Stinging Nettle: Wild Food and Medicine Nourishes and Heals the Whole BodyBeverley Gray June 3, 2014
(The following is an excerpt from The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North; Aroma Borealis Press; 2011; adapted for publication in Vitality Magazine)
Funnily enough, the word “nettle” made its way into the English language as part of the folk expression, “What the nettle!” probably because that is what you say after being stung by one! Getting stung by nettle is a not so gentle reminder that this plant is vital, healthy, and that it has its defense mechanisms in place.
I always have nettle at hand in a few different forms. I like making the tincture every summer as it’s an excellent remedy for allergies. Growing nettles in your home garden is easy and it provides a lot of food and medicine throughout the summer.
Stinging nettle grows wild in thickets near stream banks, disturbed soils, and rich, damp soils. Found from Newfoundland to Alaska, and south into the United States. Urtica dioica was introduced from Europe; it has only patchy distribution in the Yukon, and is most frequently found around settlements, old historical sites, and homesteads. Found in Old Crow and as far north as Rampart House on the Porcupine River, another nettle species, U. gracilis, is native to the Yukon.
In late spring or early summer, prune leaves off the top half of the plant and gather fresh leaves as they appear. This way your favorite patch will provide you with fresh green leaves throughout the summer. Later in the season, after its drooping flower clusters appear, gather only the top leaves.
Autumn seeds can be gathered from wild plants to seed your garden but, as nettle seeds have a slow germination rate, you may have more success by digging up a new spring seedling for transplanting.
There are lots of things you can do with nettles! A few years ago, the guys at the Yukon Brewing Company and I formulated The Aroma Borealis Herbal Cream Ale that sold in Yukon liquor stores for more than four years and included an infusion of nettle, fireweed, rosehip, and mint.
Chlorophyll-rich nettle strengthens and supports the whole body, specifically the digestive, respiratory, urinary, and glandular systems. Its antihistamine properties make nettle good to ingest as a tea, capsule, or tincture for the classical symptoms of allergies such as sneezing and itchy watery eyes. People who have eczema can also benefit from including nettle in their herbal repertoire. Nettle leaf helps with the inflammation of arthritis, gout, kidney irritations, and can be made into nourishing syrup or a tea infusion for anemia.
Nettle-leaf tea is also an effective spring tonic and cleansing herb because it acts as a blood purifier. It helps the efficiency of the kidney and liver, and is a mild laxative and diuretic.
Nettle root is a great preventive remedy for men. In recent clinical trials the extract from the root of nettle has been proven as a treatment for symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), a non-cancerous growth of the prostate gland.
For women, the leaf juice acts as a diuretic and is an excellent remedy for premenstrual water retention. It’s also useful for excessive bleeding during menstruation.
When we are under stress we tend to be overly acidic; nettle juice or tea can help balance out the acid-alkaline ratio in the body.
Due to its high vitamin K content, fresh nettle can be used to stop all types of bleeding, though the vitamin K is diminished when the plant is dried. Topically, cooled nettle tea acts as an astringent and can be used as an anti-inflammatory for red and irritated skin. As well, the tea can be ingested to treat excessive mucus caused by allergy-induced lung irritations.
Herbalist Robert Rogers mentions that the ripe seed tincture clears excess creatinine from urine in seven to ten days and that it’s a powerful herb for use in chronic nephritis (inflammation of the kidney).
Nettle is also made into a homeopathic remedy called Urtica urens, used generally for hot, stinging, painful and itchy rashes, itchy blotches, chicken pox, burns and scalds, prickly heat, and rashes due to allergic reactions.
The seventeenth-century physician and astrologer Nicholas Culpeper recommended the use of nettles to: “Consume the phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man that the coldness and moisture of winter has left behind.” He also prescribed the juice of the leaves as a treatment for gangrene and scabies.
Nettle as a Medicinal Food
Nettle is a tasty, nutritious herb that adds a nice boost of vitamins, minerals, and protein to any meal. Some people use it as a replacement for spinach, though the texture is very different (but interesting). The leaves can be used in many different ways including fresh as a juice, added to soups and stir-fries, steamed (save the water for tea), and as a nice side dish. I lightly fry the first harvest of the season with garlic, butter, dandelion flowers, and fireweed shoots – a yummy burst of wild flavour!
