By Katie Koerten Gazette Contributing Writer
One of the botanical wonders I look forward to every spring is what many people consider a common weed: the stinging nettle. Despite being more homely than my favorite ephemeral wildflowers emerging at the same time — such as Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot and hepatica — I anticipate this plant’s appearance with just as much excitement.
While wildflowers possess a fragile beauty, the nettle’s appeal is more practical: It is highly nutritious and even medicinal. But many of us are familiar with the painful sensation that precedes these benefits. My first brush with nettle was on a hike in the Catskills with a friend near her family’s summer cabin. She told me to be careful of the “fire nettles” when I decided to wear shorts on our hike. My imagination conjured a brightly colored, menacing plant resembling a Venus’ flytrap. As we trekked through the damp mountain forest, sweeping through some seemingly nondescript weeds, I suddenly felt a burning pain on my legs. My friend’s nickname for the plant was apt. Tiny, painful blisters developed on my skin in a rash that lasted a few hours.
Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) possess the ultimate defense mechanism: urticating hairs. (Urticating means irritating, producing a stinging or itching sensation.) These microscopic hairs located along the stem and undersides of its leaves act as tiny hypodermic needles, which break off the plant on contact and inject a mixture of histamine, acetylcholine, formic acid and other irritating chemicals into the skin. As one botany teacher told me, nettle is one of the many members of the family Urticaceae sporting stinging hairs that really “’urt”!
Preferring moist soils, nettle can be found in waste places, roadsides and edge habitats. The plants can grow two to five feet high. Their pointed, heart-shaped leaves are deeply veined and toothed. Look closely and you can see the thorny looking hairs growing on the leaves and stem.
In early summer, long loose clusters of greenish golden flowers droop from the leaf axils (the upper angle where the leaf meets the stem) — male parts grow on one plant and female parts on another.
Nettles have been known as a nourishing edible and medicinal plant for thousands of years.
Found all over the world, they have been used for everything from kidney problems to allergies, from arthritic joints to the treatment of gout. Luckily for us, the sting disappears when nettles are cooked or dried (although I do know a few brave souls who have eaten the leaves raw by folding them up to avoid the stinging hairs!) Increasingly, nettles are ingested in various forms by allergy-sufferers in the springtime: as freeze-dried capsules, dried leaf teas and infusions, and cooked greens. Herbalists also use nettle as a general “spring cleaning” tonic; the plant is a known alterative, or blood cleanser, that can be used to detoxify the system. But you don’t have to have allergies to enjoy the benefits of nettles. Nettle tea is nourishing for anyone, plus it can be sautéed, added to soups, and there is even a recipe for nettle spanakopita!
As both an allergy sufferer and someone who is interested in eating a mineral-rich diet, I like to gather young shoots of the nettle plant in spring. I dry it and crumble it up to use as tea. It contains high amounts of vitamins A, C and K, as well as iron, potassium, manganese, chlorophyll, magnesium, zinc and calcium. These minerals can benefit not only your body but your compost pile as well. Nettles transplant easily, provided they have a moist habitat in which to thrive, and can add heat and nourishment to your compost.
If you decide to harvest nettle for your own use in the kitchen or as medicine, get permission from the landowner first. (Most people would probably be thrilled to have you trim back their prickly nettle patch!) But be careful: Unless you’d like to feel the exhilarating sting of the nettle for hours afterward, bring gloves and wear long sleeves and pants. With garden shears, cut the leafy tops of the plants before they go to flower. Use them in cooking as you would use spinach.
If you’d like to dry the plant for storage, keep the stalks in a paper shopping bag. Stuff the bag full, but make sure there’s room for air circulation. Close the bag, keep it in a cool, dry place, and check on it in a week or two. Then, remove the dried leaves and use as loose leaf tea.
Next time you’re out on a walk in the spring months, notice nettle patches and enjoy their hardiness and amazing adaptations. You may say “ouch” at first, but nettles are truly a medicinal and nutritional wonder. I would take the sting of nettles over the itch of poison ivy any day!
Katie Koerten is an environmental educator at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.
Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.Click here to return to full list of Earth Matters articles.