Stinging Nettle - Handle With Care
Excerpted from: What Is Stinging Nettle?
Urtica dioica, is an herbaceous perennial that is often found growing wild in the understory
of riparian zones, on the edges of meadows, in open forests, or in disturbed soils near
pasture. It has toothed opposite leaves along the stems, which are almost heart shaped, and very
small flowers. It can grow from two to four feet tall at maturity. It spreads by vigorous creeping
rhizomes, and often forms dense clusters.
Stinging Nettle plants are dioecious, which means they only produce either male
or female flowers, not both. Perhaps this is why they were given the Latin name dioica, which
means “two houses.”
Males have a stringier, compact cluster of flowers that tend to point outward. Females can be identified
by dense, heavy flower clusters that may look like they are pulling the plant down. Males and females
grow adjacent to each other, and the flowers are usually wind pollinated.
Ancient Egyptians used stinging nettle to treat arthritis and lower back pain, while Roman troops
rubbed it on themselves to help stay warm.
||2–6 feet tall
6–12 inches wide
||Full Sun, Part Sun
||Causes severe skin
reactions upon contact
Stinging nettle has an extensive underground network of rhizomes
(horizontal underground stems) that can spread 5 feet or more in a season. Fibrous
roots are produced along the rhizomes.
Stems are mostly unbranched, and grow 3 to 6½ feet tall (sometimes up to 9 feet).
They are covered with bristly stinging hairs, and otherwise, are smooth or have a few
soft hairs. Stems are slender and approximately square in cross section.
The thin, bright to dark green leaves are opposite, with saw-toothed margins and infamous
stinging hairs on the underside. Leaves are broadly to narrowly egg-shaped, with a rounded
or heart-shaped base and a pointed tip. Leaf stalks are ¼ to ⅔ the length of the leaf.
Tiny, greenish-white flowers are arranged in clusters on slender, branched spikes formed
in the leaf axils with usually 4 spikes per node. Male and female flower clusters are produced
on the same plant, but usually from different leaf axils. Male flower spikes are longer than
female flower spikes.
Stinging nettle produces a small, dry, oval-shaped, 1-seeded fruit (achene) that
is yellow to grayish-tan. Fruits are clustered along drooping flower spikes
Stinging hairs on the stem and leaves of stinging nettle cause irritation upon contact with skin.
The stinging hairs, called trichomes, are needles with protective tips.
The toxins are located at the base of each stinging hair. When skin brushes against the stinging
hairs, the bulbous tip of each hair readily breaks off, forming a sharp shaft that acts like a
hypodermic needle to inject the toxins into the skin, causing localized pain, reddish swelling,
itching and numbness.
Toxins thought to be involved include formic acid, histamine, acetylcholine and
5-hydroxytryptamine. The symptoms caused by these chemicals will last for a
few minutes to a few hours, and then resolve on their own.
Leaves are about 2-5 inches long with jagged edges.
Leaves are found in opposing pairs along the upper half of the stalk.
Leaves are pointed at the tip with a heart-shaped base and indented vins
The plant will have small 'hairs' up the stak and stems
Stems are slender and approximately square in cross section.
Grows in dense clusters.
Stinging Nettle plants are edible however they must be dried or cooked to be safe to eat
for most people. You should NOT eat fresh leaves, as they may cause irritation.
Stinging nettle’s leaves and root provide a wide variety of nutrients, including:
- Vitamins: Vitamins A, C and K, as well as several B vitamins
- Minerals: Calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and sodium
- Fats: Linoleic acid, linolenic acid, palmitic acid, stearic acid and oleic acid
- Amino acids: All of the essential amino acids
- Polyphenols: Kaempferol, quercetin, caffeic acid, coumarins and other flavonoids
- Pigments: Beta-carotene, lutein, luteoxanthin and other carotenoids
It has been grown, foraged, and harvested for thousands of years. Documented accounts
of its use date as far back as 1200 BC, and its uses are widespread. Nettle fabric was used
by Europeans and Native Americans for linens and sailcloth as early as the 16th and 17th
Today, it is still commonly used as a textile similar to hemp or flax. Fibers can be dried,
pounded, and twisted into rope or cloth. The finished product can range from fine and soft
to thick and rough.
The nettle leaves are extremely high in nutrients and make a delicious tea. The flavor is sweet
and salty, with a pleasant, earthy taste. One cup of tea infused for 4-12 hours contains
approximately 500 milligrams of calcium in a highly bioavailable form so it is easy for the body
to absorb and put to use.
Nettle is very similar to spinach, in regards to the way it tastes and combines with other food.
The leaves can be steamed or cooked; once the leaves are cooked, they lose their sting.
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