieve joint pain when leaves are applied to the affected area. Other studies show that oral extracts of stinging nettle allowed people with arthritis to reduce NSAID dosage.
And there’s more: The University of Maryland has found that “One preliminary human study suggested nettle capsules helped reduce sneezing and itching in people with hay fever. 48% of patients report that nettles were more effective than allergy medications they had used previously.”
Gardeners use nettles as a “green manure” because they (nettles, that is – gardeners may be nitrogen-rich, but should not be routinely added to soil) are high in nitrogen, iron and manganese. Nettles help attract beneficial insects as well.
Turns out you can wear nettles, too, and not just as atonement. For 2,000 years they’ve been used as a source of fiber for cloth-making. I’ve also made cordage from nettle stems using a technique called reverse-wrapping.
If you have a nettle patch, spend some time picking healthful greens this spring. One thing’s for sure: When you’re surrounded by nettles, you don’t need to worry about social distancing!
Paul Hetzler is an arborist, author, and nettles enthusiast. It’s the stinging rejoinder he tries to avoid.
Photo: Sjokolade, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons