The Herbal Guide to Using Stinging Nettles

If sleeping beauty was a gardener, she certainly would have pricked herself on stinging nettles. And if the fairy godmothers were foragers, they would use the plant to treat her stings and energize that sleepy girl. Stinging nettle, while a fair bit prickly, is one of the best plants out there for eating up and adding to the herbal cabinet.

nettle plant

Not so long ago, a recent reader on the blog mentioned how they plucked out all of the stinging nettles from their garden. Tired of the accidental stings on their hands while gardening, they decided the best place for the plant was the compost bin.

The same week I attended a local herb talk where I learned how some folks were using the stinging nature of the plant to treat arthritis. While the stings annoyed the reader, they were helping someone else manage their chronic pain.

It’s all in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it?

If you have stinging nettle lurking around your property, you may be in for a surprise. While stern at times with its sting, it’s truly a very giving plant.

This post will cover…

stinging nettle plant growing in a wooded area

Lori’s Green Blessings

This article was reviewed by herbalist Lori Snyder. This is not to be used as personal medical advice; always consult your health care professional for individual concerns.

Here is what Lori had to say:

Stinging nettles are a gift that helped me restore my iron levels while going through perimenopause as my hair was falling out. I bought fresh nettles from the farmer’s market (only $15/lb!) and made soup. The more I cook the soup, the more the minerals are extracted and bio is available to absorb. 

With her action to really move the circulation, I can no longer eat nettles as it overstimulates my histamine intolerance.  Other suggestions are to make a stinging nettle lasagna, overnight infusion, or steep the plant in vinegar to access all her rich minerals. The seeds are considered a superfood with so many nutritious benefits!

I harvest the plant with my bare hands so I don’t take too much.  Do not harvest nettle once she has gone into flower as the leaf will be too strong and may irritate your kidneys. 

Remember, stinging nettles are a host plant for 5 different species of butterflies. No wonder she stings to protect the caterpillars from the birds!

What is Stinging Nettle?

Known as nettle or common nettle, stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a dark green herbaceous perennial. As the name suggests, most people recognize it for its sting. Hikers, gardeners, and foragers are all likely to come across this plant. With any luck, it’ll be on purpose and not with the accidental touch and sting from the plant.

When stung, you get a slight stinging sensation and a red rash. This occurs thanks to the tiny, hollow hairs on the nettle leaf known as trichomes. They come equipped with formic acid and histamine. You can find these hairs on the stems and under the leaves of the plant.

When touched, the hairs prick the skin and release the chemicals. While the irritation from the stings can last up to 24 hours, it can be as short as fifteen minutes. Funnily enough, the juice from the nettle plant can be used to soothe its own stings.

A vigorous grower, stinging nettle grows in patches in moist environments, such as marshes and streams. You’ll also find it on the edges of farms and meadows and in wooded areas beginning in the spring.

Besides the stinging hairs, you can identify the plant by its serrated, heart-shaped leaves with a pointed tip. They grow opposite along a square stem, getting smaller in size towards the top of the stem. They also have tiny green flowers in the summer that often go unnoticed. The plant can grow anywhere from two to eight feet tall.

stinging nettle hairs

History of Stinging Nettles

Originally native to Europe and Asia, stinging nettles have a long history of herbal remedies and nutritional uses. The first known occurrence of the herb goes back to 3000 BCE.

The most popular use of the plant was as a cleansing tonic made from the leaves. Julius Caesar’s troops apparently used stinging nettle as a method for staying awake during night watches.

Besides medicinal and nutritional uses, it was also a popular fibre in Germany, France, and Sweden. With this plant, they could make cords, fishing lines, sailing cloth, clothes, and paper. The thread is 50 times stronger than cotton. In the first and second world wars, stinging nettle textiles were used when cotton was not available.

nettle leaf

Stinging Nettle Medicinal Benefits

Sometimes when I learn about a plant, I’ll find myself saying is there anything this plant can’t do? Stinging nettle is one of those cases. It has me itching to go foraging!

Allergies

If you suffer from seasonal allergies and don’t want to pop medication every day just so you can breathe, stinging nettle may be the helping hand you need. Thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties and histamine content, the plant helps immensely with upper respiratory issues such as hay fever and allergies.

Kidneys

Nettle leaf and root are wonderful for the kidneys to help strengthen them. They have a mild diuretic action that helps to flush the urinary system and get rid of toxins and excess sodium.

It’s sometimes used to help expel kidney stones and reduce UTIs. The plant can also help enlarged prostates and reduce the need to frequently pee in the night.

stinging nettle

Urtication

What if I told you that people purposefully sting themselves with nettle? Urtication is the deliberate action of stinging bare skin with nettles to stimulate blood flow and wake up muscles.

There is a long history of using urtication to help with arthritis, gout, and joint issues. The process provides stimulation of nerves and joints, improves circulation, and encourages lymphatic flow. As the inflammation from the sting subsides, so does the pain and stiffness.

As someone who has been dealing with chronic pain and arthritis for many years, I’ve been experimenting with this to varying degrees. The thing is that when the plants are in season, my pain and inflammation is usually down so I have a hard time knowing if it’s the treatment or the season that is helping! I’ll be looking at ways to propagate and grow netters indoors over winter to try them in the worse of it.

