Native Plants of the Scotchmans

Stinging Nettles: A Mixed Blessing

By Valle Novak

Anyone who has spent time in the woods has had the experience: one moment, blithely enjoying the surroundings – the next moment – ZAP! A stinging, burning whiplash along an unprotected arm, leg, or other body part that takes your breath away and brings immediate pain that can last up to an hour. Stinging nettle (Urtica) has done it again, hiding behind its innocent façade of pretty slender green toothed leaves that, in the words of Gregory F. Tilford in his Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West, “offers a crash course in plant identification (and contact dermatitis).”

The underside of those pretty leaves is covered with minuscule hollow, needlelike hairs that literally inject their contents into anything that makes forceful contact –i.e. your arm or leg. The stems too, are covered with fine stinging hairs. The protein antigens and formic acid that make up the contents cause immediate burning and a rash of tiny pustules that, if rubbed or scratched (they do itch) magnify the discomfort tenfold. Formic acid, by the way, is the chosen weapon of red ants.

Ironically, despite their protective compunctions, stinging nettle is coveted by many foragers who actually seek it out for its delicious and nutritious enhancements. Gathered with glove wearing care, and cooked as spinach, it is lauded in every book on nature’s plants that I have explored as being high in iron, calcium, potassium, manganese and Vitamins A, C, and D. One may also dry the leaves, which negates the stinging as well as cooking.

Best gathered in the spring when it emerges from the ground in little many-leaved reddish-colored leaf sprouts, there is no danger of over-use since it spreads by rhizomes. Simply snip off the leaf bundle at the base (wearing gloves) and the root will continue to create new ones. Once cooked, it loses its stinging propensities and makes a nutritious tea, or served like spinach, tastes great with butter, salt, pepper, and maybe a dash of nutmeg. One caveat: Do not gather for eating after spring and/or during or after bloom stage. Old plants are not palatable.

Stinging nettle prefers rich, moist soil, and thrives most anywhere in such conditions, from high country sites to lowland ditches and roadways. Our most common resident is U. diocia. It is an erect plant, generally growing in colonies, and can reach 7 feet tall. Opposing leaves are toothed and lance shaped. Most reproduction is from its shallow rhizomes, but seed bearing flowers also grow from leaf axils and appear as brownish, somewhat “catkin-like” drooping clusters.

Medicinal use of Urtica has been recorded from the 10th Century, when it was considered one of the Sacred Herbs. It was used as a poultice for many ailments, from gout to menstrual problems, and to counteract the pains of rheumatism and arthritis. In the Bronze Age, nettle stems were pounded in water into fibers which could be twisted into string and woven into fishing nets.

More recently, early American Indians often whipped themselves with the leafed stems for bone ache and arthritis. It was also cooked and eaten or used as a tea for a spring tonic. This has been accepted as a valid use by the Self-Heal Herbal Centre of Victoria, B.C., Canada, since Urtica contains “secretin which causes the bowel to slough off its heavy mucous lining from eating the heavier winter foods” (Discovering Wild Plants”, Janice J. Schofield).

Schofield herself says that in her home nettles “serve as seasoning, tea, plant fertilizer, shampoo, hair rinse, liniment and favorite spring green.”

It’s probably doubtful whether any of us will be making such good things from any nettles we encounter, but it’s good to know that this much-maligned plant has such great hidden virtues. Meanwhile, we can prepare ourselves for any unexpected meetings with a light over-shirt at the very least.

This article, written by Valle Novak, was originally published in our March/April 2014 Peak Experience newsletter, Vol. 10 No. 2

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About The Author:

Rose wears many hats within FSPW as well as the greater Sandpoint community. You can find her working behind the scenes for the Friends, coaching kids mountain biking and nordic skiing, or out on the trail enjoying nature.

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