Living in a dry, riparian habitat like southern California, we may not have a lot of encounters with this herbaceous irritant, but when we do, there’s no mistaking it.
I’ll never forget my first brush with stinging nettle. After years of battling and suffering from the effects of poison oak, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the quickly dissipating sensations of the nettle. Though it comes on with intensity, the burning of Urtica dioica is short lived, with nothing like the lingering, blistering misery of a run in with poison oak.
But stinging nettle has another lesson to teach us about finding remedies where we least expect them. Look beyond the hairy stems and their rash-inducing resins, and you’ll find a plant with a plethora of medicinal benefits.
Recorded use of stinging nettle as a traditional medicine dates back to at least the 10th century. The Nine Herbs Charm, an ancient pagan charm of English and Germanic folklore, invokes nettle as one of the chief medicinal plants of the apothecary. If you can avoid getting burned by the little hairs (see below), then you can use stinging nettle in a variety of ways. Reported uses and benefits include the following.
Early spring is the best time to harvest nettle. Once it flowers, in late spring and summer, it begins to lose its medicinal qualities. Stinging nettle needs water, so if you live in a dry climate like southern or central California, your best bet will be to look near river beds and other waterways.
Definitely wear gloves to avoid the stinging rash that earned the plant its name. Although the chemical that causes the sting is said to be beneficial against arthritis and other joint diseases. So if that’s a concern, then dive in!
Luckily, most of the medicinal benefits come from the leaves, which can be gathered and dried, without having to endure the discomfort for which the plant is best known. So gather as many of the soft, tender, young leaves as you can. Fill one or two grocery bags and you should have enough to last most of the year.
Once you’ve collected your fill, you can consume them fresh, in tea or salad, or follow these instructions for drying. Spread them out somewhere, out of direct sunlight. We prefer to use wide and shallow cardboard boxes, or a series of paper bags. Just be sure to spread the leaves and turn them once in a while to promote aeration and prevent mold. In dry weather, the leaves should be done within a week or two.
After the leaves have dried, they can be handled easily without risk of stinging. At this point, separate the leaves from the stems. Dried leaves can be ground by hand, which is a bit tedious, or in a coffee grinder, which is much quicker and more thorough.
The most popular use of nettle is in tea. In this case, the fresh leaves are great and will deliver the highest concentration of nutrients. The herbal flavor in not disagreeable, but you may prefer to add honey or some other sweetener.
Dried and ground leaves can be stored in glass jars like any other kitchen herb, and used similarly. The grassy flavor is mild and often unnoticeable, so we add small amounts to soups, sauces, salad dressing, and bread mix. Just once more way to increase the flow the beneficial nutrients in the bloodstream.
Photo credit: Young stinging nettle in bloom and close-up of stinging nettle flowers. (Wikicommons)