The stinging nettle, or common nettle (Urtica dioica), is a weed that can be found all over the world. It pops up, uninvited, into almost every garden and is possibly one of the most well known, and most hated plants on the planet. It flourishes almost anywhere, lies dormant in the winter and re-grows from underground stems in the spring. It grows up to 4 feet in height, has dark green serrated leaves and greenish-white flowers that hang down in clusters from the leaf nodes on the upper part of the plant.

The name urtica is derived from the Latin word urere which means to burn - anyone who has had a brush with a stinging nettle will know that feeling well! The leaves and stems of the plant are covered with tiny hairs which readily penetrate the skin, injecting a mixture of formic acid and histamine, resulting in a raised rash and burning pain lasting for up to 24 hours. This can be alleviated slightly by rubbing gently with a bruised dock leaf (which has alkaline sap) as soon as possible - try not to rub too hard though, because that aggravates the sting further!
Update: I have recently been told that the very best cure for nettle stings is the nettle sap itself. If you're feeling brave enough, and are convinced that the nettle is not really your mortal enemy, snap a juicy stem and apply the sap liberally to your stings. I have not tried this, but it comes on good authority (ie my mother).

Gardeners dislike nettles due to the fact that they grow rampantly, spreading by seed and underground stems (which look like roots), and they hurt if you touch them! If part of the fleshy underground stem is left behind after weeding, a new plant springs up from each bit. They are however very rich in nitrogen and make excellent compost and liquid fertilizer.

Attracting wildlife

Growing a patch of stinging nettles in the garden, especially in a warm, sunny spot, is a sure-fire way to attract ladybirds (ladybugs), shield bugs and butterflies. Butterflies lay their eggs on nettles because they are the favourite food of the caterpillars; also the nettles provide a good deterrent against many would-be predators. The cabbage whites may be unwelcome guests in the garden, but other nettle feeders include the peacock butterfly, commas, red admirals and small tortoiseshells. The best way to keep the nettle patch under control is to plant it in a submerged tub so that the roots can't spread. The caterpillars prefer young growth so cut down most of the nettle patch in late June or early July - you will find that it regrows rapidly.

Nettles as food

Stinging nettles are a food source rich in vitamins A and C, minerals such as iron, and protein. They lose their stinging ability when dried and make good food for farm animals. It is possible to pick nettles without being stung if they are grasped hard enough to force the stinging hairs flat so that they cannot penetrate the skin, but you have to be brave here - he who hesitates is lost, and the timid will be stung! Alternatively, you could always wear gloves.

In France nettles are eaten as a vegetable. They are gathered early in the season before the stems become tough and woody and when the leaves are still soft and bright green. Only the tips of the plant are used; they are picked, washed and cooked gently for about 20 mins without the addition of further water. When they are tender they may be finely chopped or pureéd and seasoned with a little salt, pepper and butter. The cooking denatures the 'sting' and they are a very nutritious addition to the diet.

Nettle beer can be made, which is a variation of ginger beer, and also nettle soup, nettle tea and nettle pudding. A traditional West Country cheese, Cornish Yarg, has a nettle leaf coating - the leaves are previously frozen to destroy the sting, and are used to stop the cheese drying out and to keep flies away.

Medicinal uses

There are many claims that stinging nettles have healing properties in addition to the benefits gained from its nutritional content.

The plant juices make a good addition to shampoo and have anti-dandruff properties.

Nettle tea is good for treating the symptoms of anaemia and is supposed to help flush impurities from the body. It is also good for asthma and other allergy-related conditions.

Native American healers used to hit the arms or legs of paralysed patients with nettles to stimulate their muscles. Roman soldiers used this method to warm their bodies and restore circulation in cold weather. This technique is also used world wide to relieve pain (!).

Nettle products are diuretic, probably due to high levels of potassium and may be used in treatment of urinary problems; also helpful in the treatment of symptoms (but not the actual swelling) of an enlarged prostate gland. Patients with weak hearts or kidney problems should not consume this product.

Scientific studies are on-going into the use of nettles in the treatment of arthritis. Stewed stinging nettles have been shown to enhance the effect of the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac. Flagellation with stinging nettles relieves pain in the affected limb/s.

Nicholas Culpeper, a 17th century astrologer-physician, wrote: " The roots or leaves, or the juice of them, boiled and made into an electuary with honey and sugar, is a safe and sure medicine to open the passages of the lungs, which is the cause of wheezing and shortness of the breath. It helps to expectorate phlegm and to raise the imposthumed pleurisy. As a gargle it helps the swelling of the mouth and throat. A decoction of the leaves provokes the courses and urine and expels gravel and stone. It kills worms in children, eases pain in the sides and dissolves wind in the spleen. The seed taken as a drink is remedy against the bites of dogs and the poisonous qualities of Hemlock, Henbane, Nightshade and Mandrake. The bruised seed or leaves put into the nostrils takes away the polypus. The juice of the leaves or a decoction of the root is used as a wash for fistulas and gangrenes and for corroding scabs or itch."

It is extremely important to visit your doctor to get any medical symptoms checked out. Never rely solely on the use of nettle products, or any other herbal remedy to treat what may be a potentially serious diseases.
Do not use nettle products when pregnant or nursing.

An excellent dish to try for those of you with an excess of stinging nettle in your yard, or those of you who want to get back to nature. When gathering the nettle, be sure to wear gloves. While you may now be asking yourself "why would I eat a plant that I can't touch with my bare hands?" Here is your answer, better eaten then reproducing in your yard! Anyway, after the nettle is cooked it doesn't sting anymore. However, for those of you who insist on making your own mistakes, keep some burdock leaf handy. If you rub the burdock leaf on the skin that came in contact with the stinging nettles it will bring instant relief.

This dish has a taste very similar to asparagus. Oh, and if you're not an onion fan, I still suggest cooking with the onions because of the flavor. However, to avoid eating the onions, chop them into pieces big enough to avoid with your fork.

Cooked Stinging Nettles
2 to 3 cups boiling water
1/4 to 1/2 cup fresh chopped onion
1 pinch sea salt and pepper or lemon pepper
3 cups chopped stinging nettles
fresh lemon or lime juice or vinegar
Bring the water to a boil. Put in the chopped onion and the salt. After the salt is dissolved, add the chopped nettles.
(When you gather them, collect only the top 4-6 inches of YOUNG spring nettles for best results.)
Boil the vegetables until they no longer have their stinging qualities, this will take about 5 minutes. Drain off the liquid. Serve hot and topped with butter, several drops of lemon juice, onions (optional), and season to taste.

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