The Many Benefits of Nettle

One of the most useful plants to grow.

When the nettle is young, the leaves make excellent greens; when it grows old it has filaments and fibers like hemp and flax. Cloth made from the nettle is as good as that made from hemp. Chopped up, the nettle is good for poultry; pounded, it is good for horned cattle. The seed of the nettle mixed with the fodder of animals gives a luster to their skin; the root, mixed with salt, produces a beautiful yellow dye. It makes, however, excellent hay, as it can be cut twice in a season. And what does the nettle need? very little soil, no care, no culture; except that the seeds fall as fast as they ripen, and it is difficult to gather them; that is all. If we would take a little pains, the nettle would be useful; we neglect it, and it becomes harmful. Then we kill it. How much men are like the nettle! My friends, remember this, that there are no weeds, and no worthless men, there are only bad farmers.”

~ Victor Hugo

People never forget the first time they encounter stinging nettle: it leaves a painful memory!  For some, that first experience is embedded so deeply that it triggers an immediate reaction. While on a hike with several families, I pointed out stinging nettle and several of the people visibly moved away – as if the plant was going to attack them! But stay with me: I want you to meet and use the stinging nettle I have come to know and value. It’s an unassuming plant with a rich history of human use as a textile fiber, traditional medicine, food, and tea. 

Botany of Nettle

Stinging nettle (Urtica diocia) is a fast-growing herbaceous perennial native to the U.S. and Eurasia. It has settled extensively in temperate regions throughout the world, favoring places with an abundance of precipitation. It thrives in rich, damp soils, and you will often find it growing along pond and riparian edges as well as roadside ditches. Nettle has adapted to a variety of ecological niches and light conditions including forest edges, mountain meadows, shady lowlands, and even sagebrush deserts. Because of its preference for rich soil, nettle patches are considered an indicator of good soil. In northern Europe, nettle plants are often an indicator of historical human activity, with large patches growing near abandoned homesteads, farms, and buildings. 

It’s rather nondescript in appearance and you may have walked by it without stopping to notice it. Ranging in height of 2-7 feet on stiff, fibrous, square stalks with leaves that are opposite and coarsely toothed, nettle produces small inconspicuous flowers that bloom from May through September. The flowers become tiny green fruits that contain even tinier seeds. Its reputation as an aggressive plant is due to the quickly growing system of rhizomes and stolons that create colonies of nettle. Nettle will quickly find its way into the buried nutrition of old farm fields, hedgerows, barnyards, and gardens.

What it lacks in distinctive appearance, it makes up in its character. The plant is well-protected by tiny syringe-like hairs called trichomes that cover the stem and leaves. They react to immediate contact – even an accidental brief encounter creates a stinging sensation, reddens the skin, and if you are three years old, makes you cry! The trichomes act like a hypodermic needle, injecting histamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and formic acid into your skin. The inflammatory reaction (called contact urticaria) can last for a few hours or longer depending on the amount of contact and level of individual sensitivity. This explains why people move away from a patch of nettles!

Young nettle emerging in early spring (Photo: SK)
Young nettle emerging in early spring (Photo: SK)

A Plant of Many Uses

In permaculture, one of the design goals is to utilize, plants, strategies, and systems that are multifunctional and efficient. Nettle is a good example of a plant that is multifunctional: it’s used for food, medicine, as a rennet substitute in cheesemaking, nourishing tea, fiber for thread, nets, cloth, and paper, a green dye, and before there was hopped beer, there was nettle beer. Nettle has been used as nutritional fodder for domesticated animals and as a fertilizer in the garden. It attracts beneficial insects and serves as a plant host for the larvae (caterpillars) of several butterflies.

How to Harvest Stinging Nettle

If you haven’t harvested nettle before, you are probably wondering how you harvest them without incurring pain? Very carefully! Stinging nettle is one of the edible wild greens that heralds the return of spring and the best time to harvest the young leaves is before the plants have flowered. Donning long sleeves and gloves to avoid direct contact with the leaves and stems,  access the top half of a stalk, cutting at a leaf node, and then running a gloved hand along the stalk, stripping the leaves into a container. 

Nettle sting is neutralized by blanching, cooking, drying, and by alcohol and vinegar. The petioles (little stems that attach the leaves to the stem) are tough, and I prefer to trim them off the leaves. To dry nettle, leave the leaves on the stalk and hang each stalk in a dark space and then strip the leaves when thoroughly dried. Alternatively, you can strip the leaves and dry them in a dehydrator at the lowest setting (95°F) for 10-12 hours. Store dried nettle in glass jars. I don’t wash the leaves but if you do plan to wipe dry each leaf before drying or they will develop black spots.

