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Stinging nettle - A nutritious edible weed

Updated on October 16, 2014
This photo of stinging nettles was taken in my back yard.
This photo of stinging nettles was taken in my back yard. | Source

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.)

Mature stinging nettle plant
Mature stinging nettle plant

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).

Distribution of stinging nettle in the U.S.  From USDA website.  Notice the one spot of white among the green.
Distribution of stinging nettle in the U.S. From USDA website. Notice the one spot of white among the green. | Source

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 leaves of the stinging nettle are pointed with a serrated edge and little bumps on the surface.
The leaves of the stinging nettle are pointed with a serrated edge and little bumps on the surface.

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!!

See how each of these hairs is wider at the base?  There is a chemical concoction inside each one that will sting your skin.  Watch out!
See how each of these hairs is wider at the base? There is a chemical concoction inside each one that will sting your skin. Watch out!

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.

Another stinging nettle photo from my backyard!
Another stinging nettle photo from my backyard! | Source

Nutritional info about stinging nettles

Nettles are high in iron, potassium, manganese, calcium, and vitamins A, C, and D.

Eating nettles

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?

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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!

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Here are some recipes other people have for nettles:

A cheese-making book that talks about nettles!

Recipe video for nettle pesto

Definitely wear gloves if you venture into a thick patch of stinging nettle like this one!
Definitely wear gloves if you venture into a thick patch of stinging nettle like this one!

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

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    • Elyn MacInnis profile image

      Elyn MacInnis 2 years ago from Shanghai, China

      Joan - when I was taught about stinging nettles, I was also shown a plant that usually grows nearby. It has orange-ish flowers that look like impatiens, and you can rub it on if you bump into stinging nettles and it will take the sting away. Do you know it?

    • joanhall profile image
      Author

      Joan Hall 4 years ago from Los Angeles

      @anonymous: I'm not aware of any vendors, but if you keep your eyes open you may see it growing wild.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Where can I buy fresh, young Nettle leaves in LA area? Anyone knows about a vendor at a farmers market?

    • Wendy Gillissen profile image

      Wendy Gillissen 4 years ago

      I just love nettles and eat them every opportunity I get - nettle and feta cheese pie being my favourite;-) thanks for sharing this lens!:-)

    • Wednesday-Elf profile image

      Wednesday-Elf 4 years ago from Savannah, Georgia

      Now, despite the fact that I know virtually nothing about plants, I HAVE heard of the stinging nettle. :) Very interesting facts here -- you are slowly educating me in the ways of edible weeds.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image

      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      Nettle was widely used in our country decades ago instead of spinach but now only older people remember that. It is a pity we are forgetting how much nature in our neighborhood has to offer.

    • Deadicated LM profile image

      Deadicated LM 4 years ago

      Thanks for all the good information; I've used it in soups.

    • Einar A profile image

      Einar A 5 years ago

      I enjoy steaming nettle leaves to eat in the spring--they turn such an amazingly brilliant green, and taste better than spinach, to me.

    • profile image

      ladykida 5 years ago

      Thanks for the info....seems as if i'm on my way to being a survivalist.

    • RawBill1 profile image

      Bill 5 years ago from Gold Coast, Australia

      I have some nettle growing here and yep, it does sting when you accidentally brush against it! The hairs grow on an angle so if you touch the plant correctly, you flatten the spikes instead of getting stung. I had them growing in my garden, but my wife kept brushing against them so I had to move them to pots. They did not like the move but are starting to come back healthy again now. Awesome Lens!

    • PNWtravels profile image

      Vicki Green 5 years ago from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA

      So much interesting information about nettles. I can't believe that there are none in Arkansas - too funny. Another great lens about edible weeds.

    • franstan lm profile image

      franstan lm 5 years ago

      Who knew? The plant I hated is actually a nutritious herb

    • GonnaFly profile image

      Jeanette 6 years ago from Australia

      What a great lens! It has been blessed and added to my Growing Vegetables and Herbs lens.

    • Adriana Daniela profile image

      Adriana 6 years ago from New Market

      I love stinging nettle! My husband goes every spring and picks a couple of large trash bags full of it. We freeze and eat it year round. We cook it with garlic and eat it with corn mush: delicious!

    • profile image

      dannystaple 6 years ago

      It was a long time ago, but I have eaten Nettle soup. Sadly - I did describe it as "a little like Spinach soup"... Hehe.. However, I actually quite like Spinach soup.

    • profile image

      miaponzo 6 years ago

      Wonderful! Thanks! I adore stinging nettle, but give it to my patients dried, normally :)

    • profile image

      julieannbrady 6 years ago

      I have never tried nettle yet and never really knew the full truth of "stinging" nettle. Very Informative.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Thank you that was very helpful!

    • thesuccess2 profile image

      thesuccess2 6 years ago

      Your lenses are so thorough , nettles were the bane of my childhood. don't seem to sting in the same way any more!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Very interesting, there must be many other weeds/plants that aught to be in our food chain.

    • corinnemwestphal profile image

      corinnemwestphal 6 years ago

      Wow! Excellent lens. My in-laws, who were children in Europe during post-WWII, tell tales of going into the forest and picking stinging nettle to make teas and add some nutrition to the watery soups they had available.

      I will definitely put these tips to good use ... my husband and I have lots of stinging nettle on our farm in S. Africa. Now we know how to prepare them! Thanks for a great lens!

    • glenbrook profile image

      glenbrook 6 years ago

      Really nice lens - well written, informative, and a very unique perspective on stinging nettles.

    • decapod profile image

      decapod 6 years ago

      Isn't it great that you can turn a plant that many view as a pest into something highly useful! Good lens.

    • Utsahan profile image

      Utsahan 6 years ago

      Great lense! I also drank a lot of nettle infusion during my pregnancy - especially for the last few weeks... no Vitamin K shots necessary for us!

    • Gloriousconfusion profile image

      Diana Grant 6 years ago from United Kingdom

      There are lots of stinging nettles just outside my garden, and very painful they are too. However, it is said that wherever you find stinging nettles, there will be dock leaves nearby, and sure enough, there are - if you rub dock leaf on the nettle burn, the pain goes away immediately - otherwise, with me it lasts many hours.

      I use them as an occasional soup ingredient, but you have to be very sparing using them, as they are very bitter indeed.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I never knew that Stinging Nettle is edible. I'm going to have to read more of your edible plants lesnes when I have more time. Right now I'm going to get more updates done.

      Very well done!

    • profile image

      RinchenChodron 6 years ago

      Hi - enjoyed your lens. Another piece of trivia - Milarepa (a Tibetan saint) lived on nettles while on retreat - he actually turned green, but he survived! I put nettles in my tea along with marshmallow root. Great lens - thanks

    • paperfacets profile image

      Sherry Venegas 6 years ago from La Verne, CA

      Very interesting. My friend at Farmers Market says nettle tea is good for head congestion. Been wanting to try it. Thanks for the information. Good lens.

    • KarenHC profile image

      Karen 6 years ago from U.S.

      My son wandered into stinging nettles on a hike once -- painful, painful! Jewelweed was nearby -- its sap eased the stinging pain!

    • PromptWriter profile image

      Moe Wood 6 years ago from Eastern Ontario

      ¨¨¨°º©©º° This lens has been blessed! °º©©º°¨¨¨

    • The-Java-Gal profile image

      The-Java-Gal 6 years ago

      I no longer live where nettle grows, and miss it. Great, informative lens. Nettle is also a great hair rinse. Loved your chicken soup recipe - greens are my "secret" ingredient in chicken soup. Now I wish I could go pick weeds. 5*s

    • oztoo lm profile image

      oztoo lm 6 years ago

      Fascinating lens on the uses of the stinging nettle. Who'd have thought! When growing up in England we always knew to look for the Dock leaf, which always seemed to grow near the nettle. It was the instant cure for the painful sting of the nettle. Just rub the dock leaf on the sting area and the pain was gone.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Well done, very interesting. Although I am sure that our ancestors knew all of this, we in today's world want everyone to know everything for us, everything has to be packaged. We need real food, an it amazes me the things, that are not only edible, but also extremely good for us. Thank you.

    • joanhall profile image
      Author

      Joan Hall 6 years ago from Los Angeles

      @anonymous: Thank you so much for that info! I didn't know that there were times when the stems are edible. I'll have to add that to the text.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Steamed stinging nettles are great and can be fully prepared in about 10 minutes. When young, the stems are good, too. I have read they have the highest protein level of any green leafy plant in the Western Hemisphere. In Michigan, our young nettles are ready for harvest around the 1st week of May. If you want to store them in bulk, then steam, drain, and freeze in plastic bags. When they are more mature and tough, make tea with them. I have about a 1/4 acre patch of them in my woods. I agree they are more tender and tasty than spinach.

      Just be certain you have an expert verify you have the correct weed. This article has very good photographs. If you touch a leaf or steam barehanded, you'll know it...!

    • profile image

      roadroamer 6 years ago

      Very interesting, it doesn't even look edible at all. Who would have thought that some of the weeds in a metropolis would be edible? Excellent job!

    • mamakat lm profile image

      mamakat lm 7 years ago

      Hi Joan,

      I came here through the LOTD "Purple Star Awards." This is really cool and interesting. I've heard about stinging nettle for nutritional use. Had never tried it.

      I live in Florida, where lots of weeds and flora live, but haven't seen it here. I grew up in Iowa, it looks suspiciously like a plant we called 'smartweed'....cuz if ya touched it, it really smarted! Can't say for sure....I've been gone from there well over 30 years so I'm not for-sure that's what it looked like.

      Looking forward to visiting 'Alice's Restaurant' next!

    • tandemonimom lm profile image

      tandemonimom lm 7 years ago

      I drink nettle tea all the time, but didn't know most of this information. Thanks!

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      What an interesting lens all about stinging nettles - methink you could expand this into a mini niche, with a series of lens Joan ;)

      Congrats on your Purple Star!

    • profile image

      casamonika 7 years ago

      Very interesting and useful lens. I shall try some of the recipes.

    • Spook LM profile image

      Spook LM 7 years ago

      Thanks for reminding me of back home in Africa. There we have something I only know as marog, different people call it different things. It sure looks terrible when ready to eat. Sorry to say this but it looks like a slimy green snot. As a kid my son used to insist eating it with my worshop foreman. That and sadza and he would come home covered in it. Prior to this I would never have considered eating or tasting it. So I tasted it and shiver me timbers it was one of the nicest things I have ever tasted. Blessed by an Angel. Wishing you and yours a merry Xmas

    • religions7 profile image

      religions7 7 years ago

      Great lens, blessed by a squidangel :)

    • Ramkitten2000 profile image

      Deb Kingsbury 7 years ago from Flagstaff, Arizona

      Great lens, Joan! Very interesting. I've been "stung" by nettles and I've eaten them, too. They also remind me of the man called "Screamer" I met on the Appalachian Trail, who was gathering them for his dinner one afternoon, while his bare hands were getting stung all the while. He was a character! But I now I can hear the name of the plant or see it without thinking of him.

    • delia-delia profile image

      Delia 7 years ago

      I remember this in Germany, we ate this during the war, including many weeds...it is called Stichnessel or Brennessel in German...great lens.....5*

    • nickupton lm profile image

      nickupton lm 7 years ago

      I made nettle beer once when I was about 15 years old. Somehow it ended up with an alcohol content off the chart and my father, my uncle and I all ended up really drunk on a few glasses of it.

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 7 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      I sure don't know how Stinging Nettle taste but I do know a great looking lens when I see one and this one sure is just that! Blessed by a Squid Angel.

    • TreasuresBrenda profile image

      Treasures By Brenda 7 years ago from Canada

      Nicely done & blessed. We had Stinging Nettle soup at a farm in Finland this summer. It was good although I don't think I'll ever be cooking with it.

    • joanhall profile image
      Author

      Joan Hall 7 years ago from Los Angeles

      [in reply to spirituality] I believe so. It's "native to Europe, Asia, northern Africa, and North America." (Wikipedia)

    • religions7 profile image

      religions7 7 years ago

      COngrats on your well deserved purple star :) so, is it the same plant as in Europe?

    • profile image

      GrowWear 7 years ago

      Great resource for information on the stinging nettle. Angel blessed.

    • AlishaV profile image

      Alisha Vargas 7 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      I had nettles growing all over my yard, always bumped into them, but didn't know they were even edible. Then I moved and found out all about them and can't find them here. Did find some nettle tea in the store though and I've been sipping on it, it's very nice with a splash of milk and some lemon!

    • KimGiancaterino profile image

      KimGiancaterino 7 years ago

      Interesting lens... and a great idea for a series! Blessed by a Squid Angel.

    • jptanabe profile image

      Jennifer P Tanabe 7 years ago from Red Hook, NY

      Oh yes, stinging nettles! Remember them, well not exactly fondly, from when I was a child. They seemed to be everywhere! And I also remember that about grabbing them firmly so they don't sting you. Hard to do though, always seem to brush lightly against some part! Never actually cooked with them, though I have heard you can. Maybe I'll try after reading this ...

    • Sylvestermouse profile image

      Cynthia Sylvestermouse 7 years ago from United States

      Very Interesting! The folklore is fascinating.

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