Skin and Hair

Thanks to the tannin content, stinging nettles work wonders for the skin and hair. Astringent skincare qualities include cleansing skin, drying out excess oil, and tightening pores. The fresh leaves can also heal and soothe burns when made into an infusion.

You can use nettles to make a hair rinse for weak hair or hair loss. It stimulates the circulation of blood on the scalp which promotes hair growth.

Blood Nourishment

Because of the high chlorophyll content of stinging nettle, it can actually be a great aid to blood. Chlorophyll and red blood cells are very similar in their molecular structure, the main difference being chlorophyll has magnesium and hemoglobin has iron.

The salty taste and high iron contents of nettle also indicate that it can help build blood after loss from an illness of anemia. As an alterative, it purifies blood while adding in nutrients, eliminating waste, and neutralizing acid.

Pick Me Up

Thanks to the high nutrition content of stinging nettles, you’ll feel more energized after consuming them. This can help to soothe fatigue and even maintain blood sugar levels.

Female Aid

Stinging nettle comes highly recommended to pregnant, breastfeeding, and postpartum women. Yes, it’s full of nutrients for mother and baby but it’s also an astringent and high in vitamin K.

Breast-feeding women can use it as a galactagogue to help increase the amount and quality of their breast milk.

stinging nettle leaf

Edible Uses for Stinging Nettles

While it may not be your first thought for delicious green, people have been enjoying stinging nettle for centuries. Typically, anything with a richly green taste is nourishing and stinging nettle does not disappoint.

High in minerals and plant protein, it contains tons of calcium magnesium, silica, and iron as well as vitamins A, C, E, and K. It’s actually one of the richest sources of minerals from edible plants.

The high mineral and chlorophyll content gives it a salty umami taste, similar to seaweed. You can use nettle as a substitute for spinach and will notice it pairs well with many foods. Blanche fresh nettle and put it with pesto, pizza, and pasta.

The dried leaves can be used for nettle tea when steeped or ground in a coffee grinder for recipes. The dried seed can be eaten directly as well. Most enjoy nettle as a traditional nourishing herbal tonic, eaten or drank on a daily basis.

You can also juice the stalks to make green juice. Consuming stinging nettle in the spring helps to detoxify the body after a season of eating root veggies, grains, and meats for the winter.

stinging nettle

Using Stinging Nettles in the Garden

If you have stinging nettle in your garden or on your property, it could be an indicator of the quality of your soil. An amazing soil fixer, stinging nettles indicates that you have acidic, heavily cultivated, and compacted clay soil. When left alone, it will work to heavily break up compacted clay.

Since it’s so high in nitrogen, copper, potassium, sulphur, calcium, magnesium, and iron, it will help to accumulate the minerals in the soil. For this same reason, you can use stinging nettle as part of a weed tea fertilizer.

Thanks to the high nitrogen content, it also works as an excellent compost accelerator. Add stinging nettle before it has gone to seed to your compost bin to help speed up the process or between layers.

Stinging nettle is also a host plant for the red admiral butterfly, native throughout North America, Europe, and western Asia.

stinging nettle plant growing in a shaded garden

Harvesting Stinging Nettles

Harvest stinging nettle in the spring since the leaves are darker, tender, and more nutrient-rich. By the summer, they get lighter and leggier. This also allows the plant to keep growing for other wildlife to enjoy.

When harvesting, be sure to wear thick gloves, long sleeves, and pants to avoid any stings from the plant. Don’t take more than 1/3 of the plant, cutting only young leaves. Cut the leaves and stems at nodes.

Allow the plant to wilt before handling. Once left to wilt or when dried and cooked, the sting disappears.

Stinging nettle is known as a tonic herb that can be used for extracts, infusions, and capsules. You can harvest any part of the plant for usage.

Sometimes people mistake wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) for stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). They appear very similar except that the leaves of wood nettle are more rounded. While it’s also edible used traditional for herbalism, it’s not as useful as the stinging nettle.

using stinging nettle

Frequently Asked Questions About Stinging Nettles

What is a Nettle?

Nettle refers to stinging nettle, Urtica dioica. It may also be known as common nettle, burn nettle, or nettle leaf. All of which refer to the herbaceous perennial with stinging hairs used medicinally and nutritionally.

How to Get Rid Of Stinging Nettle?

If you want to get rid of stinging nettle from your garden, you will have to remove the entire root of the plant or it will grow back. In the summer, cut down the plant to the base before it flowers. Use a gardening fork to dig loose the roots. Get every last bit or they might grow back!

What Covers the Distinct Nettle Leaf?

The tiny hairs known as trichomes cover the stems and underside of the leaves of stinging nettle. These hollow hairs have formic acid and histamine that get released from the plant if touched. The result is a slight tingling and red rash that can last anywhere from 15 minutes to 24 hours.

stinging nettle

Hopefully, you learned something new today about stinging nettle and are reconsidering yanking it all out of your garden. Be bold and give it a try in your next recipe!

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