A juice can be made by adding fresh leaves to a blender and covering with water. Once liquified, strain out the plant matter, and take the juice in tablespoon portions: Add one to two tablespoons to a cup of water, drinking up to three cups of the diluted juice a day. The leftover juice can be frozen in ice cube trays and then placed in a bag in the freezer until needed for medicinal or nutritive purposes. The ice cubes can either be added to hot water to make a tea or just placed in room-temperature water and drunk when melted. I like to add the cubes to soups and my morning smoothies. Nettles are a great addition to any food recipe. I like to keep ground dried nettles on hand because they are so high in chlorophyll, minerals (including iron), and plant protein. After grinding the dried nettle leaves, keep stored in an airtight, dark container. Storing in the fridge or freezer keeps them really fresh. Ideally, it’s best to keep the dried leaf whole and grind it as needed, but sometimes it’s more convenient to have it pre-ground.
Interestingly enough, if you get a little kitchen cut, you can apply a dab of the dried nettle powder to help stop the bleeding.
If you’re worried about getting stung while eating nettles, don’t be! Cooking, drying, chopping, crushing, and juicing work to neutralize the acid and disable the stinging hairs. Also, soaking nettles in water will remove the formic acid from the plant, allowing them to be handled and eaten without incident.
Nutritional Profile & Myriad Uses
Nettle is high in calcium, magnesium, chlorophyll, iron, vitamins A, C and D, zinc, potassium, chromium, cobalt, niacin, phosphorus, manganese, and silica. It also contains 2,900 mg of calcium per 100 g of dried nettles, according to chemist Mark Pedersen in his book Nutritional Herbology.
Nettle is used by many producers of natural hair-care products to control dandruff and keep hair healthy and shiny. At home you can make a healthy hair rinse with a strong infusion of nettle tea.
Steve Johnson, founder of the Alaskan Flower Essence Project and author of The Essence of Healing, says that stinging nettle helps people who are highly sensitive “stay connected to the Earth and to their feelings; promotes reconnection and grounding after being overwhelmed by too much input; enables us to absorb and process energetic information and input in alignment with our capacity to integrate it; for those who have been hurt deeply in the past and have a tendency to sting and repel those they really want to be close to; helps to heal the alienation that comes from fear of being hurt again.”
Adding nettle to your compost pile will help activate decomposition because nettles contain nitrogen. You can also add it to compost tea for watering your vegetables.
Harvest and Recipes
Leaves: spring and early summer. Roots: early spring and late autumn. Seeds: as they mature. When harvesting nettle it’s important to wear gloves because the plants are covered with tiny hairs that contain formic acid. When the hairs come into contact with your skin they sting (hence the name “stinging nettle”!). If you don’t have gloves, and want to avoid being stung, grab the stem with pressure to crush the hairs flat and prevent them from penetrating the skin.
If you do get stung, not to worry: the antidote is usually growing nearby. To treat the itching and hives-like response, make a spit poultice of horsetail, dock, or plantain leaf. If these aren’t in the vicinity, apply moistened baking soda when you get home.
After stinging nettle enters its flowering and seed-setting stages, the old leaves develop gritty particles called “cystoliths” that can irritate the urinary tract if eaten or ingested as a tea.
Nettle Tincture – A remedy that helps prevent allergies and is an overall tonic for the body.
1 part nettle leaves + 2 parts vodka
Put nettles leaves in a jar. Cover with vodka and let steep for 30 days. Shake every day.
Green Bouillon – A light, nourishing soup
3 cups broth of your choice (vegetable, chicken, wild game, or miso)
1-1/2 cups young nettle shoots, washed
Salt and Pepper (optional)
If you are using miso, do not bring to a boil, just heat it and add the other ingredients, keeping it at low temperature to let the ingredients warm and meld. Otherwise, in a saucepan bring broth to a boil, reduce to simmer, and add nettle shoots.
Simmer with lid on for about 2 minutes or until nettle is tender. Add salt and pepper if desired.
If the flavour is too strong, add water or more broth. Serve with croutons and chopped chives. (Makes 4 bowls of soup.)
Beverley Gray is the author of the national bestselling and international award winning book, The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North, Aroma Borealis Press (2011) She is also the author of, A Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants of Canada, published by Harbour Publishing (2013). Beverley loves to share her passion for wild medicinal plants through herb walks, talks and medicine making. She has inspired many to start making their own medicines, natural cosmetics and foods from the plants that grow locally as her way to help bring awareness to the environment, conservation, and sustainable usage of natural resources. Visit <a href="https://www.aromaborealis.com/">www.aromaborealis.com</a>, <a href="http://borealherbal.com/">www.borealherbal.com</a>