Stinging nettle (Urtica spp.) has come to be one of the more popular wild greens of the spring and early summer. It often pops up at farmer’s markets and on farm-to-table menus. Its inherent wildness, culinary versatility, and impressive nutrient density make it quite an attractive plant! If you’re lucky enough to have come across it in the wild, you probably know it by its sting too. While not particularly flashy or showy, the stinging nettle health benefits and uses are incredibly abundant!
For centuries, nettle has nourished the health and vitality of the people. If feeling tired or depleted, stinging nettle is one of the best herbs to bring into your day.
HERE YOU’LL FIND:
Stinging Nettle Folklore
How to Identify Stinging Nettle
Stinging Nettle Health Benefits & Medicinal Uses
Stinging Nettle as a Food
Other Uses for Stinging Nettle
Possible Side Effects
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The Old Lady with the Broomstick
Michael Moore, a renowned and highly revered herbalist, once described the spirit of stinging nettle as a spunky old lady on a mission. She’s full of fire and fierce love and carries an old, splintered broomstick. With this broomstick, she’ll vehemently shoo you out of your comfort zone.
She’ll yell for you to get up off your tushie and make yourself useful. Get up! Get going! Don’t just sit there; do something!
She’s a plant that’s full of tough love. But behind the sting, there’s all the sweet nurturing of a granny who takes her grandmotherly duties with the utmost seriousness. She’s not afraid to let you know that there’s work to be done.
She’s one of those plants that once you know, you’ll never forget. Every time I see stinging nettle, I see the old lady and her splintered broomstick too.
How to Identify Stinging Nettle
Nettle is a native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa, but has become naturalized in many places across the world.
You’ll most often find stinging nettle in shaded areas full of moisture, oftentimes near running water. It spreads out easily in all directions and likes to form thick patches no discerning bare-legged person would ever brave.
Short prickly hairs that sting on contact cover every inch of the nettle plant.
Juliet Blankespoor of Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine calls stinging nettle the Emerald Queen, and that she is. She’s vibrant and green and reigns with an equal blend of sternness and sweetness.
In identifying nettle, the characteristic sting can be a dead giveaway. However, there are other species, some from different plant families, that sting just the same. When searching for stinging nettle, it’s important to look closely for other key identifiers.
The most common species of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica, often called Common or European Nettle) has opposite triangular leaves with large pointed teeth. Their prominent venation gives the leaves a pillowy kind of texture. The stem is loosely square-shaped with grooves that run its length and prickly hairs cover the entire plant.
The flowers are very tiny, greenish or brownish. They grow in dense clusters out from where the leaves emerge from the stem.
At the base of each leaf node (where the leaves meet the stem), there are 4 characteristic antennae-like appendages just under the leaves. You’ll see stinging nettle grow 3-5 feet tall at maturity, and she can spread infinitely wide via her underground rhizomes.
Stinging Nettle Health Benefits & Medicinal Uses
Stinging nettle has been in our herbal medicine repertoire for centuries! And with the advances in modern science, we’ve been able to prove the efficacy of many of the traditional stinging nettle health benefits and medicinal uses.
Today, stinging nettle is most commonly used as the following:
- Nutritive Tonic (very high in minerals!)
- Alterative (works to optimize our processes of metabolism to increase overall health and vitality)
- Alkalinizing Agent (helps to manage low pH and the health effects of having a low body pH)
- Vulnerary (wound healing)
- Urinary Tract Tonic
Here’s a sneak peak into some of the research behind stinging nettle’s more common medicinal applications.
Nettle & Inflammation
Used either internally (as an extract) or externally as a topical cream or ointment, stinging nettle has been used as an anti-inflammatory in the treatment of sprains and strains, joint pain, and even insect bites.
Studies have also shown that nettle acts in a similar way that pharmaceutical anti-inflammatories do in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, suggesting that it may be a safer (without side effects) alternative to traditional arthritis treatments.
And perhaps one of the most interesting uses of stinging nettle is the practice of urtication. Urtication is a traditional therapy that involves applying fresh leaves topically. The welts caused by the sting and irritation of hairs left behind in the skin stimulate circulation and an immune response that may bring healing and pain relief to stiff, rheumatic, or paralyzed limbs.
Nettle & Seasonal Allergies
Beyond its incredible nutrition, stinging nettle’s most well-known use might just be as an anti-allergy. While much more research is needed to understand the exact mechanism, studies have shown that stinging nettle’s anti-inflammatory properties may play a big roll in helping with seasonal allergies.
