Okay, I’m sure most of you aren’t sitting there thinking, “Gee, I think I’ll go take a walk and try to find some stinging nettles.” Searching for plants that cause skin irritation usually isn’t high on the list of fun things to do.
But you may want to reconsider in this case – while they can leave the unsuspecting passerby with a painful greeting, if you know what you’re looking for, stinging nettles are definitely a plant to seek out. Like many beneficial botanicals, they can be used for a variety of ailments, and in addition, nettles are one of the most nutritious vegetables out there.
How to Grow It
Stinging nettles (urtica dioica) are widely distributed in temperate areas, having naturalized all over the world. They typically grow between 2 and 4 feet tall and are a vibrant green color. The leaves are highly toothed and fuzzy, and the stems are covered with tiny, hollow, spiny hairs, each of which contains a bit of a chemical slurry (when you brush up against them, the hairs rupture and stick in your skin, releasing the chemical compounds that cause the sting). Starting in mid-summer, tiny flowers form in long, dangling clusters.
They like good soil (where found wild, they often indicate the presence of rich soil), prefer things on the damp side, and can often be found growing in partial shade, so look along the edges of wooded areas and streams. They can spread via seed or underground rhizomes, so you’ll often find a thick stand of them rather than a single plant.
Nettles can be cultivated by planting seed or by taking cuttings from existing plants, which root easily. Just plant them someplace slightly out of the way!
What Are Stinging Nettles Good For?
Nettles have been used since antiquity, and continue to find favor with many natural-minded people today. Even without looking at their medicinal benefits, they’re very valuable. Stinging nettles are among the most nutrition-packed vegetables you can get your hands on, containing ample amounts of protein, iron, vitamins, and other minerals. I often add a handful of leaves to a morning smoothie when the plants emerge as a wonderful spring tonic. The leaves can also be cooked and substituted for spinach and other greens, with a very similar flavor (and don’t worry, cooking, drying, or blending neutralizes the chemicals that cause the sting, so they can be consumed freely; I wouldn’t eat them raw though!).
Stinging nettles are diuretic, astringent, alterative, and hemetic, among other properties. It has been used as a blood purifier, for treating urinary tract issues, and for combating anemia. Its anti-inflammatory properties have been shown to be effective in treating arthritis and other joint pain, and also in the treatment of skin problems such as eczema. Nettles are also frequently mentioned when looking for natural remedies for hay fever and other allergies, without the drowsiness and other side effects common in OTC allergy medications.
How To Use It
The most common method of consumption is making a tea from the leaves, but the stems and roots can also be used.
The young leaves are perfectly edible, and can be used in a number of dishes in place of other greens.
You can also make a tincture or infused oil by soaking in high-proof alcohol or olive oil for a month or so. Use the tincture like the tea, and the oil can be used topically for skin irritations and pains.
Use some caution when picking it – many people recommend wearing gloves and long sleeves, but if you’re careful, this isn’t necessary. I don’t wear either, and rarely get stung (and it doesn’t last long anyway); just cut or pinch off carefully. I’ve found that the skin on my fingertips is thick enough to be impervious, but if I reach into the middle of the plant and the tops of my fingers or hand brush the stems, it’ll sting. Not the end of the world, just don’t dive into a patch naked.
For more healing plants, check out the rest of the Backyard Medicine Cabinet series:
- Lemon Balm
- St. John’s Wort
- Red Clover
- Self Heal
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, nor do I pretend to be one. I don’t think any of my statements have been evaluated by the FDA, which is probably a good thing considering some of the stuff they approve… Do your own research before trusting the word of a random blogger. While I certainly encourage you to try some herbal remedies, I’m not suggesting you ditch all your prescriptions. I think modern medicine is awesome; I also think the natural world is pretty awesome too, and can offer a lot for minor ailments.