Friendly Stinging Nettles

July 12, 2006

Many gardeners who have suffered through an encounter with Stinging Nettles recall unpleasant memories and wouldn’t dream of planting this weed anywhere near their yard or gardens.

But there are a few good reasons to reconsider those aversions to this unpopular plant.

The Good and Bad of Stinging Nettles

One redeeming quality which you’ve probably already assumed since I’m writing about it, is that Stinging Nettles is a nutritious edible weed that offers many healthful benefits to those brave enough to include it in their diet. In addition this hostile plant actually makes a great companion around the garden and is reputed to improve the growth and flavor of other vegetable and herb plants.

Most of the bad press received by Stinging Nettles is a result of the fact that the plant will literally “sting” anyone that makes the mistake of innocently brushing up against it. While not as painful as a bee sting, the overall experience could be much worse for anyone who accidentally wanders into a patch of Nettles in shorts before realizing what they’ve gotten themselves into.

If you look closely at the plant you’ll notice tiny hair-like bristles extending from the stems and parts of the plants heart-shaped leaves. These fibers release formic acid and are the source of the skin irritation and pain that you’ll experience if you even lightly brush up against this anti-social edible weed.

Brief contact with Stinging Nettles is an irritation that some find more invigorating than painful, unless of course you happen to be especially sensitive or allergic to the plant’s defensive acids. In that case you may receive some relief by applying the crushed stems of Jewelweed, or a poultice made from leaves of Curly Dock or Common Plantain.

Beneficial Uses for Stinging Nettles

As mentioned previously, Stinging Nettles is an edible weed that can be cooked and served as a leafy green vegetable or used as a soup ingredient. Cooking the plant or thoroughly drying it breaks down the stinging fiber strands that would otherwise make eating this plant impossible.

While it is perfectly edible, and some really enjoy the taste of freshly cooked Nettles, I don’t include it in the same company with delectable edible weeds such as my favorite Lambs Quarters. Stinging Nettles are nutritious and high in various vitamins, minerals, and other health promoting compounds.

Stinging Nettles can be dried and used to prepare a medicinal tea, the plant is also used as an ingredient in cosmetics such as hair care products. There’s a significant history of medicinal uses for this plant whether as a tea, ointment, or as a supplement ingested in capsule form. Other uses have included dye production, as a fiber plant for producing paper or clothing, and for beer making.

Stinging Nettles in the Home Garden

Caution should be taken whenever growing or handling Stinging Nettles in the home garden. I’ve never had a problem confining and controlling the spread of Stinging Nettles, but have read complaints from other gardeners that struggled with preventing Nettles from becoming an invasive weed in their gardens.

If you’re interested in growing Stinging Nettles my recommendation would be to plant a patch away from the garden beds or in an area where its growth can be restricted by natural barriers, such as a wide walkway, or by mowing around it. Another safe option would be to grow this edible weed in containers. The easiest way to get started is to transplant a couple of roots or runners from established plants.

While the claims are difficult to verify, Nettles have a reputation as being a great companion plant that promotes higher produce yields and is also reputed to increase the oil content of medicinal and culinary herbs which grown nearby.

Biodynamic Agriculture has long used Stinging Nettles as an ingredient for creating rich healthy compost, and for brewing tea formulations which are sprayed onto crops as a growth enhancer or to control insects. Stinging Nettles are also considered to be a good nurse crop for attracting beneficial insects to the organic garden.





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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa July 24, 2006 at 3:52 pm

I’ve got those nasty plants around my garden too, never knew what they were called. I would appreciate more information about what to do once you get picked by this plant, I already have and avoid them at all costs, they rule until I get my gloves and shears out. I wish you would talk more like you are dealing with some novice gardeners because I didn’t at all understand which plant can relieve the sting, a crushed stem of “jewelweed” or poultice made of… My big question is… Is there something over-the-counter you can buy instead of using these plants you mentioned? What I got from your article, the only thing, was a deep sense of satifaction knowing we can eat those buggers if we had to.

Kenny Point July 24, 2006 at 4:23 pm

Lisa, the ironic thing is that you can usually find plants like Jewelweed and Plantain growing in the same area as Stinging Nettles, offering quick and easy relief that’s free for the picking. A good wild plant or common weed field guide will help you to become familiar with these plants. Jewelweed is also used on Poison Ivy and crushed Plantain leaves can be applied to ease the pain from bee stings. I can’t recommend an over-the-counter medication, but the discomfort from an encounter with Stinging Nettles normally disappears within an hour or two in many cases, and I’ve never heard of the irritation lasting longer than a day so.

Lisa July 24, 2006 at 5:19 pm

Thanks for your info. , I know there are many plants out there that we consider as weeds but can and are beneficial to us. Unfortunately, in my garden, I have to pull out everything that I didn’t plant. I am currently living with a major infestation of mint, which has started taking over my garden, thanks to my neighbour who started growing the mint without any barriers. We’ve got a fence between our gardens but the mint is a major problem if you don’t start growing it properly. I also have a groundhog who moved into the neighbours’ and my garden. I was standing in my neighbour’s garden the other day, admiring how big their bean plants were compared to mine. I looked around the corner towards their lettuce patch, and not two feet from me was a groundhog sitting comfortably, it had a bunch of my neighbours lettuce hanging out of his mouth, he looked like he was really enjoying munching his meal
Groundhogs are stubborn, he will not leave as long as there is food in both our gardens. We’ll have to try to cage him and bring him far, far away. This animal doesn’t belong living in town. But he did try to make a home in one of the best gardens in town……

Shodo May 11, 2007 at 4:20 pm

I deliberately moved some stinging nettles into my garden, after 2 months last year of walking to the woods and coming home with bags full. I felt great! And the soup tasted good.

Picking: wear gloves (leather, not permeable) and bring a knife. I chopped off the top 4-8″ and let it fall into the pail. Back home, I rinsed it and removed stray grasses and leaves (not too many). Then I threw it into a soup pot with water. After cooking I blendered it.

Any soup designed for greens will probably work. My two:
Soup A: features cheese – use any leftover chunks and bits – also some onions or wild onions, and salt/tamari/Bragg’s.
Soup B: main addition is nutritional yeast; onions or other flavors are good, something salty essential.
Sometimes I added cooked potatoes (to either)before blendering; they make the soup creamier.

I did write these recipes down but they are not at home.

This is not an “if necessary” it is one of the most desirable foods you can find.

Soup

Thomas Brook February 17, 2008 at 2:51 pm

According to books I’ve read, Nettles are beneficial to the liver. As the liver has multiple effects the whole body, one might use this plant for a wide variety of ailments. I used a different variant of nettles while in the caribbean. I found them useful for my health.

Jasmine February 28, 2008 at 9:52 am

Wow that is amazing, I have never read about such interesting plants. I have seen some fairly interesting plants at fumigate.ca but nothing like I have seen here. How common are those plants?

Kenny Point February 28, 2008 at 12:19 pm

Jasmine, it’s not easy to say how common these plants such as stinging nettles, watercress, asparagus, horsetail, etc. are, and how often they can be found growing wild. It partly depends on where you live but once you develop an eye for spotting them and become familiar with wild plants and edible weeds you will find them popping up in places that you never would have expected.

siberianwolf June 2, 2008 at 1:48 am

Hello from New Zealand, I have just read the article on stinging nettles. I love them to bits for eating… I have to have a big helping every day. I also love them in smoothies, but I do wonder… will they be stinging my insides as they are taken in the raw state???!! Can anyone tell me???!!!

siberianwolf June 2, 2008 at 1:57 am

This is siberianwolf again! I forgot to tick the box allowing me to be notified when there is a comment posted.

Kenny Point June 2, 2008 at 3:02 am

Hmmm, that’s a good question… never heard that one before and I never would have considered eating stinging nettles in their raw state. Sounds like you haven’t noticed any irritation from consuming your nettle smoothies, so it could be that the blending and crushing of the plant fibers breaks down the stinging properties just like cooking does… but that’s just a guess on my part, I can’t say for certain! Anyone else with any information regarding consuming raw stinging nettles? I think I’ll stick with cooking this wild edible plant!

siberianwolf June 3, 2008 at 4:43 pm

Hi Kenny from a chilly but sunny wintery (straight off Antarctica!) morning. Many thanks for your reply! No! I have not noticed any internal irritation at all. I just rinse the nettles and throw them in with whatever else I am smoothying! They are delicious with pineapple and or pear….whatever takes your fancy. I use a very big hanful of nettles. I must say that I love the nettles steamed with mushrooms, steamed chestnuts and mandarins… its to die for. In fact you have just talked me into making that for lunch today! Come on Kenny…I challenge you to down a nettle smoothie and I’d like to hear your comments! Are you up for it???????

