by Mary Schmidt
Nettles, Stinging nettles, Stingweed, Barnyard nettles
Urtica dioica Family: Uriicaceae
Nettles is one of those herbs that if you don’t know what to use, use nettles. It is so rich in vitamins and minerals that it feeds the whole body and helps supply what is needed to work well. My two top purposes are kidney support and hay fever relief. With 3 different pathways to inhibit histamine response, it can make hay fever season tolerable and over time not a problem at all. I have a friend that was on hay fever medication for 9 months out of every year since childhood. After a few years of routinely adding nettles to his diet and using them medicinally during hay fever season, he only has to take medicine every now and again when the pollen is especially bad.
The ability to help the kidneys break down protein makes it my number one herb for kidney and urinary tract support. It grows in manure piles in the barn yard, this shows us its ability to break down proteins. Gout is one example of problems that can arise from poor protein metabolism from the kidney, thin hair and nails is another. Nettles will help to thicken and add sheen to hair, nails and the skin. It is also used for bone health due to all the minerals in it. Consider consuming to help with osteoporosis, osteopenia and such. A Good healthy nettle plant will have 34 % protein, so makes a great addition to our daily diet. It has diuretic, hypotensive, properties, helps lower blood pressure, calm and relax our nervous systems to aid in restful sleep.
One odd but interesting use is something called urtication, or flogging with nettles, is the process of deliberately applying stinging nettles to the skin in order to provoke inflammation. We can try this for any arthritic inflammation and has been reported to be effective.
A few agricultural uses are: as food for beneficial insects and as a compost enhancer, due to its high nitrogen content. Nettles has been used for clothing, twine and sandal straps.
It grows to 3 to 6 even 8 feet tall in maturation. Deep green leaves opposite on the stem with hairs on them that have the stinging formic acid in them. That is the best identifier, just back into them with bare skin and you will know if you found them. The flower is not showy, barely noticeable unless you look, and it forms under the leaf axils in clusters. They prefer shady, good rich moist soil but can really be found anywhere. If the soil is too dry they tend to be thin and straggly.
Pick nettles in the spring before they reach your mid thigh, some people say the knee. In either case, stop picking the stems when the flower buds start setting. The reason for this is there is a good supply of silica in nettles and may be too much for the kidneys later on in the season. So, pick early and often in the spring so you have enough to last the year. This nutrient is very good for connective and nerve tissue. It helps form the myelin sheath around the nerves, so it is very helpful for brain and nerve communication. The Formic acid in stinging hairs, looses potency after being picked so use gloves to cut and dry but no need for them to strip the leaves off the stems. Stems have the most silica content so save those for chewing on to strengthen teeth and bones.
Eating fresh nettles is best because you are getting all the goodies including minerals. Try them steamed, sautéed, in pasta, soups or tea. My favorite way to eat them is a scrumptious potato and nettle casserole from Kay Young’s book “Wild Seasons”. Tea infusion is used most often because you can steep a quart overnight and drink it all the next day or two, to get a nutrient packed beverage. Add a bit of mint or lemon balm for flavor and enjoy! Tincture is good if made with fresh leaf, but dry will do if that is all you can get. You don’t get all the minerals but it still has good medicinal effect and tincture is an easy way to take 3 times a day no matter where you are.
If you haven’t tried nettles yet, do so this spring and if you are lucky enough to find a local source for fresh, spring shoots, try them in this potato and nettle casserole. Here is the Recipe:
Potato and Nettle Casserole
Makes 4-6 servings
3 large potatoes washed and sliced about ¼” thick
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup (or more) cooked, drained, chopped nettle leaves
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon thinly sliced green onion (optional)
Arrange potato slices in a well buttered casserole. Combine other ingredients, stir to mix and pour over the potatoes. Place uncovered in a 350 degree oven and several times during baking, spoon some of the cream up over the potatoes. Bake about one hour till sauce is thick and potatoes are done.