Today I weeded my very overgrown flower garden, and learned (the hard way) that stinging nettles are the most common weed there. But despite the fire in my hands that lasted for several minutes, I was so grateful to find them!
Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a fast-growing wild plant common across all of North America, though it prefers the moist, forested soil of the Pacific Northwest. People have been using nettles for food, medicine, fiber, and dyes since the Bronze Age.
Stinging nettles get their name from the fact that their leaves are covered with tiny sharp needles that release a painful combination formic acid, histamine, acetylcholine, serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine), plus other unknown compounds. Some of these substances are destroyed by cooking, steeping, or drying, but not by freeze-drying or juicing.
Although gardeners and hikers have historically avoided stinging nettles, the plant has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity as people rediscover its health benefits in cooking and herbal medicine.
Stinging nettle has a flavor similar to spinach, and is rich in vitamins A, C, D, K, and many minerals including iron, potassium, manganese, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, silica, iodine, silicon, sodium, and sulfur. Nettles also provide chlorophyll and tannin, and they’re a good source of B complex vitamins.
Stinging nettle has high levels of easily absorbed amino acids, and they’re ten percent protein—more than any other vegetable!
I like to pick nettles in large quantities so I can juice them, steam them, freeze them, or put them in soups and other dishes. I also dry them for tea, and tincture them in alcohol.
How to Use Stinging Nettles for Health
Nettles are a traditional food for people with allergies, but lest you think they are just a “folk remedy,” a randomized, double-blind study at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon showed that 58 percent of hay-fever sufferers given freeze-dried nettles rated it moderately to highly effective.
As an expectorant, nettles are recommended for asthma, mucus conditions of the lungs, and chronic coughs. Nettle tincture is also used for flu, colds, bronchitis and pneumonia. Nettle infusion from young leaves is a safe, gentle diuretic—considered a restorative for the kidneys and bladder, and used for cystitis and nephritis. Nettles are also a great blood tonic and a helpful part of any detox regimen.
Nettle tea compresses or finely powdered dried nettles are also good for wounds, cuts, stings, warts, and burns. Other uses include treating gout, glandular diseases, poor circulation, enlarged spleen, diarrhea, and dysentery, worms, intestinal and colon disorders, and hemorrhoids. Nettles are usually used along with other herbs that target the affected organs.
It is no accident that the commercial hair- and skin-care products found in health food stores often list stinging nettle as an ingredient. Because nettles are high in silica and sulfur, eating nettles or drinking nettle tea can make your hair brighter, thicker and shinier, and make your skin clearer and healthier. Nettles are also good for eczema and other skin conditions.
Selection and Storage
Always collect nettles using work gloves, and wear a long-sleeved shirt. Also clean and chop nettles wearing rubber gloves. Once you’ve cooked them a little (or even soaked them in hot water for a bit), the stingers are deactivated, and the plant becomes wonderfully edible.
The young leaves are the best part of the plant. After the plant flowers, the leaves become bitter and can irritate the bladder and kidneys, so pick nettles when they are young and tender, and harvest only the top four inches of the plant.
It might seem a bit scary, but fresh nettles can be eaten raw. But be cautious and be sure to neutralize the formic acid that can sting you. Use your teeth, blender, mortar and pestle, or juicer to crush nettle leaves and eliminate their sting. Try using fresh nettles the next time you make a green juice or smoothie. Use freshly crushed nettle in soup and salad recipes too.
If you do get stung, use scotch tape to remove any stingers and neutralize the acidic burn by applying a basic paste made from crushed nettle leaves (indeed!), jewelweed, dock leaves OR baking soda. In a pinch, vinegar or urine can help too.
You can dry nettles for tea or tinctures either by hanging bunches of it upside down in a cool, dry place, or by using your dehydrator. Either way, wash the leaves right after harvesting. If using a dehydrator, wear gloves and remove the leaves from the stem. Allow the leaves to air dry for about 30 minutes or pat dry with paper towel.
Place the leaves in your dehydrator, spreading them out on the rack in single rows, making sure to not pile the leaves on top of each other. Keep enough space between each leaf so there is good air circulation. Dehydrate for 8 to 10 hours or until the leaves are completely dry (to avoid mold). If necessary, rotate the tray a few times through out dehydrating. Store in an airtight container until ready to use.
Nettles can be used as a nutrient-dense substitute in any dish calling for spinach or kale, but here’s a great way to enjoy them on their own, as found in The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook.