Stinging nettle, burn-nettle, burn-weed, burn-hazel
Leaves harvested prior to flower; and root
Nutritive, alterative, diuretic, astringent, stimulating expectorant
Bland, slightly bitter, cool, dry
Despite its prickly nature, nettles is one of the most nutritious and restorative herbs we know of. This one plant is like an herbal multi-vitamin containing bioavailable calcium, loads of trace minerals, and high amounts of chlorophyll. Nettles is also a traditional spring food in many parts of the world. Young, fresh picked leaves can be blanched and eaten like spinach. It has been observed that cows that graze on nettles produce more milk and chickens that consume it lay more eggs, increasing both the volume of production and quality. Humans consume nettles as a food source and tea, and there is an observed affect on the hair, skin and nails. This herb fortifies the blood and bones, nourishes all the tissues of the body, relieves inflammation, and strengthens the immune system.
Nettles has been used worldwide for centuries in a variety of countries and cultures. It has been eaten as a wild food plant, applied topically to the skin, and drunk as an herbal tea. The word “nettle” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “noedl” meaning “needle.” Its Latin name “urtica” means “to burn,” referring to the stinging effects of the tiny hairs, called trichomes, on the stems and leaves. When something brushes against these trichomes, the tip breaks off exposing a sharp, needle-like tube that contains various plant chemicals that are an irritant and cause pain, itching, swelling, and a temporary rash that can last up to 12 hours. This how nettle came to be known as “Stinging Nettle.” This irritation and rash were sought after for health benefits in the ancient world. Urtification is the practice of flogging oneself with the fresh nettle plant on purpose to treat such illnesses as chronic rheumatism, lethargy, coma, paralysis, and even typhus, and cholera. This practice of urtification has been used for thousands of years and is known to many cultures around the world.
In ancient Egypt, reports are found of the use of nettles infusion for the relief of arthritis and lumbago pains. Hippocrates recorded over 50 remedies using nettles. In 2 A.D., Galen the Greek physician recommended nettles as “a diuretic and laxative, for dog bites, gangrenous wounds, swellings, nose bleeding, excessive menstruation, spleen-related illness, pleurisy, pneumonia, asthma, tinea, and mouth sores.” It was used in the Dark Ages in Europe to treat shingles, constipation, the skin and lungs. The 16th century herbalist John Gerard used stinging nettles as an antidote for poison. Culpeper recommended a nettles and honey extract as a gargle for throat and mouth infections, and claimed that nettles were helpful for “bladder stones or gravel, worms in children, an antiseptic for wounds and skin infections, gout, sciatica, joint aches, and as an antidote to venomous stings from animals”. In the late 1800s, Felter & Lloyd described nettles as an astringent, tonic, and diuretic, that is specific for “chronic diarrhoea and dysentery, with large mucous evacuations; profuse secretion of gastric juice, with eructations and emesis; choleraic discharges; summer bowel diseases, children with copious watery and mucous passages; chronic eczematous eruptions.”
Nettles was also used extensively for its fibers and was woven into cloth, similar to flax. Nettles fabric can range from silky to coarse, and can be dyed or bleached like cotton. In Denmark, burial shrouds made of nettles fiber was discovered that dated back to the Bronze Age (3000 BCE – 1200 BCE). Native Americans used the fibers from stinging nettles to make sailcloth, sacking, cordage, and fishing nets. Nettles fabrics were common during the 16th and 17th centuries in Scotland. During World War I & II, nettle fiber was used as a substitute for cotton due to war time rations and shortages. Captured German uniforms were found to be 85% nettles fiber. Nettles also is one of the richest sources of chlorophyll in the vegetable kingdom, and a decoction of the plant has been used to produce a green dye for clothing for centuries.
Recent studies show that nettles helps the body excrete uric acid, which is important in cases of gout and kidney issues. It is indicated for seasonal allergies, food sensitivities, eczema and other itchy skin conditions, Type II diabetes, prostate issues, and general poor health. By taking a look at its nutrition profile you can see why it improves so many conditions.
Nettles is a traditional remedy for asthma, allergies, hay fever, arthritis, gout, and just about any condition involving excessive mucus or damp heat. It is a cooling, drying and draining remedy thereby by releasing excess fluid from arthritic joints and clearing up stuffy sinuses from seasonal allergies. It has anti-inflammatory and antihistamine effects that offer best results when taken daily as a tea over the course of several weeks. The juice was used as a hair rinse and to stimulate hair growth.
