Introduction to my friend Urtica dioica, Stinging Nettles

April 2023 Herb of the Month

4/3/20237 min read

green leaves plant
green leaves plant

The first time an order of medicinal herbs arrived on my doorstep, I could hardly contain my excitement. Snatching up the bag and putting on the kettle, I filled my tea strainer, poured the water, and waited about 10 minutes. I’d been anticipating this moment since finishing the first book I ever read about herbalism, which recommended inviting a few plants into my life and taking the time to get to know them well. Enchanted by the folklore surrounding them and persuaded by their nutrient profile, I selected nettles. Imagine my disappointment when I took a sip.

Type nettles into any search bar and you’ll find countless herbalists and foragers extolling the virtues of this plant. Many have grown up consuming it, so they’re accustomed to the flavor. One thing that I have learned the hard way: if an herbalist ever tells you that a plant you haven’t tasted yet is delicious, you might want to take that with a grain of salt. There are many wonderful reasons to invite this plant into your life, but for me, flavor is not one of them (please don’t let this deter you from giving it a try - our taste buds are different and you can always pair it with something that is more appealing to you). Nettle flavor has a pronounced green earthiness to it, reflective of the mineral-rich content within. In the 7 years since our first meeting, nettle and I have become well acquainted and I have developed an appreciation (if not love), for this particular flavor.

Humans and nettles have thousands of years of history together. Today they’re considered a medicinal herb, but for most of human history, it was just food. Nettle is one of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet, with an impressive profile including many minerals, antioxidants, bioflavonoids, iron, and protein. In herb school, we’re taught about the concept of “nettle deficiency syndrome,” which is the idea that some modern health problems are either caused or exacerbated by the fact that many people simply don’t consume wild bitter greens anymore. (This is a topic for another day, but wild plants are generally more nutritious than domestic ones, which have been bred for appearance and flavor, not nutrition, and cultivated crops are far more likely to be grown in nutrient-depleted soils). It’s not really that we need to take nettles to correct mineral deficiencies we may have; it’s that we’re mineral deficient in the first place because most people are not consuming enough leafy greens, let alone those that are dark, bitter, or wild. It comes down to the fact that humans evolved consuming nettles and other wild leafy greens like it, and now many of us don't. Simply put, this is a profoundly nutritious and ancestral food that we could all benefit from building a relationship with.

Nettle will be an incredible ally to you, but her friendship doesn’t come easily. She’s called stinging nettle for good reason: in her raw, rooted state, brushing against this plant with your bare skin will cause an uncomfortable rash that could last all day. The sting comes from needle-like hairs that break off and embed themselves in the skin when touched. Kind of like a painful mosquito bite, this injects a mix of acetylcholine, formic acid, histamine, and serotonin (1). For some, the sting is part of the medicine: it encourages blood flow to the area, delivering nutrients. While this results in temporary inflammation, the net effect is anti-inflammatory. A temporary sting can bring relief to inflammatory conditions like arthritis. Building a relationship with nettles isn’t only about nutrition. When I drink nettle tea, I am reminded that the best partnerships don’t always come easily. Nettle teaches me to be a good friend, but to set boundaries and protect myself too.

By providing a big dose of minerals, nettle leaves bring the raw materials that the kidneys need in order to do their important job of cleaning the blood and breaking down protein. In folk medicine, nettles have been called a “blood builder” due to this action. Kidneys are a key component of the body’s detox pathways, and as a diuretic, nettle leaves help the kidneys to do this work more quickly. When drinking nettle leaf tea, you may notice that you urinate more liquid than you consumed - if you retain water, this is a good thing. Nettles can bring a clearing and draining sensation that relieves lymph stagnation, bloating, edema, and more. When consumed regularly, it is a wonderful ally for those who are prone to frequent urinary tract infections. By discouraging urine retention and encouraging more frequent flushing of the bladder, bacteria have less opportunity to multiply and toxins in the bladder have less time to irritate the sensitive tissue there. It was found to perform better than the leading pharmaceutical (furosemide) in reducing blood pressure via diuretic activity (2). Nettle leaf extract can help lower the blood levels of fasting glucose and AIC significantly, with the conclusion that it may improve glycemic control in type 2 diabetics needing insulin therapy (3). Though nettle leaf increases urine output and salt excretion, it replaces more minerals than are lost. Nettle leaves have an anti-inflammatory effect, which helps stabilize mast cells. As a result, nettle modulates histamine production, making it a valuable ally for allergy season.

Nettle root is extremely astringent, and has an affinity for exerting this action on the pelvic floor. Nettle root extract has been found to improve symptoms of BPH (benign prostatic hyperplasia, a non-cancerous condition in which the prostate is enlarged) (4). In this condition, the swollen prostate presses on the bladder, making one feel like they constantly have to pee, while simultaneously making urination difficult. One possible explanation for this is that nettle root seems to slow down the conversion of testosterone to DHT (dihydrotestosterone) (5). An excess of that conversion can lead to swelling of the prostate, male pattern baldness, and hair loss. It doesn't apear to decrease the actual swollen size of the prostate, but it has been shown to decrease all the symptoms. In one animal study, nettle root improved blood sugar balance and insulin resistance by increasing skeletal muscle insulin sensitivity (6).

The leaves are appropriate for everyday consumption for most people, but the seeds are treated differently. The seeds are considered adaptogenic and can help you feel more energetic. Be aware: this could provide a big boost that you may not need. Turn to it when you need extra support, on busy stressful days.

A monograph of Urtica dioica (stinging nettles)

Parts used: Leaves, roots, seeds

Notable compounds: aesculetin, betaine, caffeic acid, chlorogenic acid, chlorophylls, choline, flavonoids, isoquercitrin, kaempferol, porphyrins, protein (leaf is up to 30% protein), rutin, tannins

Energetics: Cool, dry, tonifying

Actions: diuretic, nutritive, alterative, and the seeds are adaptogenic

Origin: There are varieties native to Europe and Asia, and varieties native to North America.

Preparation suggestions: For a mineral rich drink, a long overnight water infusion is in order. Vinegar is really good at extracting minerals, so infusing nettles into a vinegar of your choosing for several weeks makes an excellent base for salad dressings. Fresh nettle leaf is an excellent pot green and can be added (cooked) to all kinds of savory dishes. Try it in pesto or any other type of green sauce or stir it into soups or stir frys. You can even add it to baked goods, which will yield a mild earthiness and a beautiful deep green color.

Stories: Since nettles are so good at protecting themselves, it follows that they were considered protective against illness, enemies, unwelcome spirits, and curses. The fibers in the stalk have been an important material of rope and cloth, and have come to be associated with the threshold between life and death. Nettle fibers have been found in burial cloths and are a common sight in burial grounds.

Notes and cautions: No known contraindications, but if you are already on diuretics or have low blood pressure, take it easy. Due to its diuretic nature, it can be drying. Those who have water retention, edema, or otherwise feel like they run “damp” may find this to be a welcome feeling, but others may not. For those who don’t want to feel dried out, consider pairing nettles with a more moistening ally like linden, violet, or marshmallow. If you find fresh nettles, they have to be eaten cooked or dry, which removes the sting. Nettles purchased dry are ready to be used.

To harvest: Nettles love soggy, wet ground, and grow most abundantly in places with high annual rainfall. Look for her near wetlands. Nettles accumulate oxalates as they grow, so harvest in the spring when they are young. Just give the plant a haircut by snipping the top third and leaving the rest (unless you want to dig for the root). If the plant is taller than your knee or has begun to flower, it’s too late to harvest. Garden gloves are recommended.

This is the first Herb of the Month dispatch of The Blueberry Patch. Every month I’ll feature a seasonally appropriate plant and wax poetic about it. Whether you are a serious herbal student or you just want to casually learn about plants, I encourage you to incorporate an Herb of the Month practice into your life. If it’s the herb I profile, great, but if you feel drawn towards some other plant, then by all means, follow that. The practice of selecting an herb of the month is a popular learning tool in herbal schools. If you decide to do this practice, then try consuming your selected herb every day of the month, in different ways. Make tea, decoctions, long overnight infusions, tinctures, mineral infusions, incorporate it into your food, and do all of this with the different edible parts of the plant. When it comes to incorporating a new plant into your life, the best knowledge of how it's going to make you feel will come from your own observations. We’re all different and we won’t all react the same way to plants - knowing what an herb can do for you ultimately has to come from your own experimentation and lived experience.