Stinging nettle - A nutritious edible weed
Stinging Nettle (part of "Edible Weeds in Los Angeles")
Information, recipes, folklore and fun, all about the wickedly fascinating stinging nettle plant.
What is the stinging nettle? A friend or foe?
When used correctly, stinging nettle can benefit your health and your palate. But it can be unkind if you rub it the wrong way (literally).
The best-known characteristic of nettle is the burning sting that can come from touching the plant. Why then, do we even bother with it? Because it is a powerhouse of nutrition and is known for its medicinal benefits as well.
Attention-getting in every way, stinging nettle is a weed that everyone should become familiar with.
(Photos on this page are from Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise noted.)
Getting acquainted with stinging nettle
Stinging nettle - Urtica dioica
The binomial name for stinging nettle is Urtica dioica. Urtica comes from the Latin urare, which means "to burn", referring to the unforgettable sting of the nettle plant.
Dioica comes from Greek and means "two houses". This refers to the fact that there are separate male and female plants.
It is conjectured that the English name "nettle" may come from the word "noedel", which meant needle, again referring to the sting of the plant.
Nettles are Native Americans!
Many of our most common weeds were brought over by European settlers, but Urtica dioica is native to North America (among other places).
Stinging nettle is ALMOST everywhere?
I found this a little funny. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, stinging nettle is found in every state in union except for Hawaii and Arkansas?
(Public domain image courtesy of USDA)
The stems are covered with hairs. There are hairs on the leaves also, but sometimes they are harder to see.
I've never broken a nettle stem and looked at it myself, but the stem is hollow inside.
The flowers on the female nettle are round and hang on the plant in clusters.
But all sources agree on the best way to identify the stinging nettle: Touch it!!
Understanding the sting of the nettle
What causes the nettle's sting?
The culprits are the hairs on the stems and leaves of the nettle plant. Each one is hollow and contains a mixture of chemicals sitting at the base of the hair. When you touch the hair, you break it. When the hair is broken, it exposes a sharp point that gets beneath your skin and injects you with the chemicals, which include histamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and formic acid. Ouch!
Some herbal books say that if you touch the nettle carelessly it will sting you but if you touch it mindfully it won't. The reason for that is that if you touch the plant firmly, you tend to crush the hairs flat, in which case they are less likely to penetrate the skin. If you touch it lightly, they'll get you for sure.
I have experienced this firsthand! The first time I saw a stinging nettle in real life was in Long Beach. It looked just like the drawings and photos I had seen. I got on my knees and examined it closely. I felt almost certain that it was indeed a nettle plant, but I couldn't be completely certain unless I confirmed the sting. I was ready to sacrifice myself in the name of science. I took a deep breath, extended my hand, and grasped it. Nothing happened. I tried it two times, three times, intentionally making full contact each time. Still nothing. I decided that it must be some other plant that looks just like nettle and got up to walk away. As I was getting up, my hand accidentally brushed against the plant again. YOWIE!!!
That was how I made my first positive identification of a stinging nettle. We've had a great relationship since then, but whenever we get together, I always use protection.
Here are some tips for how to treat a nettle sting.
Stinging nettle videos
There are lots of videos on YouTube about stinging nettles. Unfortunately, some of them are people trying to show how extreme they are by messing with nettles raw without any protection. Ignore their childish behavior and take a look at the following flicks about the real benefits of nettles.
One from Green Deane "Eat the Weeds" series
Here, David Wolfe shows his technique for picking nettles without getting stung.
Nutritional info about stinging nettles
Nettles are high in iron, potassium, manganese, calcium, and vitamins A, C, and D.
A cookbook with stinging nettle featured
The most commonly eaten parts of the nettle are the leaves and the roots. When the plant is mature, the stems are very tough and are not edible. But commenter Gary from Michigan informs us that when the plant is young, the stems are tender enough to eat. I'll have to try that next time we get new shoots.
In making all of these web pages on weeds, I have discovered that spinach is the "chicken" of the vegetable world. Every time you look up an edible wild plant, you'll see someone saying that the leaves "taste like spinach." I disagree with them in general, and strongly disagree when it comes to nettles, because nettles are the one weed that I always eat cooked. I don't like cooked spinach at all, but cooked nettles are delicious!
The reason that nettle leaves are usually eaten cooked is because cooking neutralizes the sting. But some say that soaking the nettle plant will also remove the stinging chemicals, which makes it possible for the nettle leaves to be eaten raw in salads. (I haven't tried it.)
The first nettle recipe I want to share is my own. My favorite way to use nettles is as greens to go with chicken. Ready for a Joan recipe?
Crockpot Chicken and Greens
- One whole chicken (I always get chickens with the giblets included; they add flavor and they're very nutritious).
- As many nettle plants as I can gather from the backyard. I always wear gloves.
- Garlic salt
- Powdered sage
Wash the nettles.
Pull the leaves off the stalks and put them in the crockpot. Unless you don't feel like pulling off the leaves, in which case you can just put the nettles in the pot as they are. Later, you can set the stalks to the side while you eat. They're not toxic or anything; they're just tough.
Put the chicken in the crockpot.
Season it up and set the crockpot on low.
If you start it in the morning, it will be done by evening. Yum, yum!
Here are some recipes other people have for nettles:
Nettle leaf tea is one of the most popular of all herbal teas. Put an ounce of dried nettle leaves into a quart jar, fill with boiling water, and steep for four hours or overnight. Strain and drink. Nettle infusion has an earthy taste with an undertone that's almost milk-like. Try it.
More nettle recipes collected at thekitchn.com
Nettles can also be used in cheese making! Here's a description.
A cheese-making book that talks about nettles!
Recipe video for nettle pesto
Stinging nettle folklore
There are many superstitions surrounding nettles. It was believed that:
Nettles could bestow protection. They were carried in a pocket to protect an individual or kept in a room to protect the people in the room.
Pulling up a nettle by the roots while reciting the names of a sick person and their family would cure a fever.
Nettles would increase male fertility
Nettles are featured in the Andersen's fairy tale The Wild Swans, in which a princess has to weave coats out of nettles (the fibrous stalks of the nettle are indeed used in clothmaking).
A favorite herbal book. It has a whole chapter devoted to stinging nettle.
Medicinal uses of stinging nettle
The nettle plant is valued by many for its nutritional and health benefits.
Because of its high iron content, nettle leaf tea is recommended for treating anemia and fatigue.
Nettle is also high in vitamin K and other nutrients that make it a desirable tonic during pregnancy (I drank lots of nettle infusion during my pregnancies). It is also reputed to increase milk production in nursing mothers.
Nettle has been used both internally and externally to ease symptoms of arthritis.
Nettle root is used by many to treat enlargement of the prostate gland.
© 2009 Joan Hall