Some individuals can be allergic to nettles, so consume a small amount of the tea by itself the first time you try it to see how it goes. Harvest fresh spring leaves prior to flower. The flowers are quite inconspicuous and they go to seed rather quickly changing constituents of the leaves. Do not harvest leaves after the plant goes to seed. The mature plants develop gritty deposits that may harm the kidneys.
The ancient practice of “urtification” as described before, was a remedy for the treatment of chronic stiff joints, lethargy, coma and even paralysis. Fresh nettles plant was “whipped” or brushed on the afflicted joints, and the resulting “sting” from the tiny hairs was the wanted medicine. The irritation of the skin causes increased blood flow to that area, which improves the inflammation and stiffness of the arthritic joints.
Herbalist Paul Bergner explains the use of nettles for the following conditions:
“Arthritis: A gypsy folk remedy for arthritis is to drink the juice of stinging nettle leaf. Nettle leaf is an official remedy for supportive therapy for rheumatism in Germany. In botanical medicine classes at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine, I was taught that nettle leaf was the most important herb to think of for early-onset arthritis. A 1996 laboratory analysis of nettle juice showed an anti-inflammatory effect through the same mechanism as steroid drugs.”
“Asthma: This home remedy from the Eastern states in the last century may have originated in Germany, where nettle juice (Urtica dioica, Urtica urens) and nettle syrups may still be purchased today as tonics. American Eclectic physicians of the nineteenth and early twentieth century also used nettles for some types of allergic conditions. Nettles is an unusually mineral-rich plant. An ounce of the dried herb contains more than two-thirds of the minimum daily requirement of magnesium, which is frequently deficient in asthma patients. Directions: Take a half-pint of the juice of stinging nettles, boil it, remove the scum from the pot, and mix it with an equal part of honey. Take a spoonful morning and evening.”
Preparation & Dosage
Make a tea by pouring boiling water over an ounce of dried nettles leaf in a quart canning jar. Cover and let cool to room temperature. Drink 1-3 cups a day for three to six weeks.
The fresh plant is irritating to the skin, so wear gloves and long sleeves while harvesting. Also wear a mask when processing dried plant as the tiny hairs (trichomes) on the leaves can become airborne and are very irritating to the airways and lungs.
Cream of Nettles Soup
(no actual cream involved)
1st step - Harvest some fresh nettles! Put on your gloves and harvest young nettles by clipping the stem just above the ground and fill a medium sized basket.
Next, fill a pot with broth (bone or veggie) and set it to boil on the stove. Use kitchen gloves while handling fresh nettles to avoid nettles' sting. If the stems are small and thin then you can just toss them in the pot, but thicker woody stalks won't break down in the blending process so you will want to strip off any really big steams first.
Then, add the nettles to the pot and boil for about 20 minutes until they become soft and tender. At this point the nettles will no longer sting you and can be handled without gloves to taste for tenderness.
Now the final step is to puree the cooked nettles into the broth. You can use an immersion blender right in the stock pot, or you can pour the mixture into a regular blender and blend until the entire batch is a creamy texture with greenish color. Delicious!
You can serve this soup straight, use it as a base for other soup ingredients, or freeze it into ice cube trays and then store the ice cubes in a freezer bag to be added to other soups throughout the year when fresh nettles are no longer available. The ice cubes are my personal favorite way to nutritionally enhance any soup or stock.
Bergner, Paul. Folk Remedies Database. Boulder: Bergner Communications. 2001.
Bennett, Robin Rose. The Gift of Healing Herbs. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2014.
Cook M.D., William H. The Physiomedical Dispensatory. 1869. Reprints, Boulder: Medical Herbalism, 2007.
Felter M.D., Harvey Wickes and John Uri Lloyd, Phr.M., Ph.D. King’s American Dispensatory. 1898.
Ellingwood, Finley. American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy. 1919. Reprint, Bisbee: Southwest School of Botanical Medicine 2003.
Hoffmann, David. The New Holistic Herbal. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1990.
Tierra, Michael. The Way of Herbs. New York: Pocket Books, 1998.
Grieve, M. (Maud). A Modern Herbal. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1931.