Pull Up Your Plants: Stinging Nettle

Urtica dioica

Family: Urticaceae (Nettle family)

Aliases — Great Nettle

Binomial Etymology: Urtica means “a nettle;” dio- denotes divinity or nobility [1]. –ica is a common suffix in plant nomenclature.

Binomial Pronounciation — Ert-icka Die-OH-tick-uh

USDA Classification —Both native and introduced.

Introduction

I was introduced to the stinging nettle as many children are: by accidentally touching it. While swimming in a lake near Brier, Washington, I was walking through the grass and stepped directly on a small plant. Wow! The sting packs a punch, but unbeknownst to many, this plant is an ancient food, medicine, and ally to humanity. The stinging properties that make the U. dioica so infamous are easily destroyed through cooking or drying. So well-known is this plant throughout history, there are relatively few common names to describe it. People have been talking about stinging nettle for millennia as a food and a very esteemed herbal medicine and its miscellaneous uses are legion.

Description

U. dioica can be anywhere from 1 to 9 feet tall. The leaves are opposite and coarsely toothed at the margins. Now, here is a big giveaway: the leaves are covered with tiny hypodermic needles which resemble hairs all over their surface. These contain histamine and formic acid which will be painfully injected into the skin of anyone who touches it [15]. The small green flower clusters can be found on the upper leaves.

Habitat

Unlike many other “weedy” plants, Urtica spp. Thrive in undisturbed soil with rich soil and partial shade. Often these plants are found by rivers or bodies of water.

Culinary Uses

Pliny the Elder touted the roots of Urtica spp as being effective at tenderizing meat [8]. The sprouts are said to be healthful and I can attest to the quality of their flavor [11]. The dried leaves of U. dioica make a fantastic caffeine-free stand in for tea. The tender/young leaves are used for making soup and as an overall stand-in for spinach.

Remedies

The Abnaki and Quinault peoples used Urtica spp, in powdered form, as a snuff to treat nosebleeds; the Bella Coola, Chehalis, Paiute, Pomo, Kashaya, Tanaina, and Quileute peoples used the plant to combat rheumatism by stinging/whipping areas affected by arthritis; the Cowlitz, Lummi, Quinault, and Squaxin peoples gave an infusion of the plant to women to aid in childbirth [2]. The young shoots were considered diuretic (urine stimulating) and scurvy preventing in the early American medical lexicon [3]. The stinging nettle was reported to be used to produce an “herbalist’s beer” presumably as an astringent diuretic tonic [4][9]. Southern Confederate peoples reported the use of this plant to combat rheumatism in much the same way the Native American’s used the plant [5]. The stinging nettle was used to combat dropsy and to treat festering wounds [8]. A fistful of seeds placed into a bottle of claret was used to combat the symptoms of colic [9]. An electuary was made of the nettle adding one part of nettle leaves with double the weight of wine mixed with honey [9]. A decoction of nettle was said to combat the symptoms of diarrhea, dysentery, hemorrhoids, scurvy, gravel, kidney and bowel complaints, and bleeding [10]. The juice of nettles was used in medieval times to combat tuberculosis [11]. Nettle soup was prescribed by early medical practitioners to bring about sleep, to alleviate coughs, and gout [12]. A list this long, spanning many cultures and thousands of years, begs the question: does this oft-touted panacea of a plant carry medicinal properties that stand up to the rigors of science?

Pharmaceutical effects

Magic

Pliny the Elder mentioned that the stinging nettle was used in religious services and was thought to ward away illness for a full year [8].

History & Folklore

It is reported the Roman soldiers would flog themselves with stinging nettle to ward off the cold of winter and to warm the blood [9]. It is said that the Roman battalions would plant nettle in every area they were stationed and there the plant remained [11].

Recipes

Nettle Soup (1913) [13]

“Take quite young nettles, well washed,
and treat them like spinach. Boil them; keep a
little of the water in which they were boiled, and mix
with it milk and a little cream. Season to taste, and
thicken with a little corn-flour mixed smooth in cold
water.”

Literature

“…another might have said, whether he would still 
go on suffering the nettle to be drawn lightly over 
him, stinging him to madness, or whether he 
would grasp it in his naked hand boldly, and dare 
the issue.”
E. Lynn Linton (1822–1898)
“Tender-handed stroke a nettle,
And it stings you for your pains;
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains.”
 — Aaron Hill (1685–1750)
“In the clefts of the valleys must they dwell, in holes of the earth and of the rocks. 7Among the bushes they bray; under the nettles they are gathered together.”
— New American Standard Bible
“I have slept in nettle sheets and dined
off a nettle tablecloth and I have heard my mother say that she
thought nettle cloth more durable than any other linen.”
–Thomas Campbell (1777–1844)
“But if thou shouldst otherwise decree, then may all thy skin be frayed and torn with thy nails,
yea, and in nettles mayst thou couch!”
— Theocritus (3rd century B.C.).
“Such a cold and cough it gave me
That I was obliged to fly, and
In the shelter of your bosom
Cure myself with rest and nettles.”
— Persius (34–62 A.D.).

Nutrition

Nettle is rich in vitamins A, C, and D as well as manganese, potassium, calcium, and iron [14].

Miscellaneous

U. dioica is used in making a green dye for wool [6]. Stinging nettle fed to hunting hounds by the English [7]. It was also used widely as a fiber source in Scandinavia [9]. A decoction of nettles was said to be used like rennet for the utility of making cheeses, and even to gum up leaks in tubs or vats [9]. To make the rennet decoction, you must take one ounce of the herb and boil it with one pint of salted water [10]. Nettle mixed with alum was said to make a yellow dye for Easter eggs [9].

Poisonous Lookalikes


References

  1. Borror, D. J. (1960). Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms (1st ed.). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.
  2. Moerman, D. E., & Moerman, D. E. (2009). Native American medicinal plants: An ethnobotanical dictionary. Portland, Or.: Timber Press.
  3. Dunglison, R. (1839). Medical lexicon: a new dictionary of medical science, containing a concise account of the various subjects and terms; with a vocabulary of synonymes in different languages, and formulae for various officinal and empirical preparations, &c. Second edition, with numerous modifications and additions. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, successors to Carey and co..
  4. Teetgen, A. B. (1919). Profitable herb growing and collecting. 2nd ed. London: “Country life.”
  5. Porcher, F. Peyre. (1863). Resources of the southern fields and forests, medical, economical, and agricultural: being also a medical botany of the Confederate States; with practical information on the useful properties of the trees, plants and shrubs. Charleston: Evans & Cogswell, printers.
  6. Mairet, E. M. (1916). A book on vegetable dyes. Hammersmith W.: Published by D. Pepler at the Hampshire House Workshops.
  7. Cameron, L. Charles Richard Duncombe-Jewell. (1917). The wild foods of Great Britain, where to find them and how to cook them.London: G. Routledge & sons ltd..
  8. Henslow, G. (1905). The uses of British plants traced from antiquity to the present day: together with the derivations of their names. London: Lovell, Reeve & Co..
  9. Leyel, H. (Wanton) “Mrs. C. F. Leyel.”. (1938). Herbal delights: tisanes, syrups, confections, electuaries, robs, juleps, vinegars, and conserves. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
  10. Fair, W. Cooper., Kirk, A. Gitchell., Ritter, T. Jefferson., Barnum, R. Clarence. (1913). The people’s home library: a library of three practical books: The people’s home medical book, by T.J. Ritter; The people’s home recipe book, by Mrs. Alice G. Kirk; The people’s home stock book, by W.C. Fair. Cleveland, Ohio: R.C. Barnum Co..
  11. Lehner, E. (1962). Folklore and odysseys of food and medicinal plants. New York: Tudor Pub. Co.
  12. Jeaffreson, J. Cordy. (1875). A book about the table. London: Hurst and Blackett.
  13. Pearse, C. Maria de Candia. (1913). The kitchen garden and the cook: an alphabetical guide to the cultivation of vegetables, with recipes for cooking them. London: Smith, Elder & Co..
  14. Tilford, G. L. (1997). Edible and medicinal plants of the West. Missoula MT: Mountain Press Pub.
  15. Stinging Nettle. (n.d.). Retrieved May 07, 2017, from http://www.bio.brandeis.edu/fieldbio/Verrill_Wolf/pages/stinging_nettle.html
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