BJ_BOBBI_JO June 28, 2008 at 10:34 pm

Do stinging nettles lose their ability to sting?
I ask because this year I have been going to the same old yearly patch of stinging needles in my woods. I wanted to pick them to make my own homemade hair rinse but they seem to have lost their stinging abilities this year so I figure something is wrong with them so I leave them be.

Tshering Milarepa April 22, 2010 at 9:59 pm

I grew up with nettles soup and millet dough in the southern foothills of Bhutan. It had been in our diet ever since Bhutanese larnt to cook and eat. It is the best thing in the world. Nettles grow everywhere in Bhutan and nobody complains. Parents use it quite well to tame their wild children with a bundle dipped in water and placing on the thigh. We never worry about harvesting the leaves. Gloves are largely unknown to us. We simply have a thin piece of bamboo bent to make a pair of tongs. Keep picking with force by breaking at the end where the leaves join the stem. Bring them home, wash and boil them and serve 50-50 to you and your cattle alike. It only needs a little bit of salt and red hot chilly peppers. Two weeks of nettle soup and millet dough – you grow red on your cheeks.

We make ropes for every thing with nettle. Tea and soup mean the same with our nettle. Very strong lasting nettle baskets and clothes can be made from stinging nettle fibre. There is more than one type of nettle in Bhutan. My friend Raman form Surey knows about turning fallow land into cultivable land using stinging nettle. He is great in making nice liquid manure mixing so many things including Khenpa sing ( a bitter plant -tete pati in Lhotshamkha), thengye-timur. That manure is rich-oh rich one cup is too much for many plants. He loves it and I love this great plant. Hurry up for a great receipe under the blue sky in the hills of Bhutan.

Tshering Milarepa

Barbie July 6, 2011 at 9:13 pm

I have taken Nettle capsules for asthma and allergies, and it really works! I have read it has many healing and nutritional qualities. I have tried to grow it from seed but haven’t had success.

I was in Santa Fe last Oct. at the Farmers Market and one of the vendors had plants for sale, but I couldn’t take them home on the train. However, I think I shall try again to either order live plants next season or else attempt to grow from seed again, this time more carefully. It’s odd that I’ve never found or known of any wild nettles in this area. I know any dark green one can cook or steam is a healthy addition to the diet, and the garden. My substitute last year and this is Tuscany Black Kale also known by other monikers. It is very delicious, and grows well all season even here in our hot summers in NE Oklahoma.

Nadya August 28, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Re: raw nettles in smoothies, etc – the enzymes are what are so helpful for asthma! The capsules are probably from freeze-dried nettles (which retain those enzymes)!
I took a wild crafting class with Ryan Drum over 20 years ago, & his young son showed us how to CAREFULLY smooth down the nettle hairs & eat a raw nettle ‘pill!’ I’ve also had them juiced with carrots, & make a barely cooked nettle pesto (Ryan says that they retain the enzymes if you steam < 3 minutes) using your normal pesto recipe, substituting nettle for basil.

The post from Tshering points to the fiber use – 'Ramie' is made from one of the nettle relatives. Like Flax & hemp, it's a 'bast' fiber – as long as the plant is tall! & can be coarse or fine, depending on how much you process it. I knit little bags for sprouting seed using nettle fiber from Nepal (from our local yarn shop)
I love this bit from Grieve (Modern Herbal) "The poet Cambell tells us: In Scotland, I have eaten nettles, I have slept in nettle sheets, & I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The young & tender nettle is an excellent potherb. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought nettle cloth more durable than any other species of linen,"
This was the plant that supplied thread used in the Germanic & Scandinavian nations before the introduction of flax, the name may be derived from 'noedl' (a needle) (Modern Herbal, p 575)
Nettles & flax take a lot of work to process, as you have to rot off the outer fiber, & then 'break' the stalks to soften before you even get to the spinning part … but baskets? Intriguing!

Grtea September 19, 2011 at 1:27 pm

I always have at least 1 pot of nettle soup in the spring. I make a base of onion, leek and celery. The nettles are washed and cut small. I add them raw at the end and use a handblender to mix them fine. Delicious and cleansing after a long winter.

Greta September 19, 2011 at 1:30 pm

I landed on this page trying to find growing instructions. The single plant is not growing well. It is for use in Biodynamic preparations. The plant has been the same size for some years. Odd, I know.

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