Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is a perennial flowering plant with many beneficial uses on the homestead. It is native to Europe, Asia, northern Africa, and western North America. It is a dioecious and herbaceous plant. It may grow up to 1-2 m tall during summer but in winter it withers down. It is noted for attracting wildlife.
Most of the plants are have non-stinging hairs on the leaves and the stems. But some subspecies have stingy hairs. These hairs are called trichomes. They get attached to the skin when touched and transfers irritating chemical such as acetylcholine, histamine, serotonin, moroidin, leukotrienes, and formic acid. These chemicals can cause a painful sensation or paresthesia on the skin. Due to its stinging nature, it’s also known as the burn nettle, burn weed, and burn hazel.
The stinging action of the plant can be neutralized by applying heat or by thoroughly drying the leaves. So cooked leaves are perfectly safe to consume. But only the young leaves should be used as the older leaves develop a gritty substance called cystoliths which may cause irritation to the kidneys.
Consuming the plant may interfere with allopathic drugs for diabetes mellitus, hypertension & depression drugs like morphine, alcohol. The nettle should be avoided during pregnancy as well.
Where it grows
Urtica dioica can adapt and grow in a wide range of environment. It is hardy to zone (UK) 4 and zone (USDA) 4-9 and not frost tender. The soil can be light (sandy), medium (loamy) or heavy (clay) soils and it can also flourish in any soil pH level, be it acid, neutral and basic (alkaline). But it prefers moist soil.
It can grow in semi-shade like light woodland or no shade. The stinging nettle can withstand strong winds but not the salty maritime exposure.
The flowers are dioecious. That is the individual flowers are either male or female, but each plant carry flowers of a single sex only. So both male and female plants must be grown for reproduction. The flowers are not self-fertile and pollinated by the wind.
Why We Like It
- Strong flax-like fiber is found in the stem of the plant. This fiber can be used for making strings and cloths. It can also be used for making paper. But the fiber is a little difficult to harvest and less in quantity than flax.
- The left over plant matter after fiber production is a good source of biomass. It has been used in the manufacture of sugar, starch, protein and even ethyl alcohol.
- An oil obtained from the seeds is used as lamp oil.
- It also produces an essential ingredient herbal compost activator. This is a dried and powdered mixture of several herbs that can be added to a compost heap in order to speed up bacterial activity and thus shorten the time needed to make the compost.
- The nettle leaves are also an excellent ingredient for the compost heap. They can be soaked in water for 7 – 21 days to make a very nutritious liquid feed for plants.
- This liquid feed is both insect repellent and a good foliar feed. The growing plant increases the essential oil content of other nearby plants, thus making them more resistant to insect pests.
- Flies are repelled by the plant. A bunch of freshly cut stems has could be used as a repellent in food cupboards.
- The juice of the plant, or a decoction formed by boiling the herb in a strong solution of salt, will curdle milk and thus acts as a rennet substitute.
- This same juice, if rubbed into small seams of leaky wooden tubs, will coagulate and make the tub watertight again.
- A hair wash is made from the infused leaves and this is used as a tonic and antidandruff treatment.
- A beautiful and permanent green dye is obtained from a decoction of the leaves and stems.
- A yellow dye is obtained from the root when boiled with alum.
“Nettles have a long history of use in the home as a herbal remedy and nutritious addition to the diet[K]. A tea made from the leaves has traditionally been used as a cleansing tonic and blood purifier so the plant is often used in the treatment of hay fever, arthritis, anaemia etc. The whole plant is antiasthmatic, antidandruff, astringent, depurative, diuretic, galactogogue, haemostatic, hypoglycaemic and a stimulating tonic[4, 9, 21, 36, 165, 238]. An infusion of the plant is very valuable in stemming internal bleeding, it is also used to treat anaemia, excessive menstruation, haemorrhoids, arthritis, rheumatism and skin complaints, especially eczema. Externally, the plant is used to treat skin complaints, arthritic pain, gout, sciatica, neuralgia, haemorrhoids, hair problems etc. The fresh leaves of nettles have been rubbed or beaten onto the skin in the treatment of rheumatism etc. This practice, called urtification, causes intense irritation to the skin as it is stung by the nettles. It is believed that this treatment works in two ways. Firstly, it acts as a counter-irritant, bringing more blood to the area to help remove the toxins that cause rheumatism. Secondly, the formic acid from the nettles is believed to have a beneficial effect upon the rheumatic joints. For medicinal purposes, the plant is best harvested in May or June as it is coming into flower and dried for later use[4, 238]. This species merits further study for possible uses against kidney and urinary system ailments. The juice of the nettle can be used as an antidote to stings from the leaves and an infusion of the fresh leaves is healing and soothing as a lotion for burns. The root has been shown to have a beneficial effect upon enlarged prostate glands. A homeopathic remedy is made from the leaves. It is used in the treatment of rheumatic gout, nettle rash and chickenpox, externally is applied to bruises. The German Commission E Monographs, a therapeutic guide to herbal medicine, approve Urtica dioica Stinging Nettle for rheumatic ailments (internal use of leaf), irrigation therapy, for inflammatory disease of the lower urinary tract and prevention of kidney ‘gravel’ formation, urination difficulty from benign prostatic hyperplasia (root) (see  for critics of commission E).” – Plants for the Future