Nettle In the Wild

In my arid landscape, I often find stinging nettle colonies in roadside ditches, and from a health perspective, I don’t advise harvesting from ditches. Ditches are designed to collect runoff from roads and that run-off likely contains an array of toxic chemicals that nettle will absorb. So ditch the ditch for wildcrafting any medicinal plants. (This also includes irrigation ditches where agricultural chemicals accumulate.)

Nettle patch (Photo: Public Domain Images: George Hodan)

But in damper areas along rivers and ponds, and in forests and fields, stinging nettle should be easy to find. Remember to follow the standard wildcrafting rules and ethics starting with knowing the land and whether it has been exposed to toxins.  

Nettle In the Garden

Given the lack of nearby nettle patches and the unknown factor of toxin exposure, I decided to direct sow nettle seed in a contained 4×8 drip-irrigated bed in my vegetable garden. I suspect that some readers are questioning my sanity: nettle can be a prolific weed in some regions and gardeners and farmers spend time and energy trying to eliminate it. 

With so many uses, cultivating stinging nettle in your garden is a wise investment but should be contained or it will move into places where you may not want it to live. Nettle likes nutritious soil that holds sponge-like moisture and mulching with compost or aged manure can serve both needs. As a perennial wild crop, it reliably shows up each spring and doesn’t require fertilizers or pesticides. Some gardeners recommend it as a companion plant for tomatoes and beans but that’s a bit too close for my harvesting comfort level. Don’t plant it near walking paths or play areas for obvious reasons. There are no pests associated with nettles and deer and other wild animals avoid nettles.

The first year nettle bed shared its space with onions and surprise potato plant. The nettle has been harvested several times but I left a few plants to flower and seed. I harvested the seed in October and made a tincture.

Nettle as a Chop and Drop Mulch

Stinging nettle is rich in nitrogen, chlorophyll, magnesium, iron, potassium, copper, zinc, and calcium and contains essential amino acids, proteins, flavonoids, and vitamins A, B1, B5, C, D, E, and K. Because of their high amount of nutrients, I use nettle plants as a “chop and drop” mulch on my vegetable beds. I cut the stripped nettle stalks into 3-5 inch lengths directly onto a bed until covered. This can be done throughout the growing season as nettle will continue new growth. (I also use this method with comfrey.) Chop and drop mulches protect the soil, regulate soil temperature, add organic material, feed the soil’s micro-organisms, and in the case of nettle, contribute a healthy dose of nutrients. Nettle can be used to make fertilizer tea – a smelly concoction of rotting plants in water – which is then diluted and applied to plants and soil. There is no science to support this as a specific fertilizer because the content levels of nutrients have not been assessed but it won’t hurt garden beds. 

Nettle as Food

Before refrigeration and a global food supply that distributes fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, early spring nettle and other wild greens were welcomed as a tonic of vitamins and minerals after a bland winter diet of dried grains, fruits, and meat.

Stinging nettle is a nutrient powerhouse. One 2013 study concluded: “Results show that processed nettle can supply 90%-100% of vitamin A (including vitamin A as β-carotene) and is a good source of dietary calcium, iron, and protein. We recommend fresh or processed nettle as a high-protein, low-calorie source of essential nutrients, minerals, and vitamins particularly in vegetarian, diabetic, or other specialized diets.”

I use cooked stinging nettle like cooked spinach: in soups, casseroles, lasagna, smoothies, spanakopita, pancakes, bread, stir-fries, and pesto. There are many recipes online. 

Nettle Soup (Image by Danna Shu from Pixabay)

In Stephen Harrod Buhner’s book, Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, he describes the history of ancient fermentation of which beer was one of the earliest products. In Europe, nettle beer was considered a tonic beer, with high amounts of vitamin C and iron, commonly drunk in spring and summer and given as a folk remedy to people who suffered from gout and joint pain.

My first taste of nettle was as a strong nourishing infusion and I immediately spat it out! Its grassy taste takes some time to adjust to but the benefits both nutritionally and medicinally are worth drinking a quart or two each week. Herbalists often recommend weekly nettle infusions to increase energy, strengthen bone mass, increase iron levels and support overall nutrition. 

Nettle as Medicine

I first discovered nettle medicinally when I suddenly developed a severe reaction to hay twenty years ago. When I say severe, I mean heavy congestion, sneezing, dripping, itching, swelling, and just plain misery. I was afraid to go outside in the spring and as a gardener, that simply was not an option. My herbal studies revealed that stinging nettle had the potential as a natural solution for seasonal allergies. Once I committed to drinking weekly nettle infusions, I noticed a significant reduction in my allergic reactions the following spring and summer. During late winter, I increase my intake of nettle infusions and use nettle seed tincture for my occasional and now-mild allergic symptoms. Nettle has a strong drying action and some people have difficulty with its effects which can include headaches.

Nettle offers the following plant properties: nutritive, alterative, diuretic, astringent, hemostatic, adaptogen, and trophorestorative (i.e., a tonic) for the kidneys and adrenals. Historically, nettle was used in traditional medicine for gout, diarrhea, dysentery, scurvy, kidney stones, rheumatism, and eczema. Modern research on nettle’s nutritive and medicinal qualities supports many of the traditional uses and is evaluating additional uses. Different parts of the stinging nettle plant offer differing medicinal qualities: 

  • Minimizes seasonal allergic symptoms (leaf)
  • Reduces inflammation associated with type 2 diabetes (leaf)
  • Improves energy levels (leaf)
  • Diuretic action relieves fluid congestion (leaf)
  • Supports urinary health (leaf)
  • May reduce the risk of kidney stones (leaf)
  • Supports kidney health (seed tincture and leaf)
  • Helps enlarged prostate symptoms (root)

Nettles & Urtication

Plant medicine can come in a variety of forms and urtication is one example. Years ago, I made a presentation on medicinal plants in the garden and mentioned stinging nettle for the many reasons I have already discussed here. Afterward, an elderly woman whose gnarled hands revealed the long-term effects of arthritis, approached me to share her use of nettle. Diagnosed as a child, her country doctor told her to visit a nettle patch once a week and rub her hands with nettle leaves. Half-jokingly, I replied, “That would definitely cause me to be distracted from my arthritic pain!”

But its effect on the body is, in fact, medicinal: contact with fresh nettle stimulates the skin, acting as a counter-irritant that motivates the nervous system to focus on the immediate stinging pain, rather than the chronic pain of joint diseases. Nettle sting increases the circulation to tissues which helps relieve stiffness and swelling. Though there are no clinical trials supporting the use of fresh nettles and their sting fluids as a treatment for joint pain, its historical use is consistent among both European and Indigenous people. This remedy is not one-size-fits-all: some people develop a more severe reaction to nettles and that discomfort is definitely an example of the idiom, “the cure is worse than the disease.” 

Nettles as Fiber

Long forgotten in the world of modern fashion, nettle, flax, and hemp were the primary fibers used to make everything from household linens, clothing, paper, to sailcloth. Evidence of nettle has been found in 30,000 archeological sites and cloth woven of nettle thread has been found in 5000-year-old burial sites. Like hemp and flax, nettle stems produce a bast fiber which is a fiber created from the cellulosic “inner bark” or the phloem of the plant’s stalk. The processing of the bast fiber is multi-stepped: 

  1. Stalks are retted (moistened to soften the stalk and fiber).
  2. The outer bark is stripped and the raw fibers are removed.
  3. Raw fibers are then soaked to remove the to de-gum the chemical binding substances.
  4. Fibers are washed, dried, and carded into a spinnable fiber.

Nettle fiber can be rolled to make cordage and rope which can then be used to make nets. It’s spun to make thread and yarn for textiles and its durability is one of its strengths. The leaves are used to make green dye and nettle roots produce a yellow dye. During WWI and WWII, when cotton shortages occurred, nettle was cultivated for fiber, including Germany’s military uniforms.

Nettle Yarb
Nettle Yarn (Photo: Sara Vinther Martinsen)

The craft of making nettle yarn is featured in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale The Wild Swans: the sister of twelve brothers who were changed into swans is told the only way she can rescue them is to harvest, process, spin, knit/weave, and then deliver a shirt for each brother to put on.

The cover of one of many retellings of the fairytale, The Wild Swans.
The cover of one of many retellings of the fairytale, The Wild Swans.

Folklorist and author, Terri Windling, has written several posts on stinging nettle for her website and in this paragraph, she describes metaphors that are analogous to this wild weed and women:

“Nettles, folk tales around the world agree, have long been associated with women’s domestic magic: with inner strength and fortitude, with healing and also self-healing, with protection and also self-protection, with the ability to “enrich the soil” wherever we have been planted. Nettle magic is steeped in dualities: both fierce and soft, painful and restorative, common as weeds and priceless as jewels. Potent. Tenacious. Humble and often overlooked. Resilient.”

~ Terri Windling

Nourishing Nettle Infusion Recipe

In a canning jar or French press, add 1 ounce of dried nettle leaves. A small handful of oatstraw can be added to help with nettle’s drying effects. Add a large pinch of lemon balm or mint to help the taste. Pour boiling water to fully cover and steep for 4-8 hours. Strain and store in the refrigerator. Drink within 24 hours.

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