If you’re planning on hiking, camping, or being out in the Great Outdoors this summer, you would do well knowing how to identify our nettlesome, herbal friend, Stinging nettle, Urtica dioica.
Nettles can be irritating, vexing villains, deliciously nutritious spring soups, or beneficial medicinal tonics, depending upon whether you accidentally brush across them or intentionally and purposefully harvest them. They are iron-rich herbs and Culpeper, the ancient herbalist, recommended the use of nettles to “…consume the phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man, that the coldness and moisture of winter have left behind.” Eesh.
You might think that the whole “stinging” business implies that nettles have thorns or stingers like a bee. They don’t. Nettle leaves and stalks are covered with little hair-like filaments that can inject a surprisingly attention-getting cocktail of formic acid, histamine, and serotonin. Formic acid is the same stingy stuff that bees and ants inject when they are mad, but nettles only need to be lightly brushed by a hand, leg, or, god forbid, unsuspecting bare hindquarters to inflict their sting. Oddly, if the plants are plucked quickly and forcefully, those eensy little hairs can’t penetrate the skin.
But here’s where nature’s fancy wonder comes in. The very same nettles that can sting and cause painful welts also have antihistamines inside the plant to counteract your body’s painful histamine response to them. Amazing, right? If you grab the leaves firmly, the little hairy thingies can’t penetrate the skin. But if you’re fearful and tentatively brush your skin across them you’ll know about it. Since my nettles are so dense, I always wear my adorable red rubber boots, long sleeves, and ever-so elegant yellow rubber gloves. But I know many experienced herbalists who harvest nettles with no protection on their hands. It’s all about intention. Don’t let the nettle stare you down, let them know who’s boss.
So if you ever have a painfully accidental brush with a nettle, relief is right at hand. And I mean immediately there at the end of your hand. Quickly and forcefully, remembering who’s boss, grab a leaf. There’s no point being frightened at this point. The deed is done, so bolster your courage, and get in there! Squeeze the leaf it until you release the juice and rub it vigorously into the stingy places. I always go for a second application for good measure.
Nettles are harvested to eat in the early spring before the plants' flower. After they begin to set on flowers, there is too much silica in them and they are not good to eat. But don’t worry about stings if you’re going to eat them, the formic acid is removed when cooked, making tasty calcium- and iron-rich treat. Some say they taste like spinach, but I think they have much more flavor and rich heartiness.
Stinging nettles protect their delicate little selves by stinging blundering passersby. Irritating when you brush across them on a peaceful hike in the woods? Yes. But being the amazing medicine they are, they have the ability built right into the plant to repair the discomfort they caused.
How cool is that? Thank you, Mama Nature!