Local Plant Spotlight: NETTLES

By Susan Teitelman, Herbalist and Certified Holistic Nutritionist

It’s nettles time! These prickly perennials are popping up as we speak. Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica, Urticaceae family) is one of my favorite plants. It is highly versatile: this plant can be used for food as well as medicine. In fact, each part of the plant – the leaves, flower, and seed – historically have different medicinal uses. There are hundreds of species in the Urticaceae family; the dioica species are native to several countries including the United States. It can be found growing all over North America.

This plant is riparian; that is, it has an affinity for growing near streams or other waterways, and nettles prefer shady areas. Nettles are easy to identify: anyone who has brushed up against a patch of them can testify to that fact! The root word Urtica derives from the Latin uro, which means “to burn,” as the small hairs on the plant contain formic acid and will burn or sting your skin when they come in contact. Other identifying factors are opposite, serrated green leaves and a one to four inch plume of tiny white-yellow flowers that usually bloom mid-summer. 

This time of year (April/May), we can begin to harvest the leaves. The leaves and pliable stems can be made into a fresh plant tincture or tea, blanched and used like cooked spinach, or dried for tea. I love parboiling and eating fresh nettles (and drinking the leftover water, which I think of as “bonus tea”) because they are delicious and extremely nutritious. You can use the lightly cooked leaves and stems in soups, lasagna, as pesto, or really anyway you would use cooked greens. See my recipe for nettles pesto below!

Nettles are extremely nutrient rich, as they are high in chlorophyll, calcium, potassium, and a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. The medicine is gentle and nutritive; when someone is sick or off balance, this is a wonderful go-to plant medicine because it supports the body, giving it an extra boost no matter what the illness may be. As mentioned earlier, each part of the plant can be used in a specific way. Here is a rundown of those uses:

LEAF/STEM: Herbalists often recommend nettle tea, tincture, or capsules for allergies as they contain anti-histamine and anti-inflammatory properties, and contains the anti-oxidant quercetin. According to Germany’s Commission E reports, when freeze-dried nettle capsules were used to treat allergic rhinitis, they had favorable results compared to over-the-counter anti-histamine drugs.

FLOWERS/SEED: Come summer, the flowers and their young, green seeds can be harvested. Nettle flowers (along with leaf) are recommended to ease UTI symptoms and prevent and treat urinary gravel (stones). The seeds have a particular affinity for the kidneys and adrenal glands. Nettle seeds have been used alongside dialysis to help support the kidneys. The dried seeds especially are considered an adrenal trophorestorative, meaning they support and restore weakened or overworked adrenal glands. The medicinal preparation for seeds is usually a tincture. Seeds should be dried prior to tincturing or percolating as the fresh seeds are quite stimulating.

ROOT: There have been numerous studies conducted on Nettle root with Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) and Pygeum (Pygeum africanum) in the treatment of enlarged prostate, or Benign Prostate Hyperplasia (BPH). One double blind trial found that Nettle root and Saw Palmetto were as effective as the pharmaceutical Finasteride (Propecia / Proscar), citing improved symptoms of BPH and fewer side effects than the pharmaceutical drug.

STALKS: The stalks have historically been used as fibers, much as hemp or cotton would be used. The fiber is quite versatile; it has been used for clothing, cord, rope, string, and fishing nets.

One seemingly contradictory use of nettles is to rub the fresh plant, stingers and all, onto arthritic body parts. The sting will stimulate the area, increasing circulation and decreasing pain.

A few final notes: 

-Nettle tea requires a long steep time to releases the most nutrients. Tea ratio is 2 teaspoons to 8 ounces of water, steeped for 1-4 hours. Drink 2-3 cups per day.

-Leaf/stem/flowers should be gathered in spring or early summer (at the latest). As the season progresses, cystilates concentrate in the plant can irritate the kidney and may contribute to formation of kidney stones.

-Be sure to gather nettles in a clean environment, away from polluted areas, because they soak up the water around them.

-Wear long sleeves, long pants, and gloves when harvesting nettles.

-If and when you are stung by nettles (almost inevitable even when taking precautions!) the leaves of dandelion or yellow can soothe the burn! You may also make a juice out of the leaves and apply it that way. These juices are basic, thus helping to neutralize the formic acid from the hairs.

I hope you enjoy the spring nettle harvest and the many benefits this lovely plant offers!

Nettles Pesto (my new favorite recipe!)

1 pound fresh nettles, blanched

¼ cup olive oil

3 ounces parmesan or pecorino cheese

2-3 large garlic cloves

¾ cup walnuts

Juice of 1 lemon

Salt and pepper to taste

Bring a pot of water to a boil and carefully place nettles in pot. Leave in the water about 3 minutes, until leaves are wilted (this will ensure their stingers become inactive). Nettles will greatly reduce in size after blanching (much like spinach). Remove from water and strain in colander, pressing out excess water. Combine nettles and all other ingredients in food process and blend until mostly smooth. You can experiment with increasing or decreasing the amount of ingredients (for example, some might prefer more garlic or lemon). Put over pasta or consume as a dip. Bon appétit!

*The medicinal plant uses and function claims in this article have not been evaluated by the FDA. They are intended for educational purposes only.

REFERENCES

Ayers, Roschek, Williams, and Alberte. Pharmacokinetic analysis of anti-allergy and anti-inflammation bioactives in a nettle (Urtica dioica) extract.OJPK: Online Journal of Pharmacology and PharmacoKinetics. Volume 5, 2008, pp. 6-21

Blumenthal, et al. The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. American Botanical Council, 1998.

Goicovich, John. Materia Medica for Nettles, Green Path Herb School, June 2015 (class)

Healthline: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/quercetin

Kita, Janoska, Polowniak, and Kozik. Multi-element analysis of mineral and trace elements in medicinal herbs and their infusionsFood Chemistry, Volume 135, Issue 2, November 15, 2012, pp. 494-501

Koch, Egon. Extracts from Fruits of Saw Palmetto (Sabal serrulata) and Roots of Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica): Viable Alternatives in the Medical Treatment of Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia and Associated Lower Urinary Tracts SymptomsPlanta Med, August 2001, pp. 489-500.

Moore, Michael, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, pp. 173-176

Roschek, Fink, McMichael, and Alberte. Nettle extract (Urtica dioica) affects key receptors and enzymes associated with allergic rhinitis. Phytotherapy Research, Volume 23, Issue 7. July 2009.

Rutto, Xu, Ramirez, and Brandt. Mineral Properties and Dietary Value of Raw and Processed Stinging Nettle (Utica dioica L.) International Journal of Food, May 2013.

Treasure, Jonathan. http://jonathantreasure.com/evidence-research-testimonials-case-history/case-histories/nettle-seed-kidney-function/

U.S. National Plant Germplasm System: https://npgsweb.ars-grin.gov/gringlobal/taxonomydetail.aspx?id=40944

Yarn and Knitting. Know Your Fiber: Nettle

Yarnell, Eric. Botanical medicines for the urinary tract.World Jounal of Urology, November 2002, pp. 285-293

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