Discover the dense nutrition and medicinal properties behind nettle’s intimidating sting.
It’s a wonder anyone ever overcame the nettle’s sting to discover the wealth of protein, vitamins, and minerals within. But we’re fortunate they did. In various studies, dried nettles have been shown to contain between 25 and 40 percent protein — making them an excellent source of green vegetable protein. They’re also rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron, as well as vitamins B complex, C, and A.
Nettles have been used medicinally for centuries. The most ancient medical use of this prickly plant was for urtication — whipping paralyzed limbs with fresh nettles to bring muscles into action. Herbalists used to slap the flesh of arthritis sufferers with nettles to relieve pain. In more recent times, hot poultices of nettle leaves have been used for this same purpose.
Roman soldiers planted stinging nettle throughout Europe’s colder regions as they traveled and rubbed the plants on their legs and arms to increase circulation. In commercial trade, mature nettle plants were an important source of fiber for making paper, rope, and cloth for fine table and bed linens. Poet Thomas Campbell even said, “In Scotland, I have eaten nettle, have slept in nettle sheets, and have dined off a nettle tablecloth.”
Today, nettles are widely used in alternative medicine. Because of their diuretic action — after they’re ingested, they encourage the flushing of the system — they’re often included in cleansing diets. In Germany, a preparation of nettle roots is approved to relieve urinary problems associated with benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). And in at least one study, nettles have been shown to alleviate the symptoms of hay fever. However, nettles can produce allergic reactions in some people, so try small quantities at first to see how you react.
Three species of stinging nettle are common in the United States — Urtica dioica, U. chamaedryoides, and U. urens.
All U. urens varieties and one U. dioica cultivar, intentionally imported from Europe for food, medicine, and fiber, have become naturalized throughout the United States. The other species are natives and are equally useful. Nettles grow along roadsides and ditches, in moist woods and thickets, in rubbish heaps, and in gardens and other places where the soil is moist and rich in nitrogen.
Nettles normally reach 3 feet in height but can grow as tall as 6 feet. The entire plant is covered with tiny hollow hairs with swollen bases, which contain the source of the nettle’s sting — formic acid, histamines, acetylcholine, serotonin, and other unidentified compounds. If you accidentally rub up against stinging nettles, a centuries-old remedy says to soothe your pain with the juice of nettle itself. Other folk remedies suggest that you can ease the sting with juice from the crushed leaves of dock, burdock, mullein, or plantain. Each of these plants tends to grow near nettles, at least in North America. Additionally, drying, cooking, or steeping nettles will render the plants stingless.
If you think of nettles primarily in terms of their sting, it may be difficult to consider including them in your diet. But the stinging nettle, unusually rich as it is in protein, vitamins, and minerals, can make one of the most nutritious dishes I know.
For cooking, stinging nettles need to be collected when the leaves are young, tender, and light green and the shoots are no more than 6 to 10 inches tall (the leaves of older plants are bitter and tough). For a continuous harvest, mow nettles to the ground during summer, and new shoots will emerge that are as tasty as those found in spring. To avoid being stung, wear gloves to collect even young shoots.
Cooking nettles. Young nettle shoots are delicious when washed and then steamed in any water left clinging to the leaves. Cover the nettles and cook slowly until they’re as tender as cooked spinach, then season with salt and pepper and serve (I like to add butter, too). These greens have a rich, strong, pleasant flavor that’s similar to spinach. In Europe, people often add nettles to soups, casseroles, fritters, beers, wines, puddings, and teas. My wife and I fell in love with a stinging nettle cheese in England and can occasionally find it in cheese shops in the United States.
Nettle tea. To enjoy nettle tea, steep 1/2 teaspoon of dried nettle leaves in 2 cups boiling water for 8 minutes. Strain the nettles out and sweeten the brew with honey. Natural healers recommend this tea as a stimulant, a cure for head and chest colds and bronchitis, a tonic, a blood purifier, a mild laxative, and a diuretic, as well as to relieve asthma symptoms and jaundice. Nettle tea is also used to increase milk flow in nursing mothers, to bathe hemorrhoids, and to make an astringent gargle for a sore throat and bleeding gums.
Hair treatment. Boil 1 teaspoon dried leaves in 2 cups of water with 2 tablespoons of vinegar for 30 minutes, then use the tea as a rinse. This treatment may reinvigorate the hair and restore color, stimulate hair growth, make hair thicker, and give it a nice sheen.
Bio: Peter A. Gail holds a Ph.D. in botany and has spent his life researching traditional uses for backyard “weeds” as food and medicine. He’s the founder and director of Goosefoot Acres Center for Resourceful Living and Goosefoot Acres Press, and he’s the author of The Dandelion Celebration: A Guide to Unexpected Cuisine and other books.
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