SpruceRoots Magazine - July 2001



by Erica Thompson

My most memorable encounter with stinging nettles was not good. On my way to a morning paddle, I slipped into the woods to change into swim trunks when misfortune stuck, or more like when I struck it. In the midst of changing my clothes, I began wobbling on one foot while the other was caught up in a pant leg. I started turning in circles and then I stumbled, blundered really, right into the teeth of the green dragon, bare bottomed as only bare bottomed can be.

Since that incident, I have learned nettles are superior greens, packing a nutrient punch in their leaves and roots more impressive than even their sting. Whether your pleasure is tonics, teas for you and the garden, or simply steaming the tender young shoots for dinner, stinging nettles benefit both the body and taste buds. Delicious and vitamin loaded, they are the perfect spring green to blast the winter blahs away!

In Latin, stinging nettles are called Urtica dioica. Uritca meaning 'to burn', and dioica, translating to 'two houses' referring to the sexually specific male and female plants.

These perennials are most commonly found growing in disturbed areas, such as roadsides, stream and riverbeds, and trail edges. In nitrogen-rich loamy soils they have been known to tower seven feet. The mauve tinged leaves are pointed, long, sharply toothed growing in opposites along the stem. The greenish white flowers are inconspicuous and bloom from June to September with the female flowers developing later into seeds adapted for wind fertilization.

Male flowers exhibit only stamens and the fertile female flowers only have pistol or seed producing organs. Nettles also reproduce via rhizomes or underground roots, which shoot out to the side of the parent plant.

The hairs on the downy stalk and leaves closely resemble quills, they are hollow rising from a swollen base wherein small cells containing formic acid are housed. This acid, which causes the stinging sensation, is a mixture of histamine, serotonin and choline; the same compounds found in ant saliva. Remedies are usually close by, housed in sword ferns, sage and mint leaves or even human spit. Most substances which are base will neutralize the formic acid relieving stinging sensations.

The seasoned nettle collector who first introduced me to the edible greens graciously shared her favorite grounds located by telephone poles and beach pulloffs along highway 16. Equipped with scissors, paper bags, gloves and a keen eye for the tender young nettle tops, collecting them is fun and a great way to celebrate the arrival of spring's first fresh greens - but act on that spring fever. Late season harvests will produce, for even the most attentive cook, a pot of tough and gritty greens destined for the compost pile rather than dinner plates.

Young nettles are exceptional detoxifying greens rich in iron, calcium, carotene, magnesium, trace minerals, chlorophyll, B and C complex vitamins, vitamins D and K, and amino acids. Nettles cleanse and revitalize kidneys and the digestive system. They work as an antiallergenic in treating hay fever symptoms, insect bites as well as an anti-inflammatory reducing the pain associated with arthritis. The juice of the roots and leaves, mixed with honey or sugar, is said to relieve bronchial asthmatic troubles.

The leaves can be dried, crushed and steeped for a tea rich in vitamins and minerals or steamed and eaten with a cloud of butter, a splash of balsamic vinegar or just as they are. Remember not to throw out the cooking water, rather put it aside and sip it as an after dinner tea full of vitamin C and A.

The benefits of nettles don't end at the dinner table. An all natural fertilizer or green manure for gardens, flowerbeds and houseplants can easily be made by pouring hot water, not boiling, over a bucket of nettles allowing them to soak for a few days. To enhance soils and increase the productivity and oil content of herbs such as valerian, sage, marjoram, mint and angelica plant one nettle to 10 of the other plant. A concoction formed by boiling the green herb in a strong salt solution will curdle milk, providing cheese makers with a rennet substitute and better yet, this same liquid, when applied liberally into small seams in leaky wooden containers or buckets will make them once again watertight.

If the health attributes of the young nettle hasn't won you over, the world of the mature plant just might. Developed mature nettle stalks provide fibers known to be stronger than flax and similar to hemp and are used in making cord and cloths. Nettle fabric is as good and strong as canvas.

Stalks are best gathered after frost when they become brittle and the fibres strip away more easily than when young and green. Pounding the stalk helps loosen the chaff and makes it easier to get at the inner stringy fibres. One source says the stems must first be soaked until pliable and then pounded with a stone so that the fibres are more easily separated from the pith. Once dry, the fibres can be twisted or braided or spun to make cord for fishing nets, fishing line, rope or woven for cloth.
In 1998, world prices for nettle leaf were $4.00/lb (US) for non-medicinal use and $9.80 - $27.15/lb (US) for organically grown. Worldwide demand for nettle was estimated at 100 tons in 1996 and is gaining popularity as a specialty tea. Clairol uses more than 40 tons annually in manufacturing hair conditioners.

There is an essence of immortality to the Stinging Nettle. Nettle fabric has been found in burial sites dating back to the Bronze Age and the Tibetan God Milarepa (1012-1096), the great ascetic, poet, eccentric, hermit, magician and saint was known as the 'Green God.' For during his decades of meditation he often survived on nothing but nettles and it is told his hair and skin turned green and he lived to the age of 83.

Folklore says nettles in a pocket will keep a person safe from lightening strikes, provides courage to the carrier, and nettles kept in a room will protect all inside. Considering the power of the nutrients held within its leaves and the strength of the stalk's fibres it is easy to believe that having the perennial close by offers courage and protection.

SpruceRoots Magazine - July 2001

graphics and photo - InHouse/SRs