Stinging nettle’s natural histamine content also works to prevent certain inflammation pathways that can lead to allergy symptoms.
One 2017 study, however, showed nettle to have positive effects on allergy symptoms, but not much more so than the placebo. Albeit, the study was very small (40 people) and only lasted for 30 days. The researchers concluded that the positive results were enough the conduct further studies that were bigger and for longer periods of time.
Nettle is used in a variety of ways to treat seasonal allergies. For example, it can be used as an infusion or tea, freeze-dried in capsules, and as a tincture (an alcohol extract). How much and how often depends on the person and the severity of their symptoms. Alternatively, many herbalists use stinging nettle as a preventative, for a few months or so leading up to the start of allergy season.
Nettle & Prostate Health
Studies have also shown nettle to be an effective treatment for reducing the symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). BPH is an enlargement of the prostate gland and is a common condition that effects 90% of men over age 60.
Nettle root has demonstrated to help reduce the obstruction to urinary flow, as well as to decrease the need for nighttime urination.
Nettle & Kidney Health
As a diuretic, nettle may help to promote healthy urination. Accordingly, it’s often used to treat urinary tract infections (UTIs), as well as to help prevent kidney stones.
And in addition to its natural diuretic properties, nettle’s anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory also make it an ideal herbal remedy for UTIs.
Stinging Nettle as a Food
Many a person has touted stinging nettle as quite possibly the most nutrient dense green vegetable in the entire Western Hemisphere. In addition to being a good source of dietary fiber, nettle is full of protein. In fact, nettle’s protein content is said to rival that of any other native plant.
Nettle is rich in several different types of antioxidant polyphenols, vitamins A, C, and K, and minerals including iron, manganese, potassium, and calcium. Based on data, stinging nettle is likely one of the richest sources of minerals amongst the plant foods.
Often compared to spinach in taste and versatility, nettle meets all the essential amino acid needs for us humans. Nettle is often referred to as “nature’s vitamin” and it’s not hard to see why.
Soups, stews, wild green pestos, and quiches are all great ways to incorporate nettles into your diet. Nettle also makes delicious tea and it’s easy to sneak into chocolate cake too. It’s a nutrient dense spring tonic uniquely designed by nature to replenish your winter-weary cells.
Other Stinging Nettle Uses
Nettle As A Valuable Fiber Crop
In addition to its long history of use as a food and medicine, stinging nettle also has a long history of use in textiles.
In ancient times as far back as the Bronze Age, stinging nettle was used as a fiber crop. There are ancient remains of burial shrouds, fishing nets, sailcloth, and cordage/rope, all made from the fibers of stinging nettle.
Nettle makes a strong and durable fiber similar to both hemp and flax. It’s also both stronger and softer than cotton. In The Book of Herbal Wisdom, Michael Moore writes that through both World Wars, Germany resorted to making their uniforms from nettle fiber when the country was cut off from cotton sources. These uniforms are still in good condition today!
Unfortunately, while still used all around the world as a fiber source, nettle fiber is too labor intensive to produce on a large scale.
Stinging Nettle Side Effects & Cautions
- Possibility of Allergic Reactions: When the hairs brush up against your skin, they split open and release formic acid, the same substance excreted when an ant bites. If you were wondering, that’s what it feels like, an army of microscopic ants releasing their fury on the surface of your skin.
The sting can have an effect that lasts anywhere from a few hours to several days and can range from mildly annoying to incredibly uncomfortable or painful and blistery.
- Contraindicated with Some Prescription Medications: Because nettle acts as a natural diuretic, it may be unsafe to consume while also experiencing kidney disease (or with kidney transplant) or taking prescription diuretics. Prescription blood thinners or blood pressure medication may also raise concern.
- Pregnancy and/or Nursing: Always consult with a licensed practitioner when consuming medicinal herbs.
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DISCLAIMER: The information given in this article is intended for educational purposes only. Always consult with your healthcare practitioner before consuming certain herbs & medicinal foods, especially if pregnant, nursing, or taking any prescription medications.
Hi! I don’t have a source of fresh nettles, would it be possible to rehydrate dried nettle for use in food?
Hi Dawn! I think it would depend on what you’re using it for. Dried nettles would be nice in soups, stews, broths, and teas. There is a slight difference in nuance of flavor, but nothing major. Regardless, you can always use absolutely any other dark leafy green in place of nettles. A very common substitute is fresh spinach. I hope that helps!