devil’s claw, devil’s plaything, nettle, burn nettle, burn hazel, burn weed
Stinging nettle is a common weed found in moist shady places in Europe, Asia, and North America. They are perennial, growing up to 4 feet tall in the summer and dying back in the winter. Leaves are opposite, heart-shaped and deeply toothed. Leaves and stems are very hairy with both stinging and non-stinging hairs. The stinging hairs are made of silica, like glass, and break off in the skin when touched injecting a variety of chemicals into the skin, including histamine, and others which cause a painful reaction.
Stinging nettles are an important larval food for many types of butterflies and moths.
History and Folklore
Stinging nettle is mentioned in the Nine herbs charm. It has been used in Europe for centuries as food in early spring when other sources of food were scarce, as a nutritive spring tonic and to build the strength and milk production of pregnant and lactating women and livestock and as medicine for various conditions. Hippocrates recorded 61 medicinal uses of the plant in the fourth and fifth centuries BCE.
Nettle was once widely used for its stem fibres which were retted and spun like flax. In Denmark, burial shrouds made of the resulting cloth have been found dating back 5000 years or more. Native Americans used the fibre for making fishing nets and for cordage.
Nettle leaves produce a green dye that was used in wartime Europe the make camouflage and is used to this day in Germany to keep canned vegetables looking a healthy green.
Plant nettles six to twelve inches apart in moist, rich soil that gets some shade. They will grow like a weed and spread out like crazy. They do grow well in a pot. If grown in the garden they should be surrounded by an underground barrier to prevent them from taking over. Stinging nettles are best grown in their own patch.
Cut nettles back before they seed so they don’t spread out of control.
Harvesting & Storage
Make sure you wear thick gloves and long sleeves and jeans when harvesting nettle. Their stingers can pierce through the thin fabric. Pluck young nettle leaves in the spring and dry or steam and then freeze to store. Cooking or drying will destroy the sting. Do not harvest or eat later season leaves because they will start to get tough and grainy. The grainy bits are said to cause urinary issues.
Cut the stalks to the ground in the autumn, strip off the leaves (and add them to your compost bin make a nettle tea fertilizer for your plants) and lay flat to dry. Once dried, the stalks can be broken up to retrieve the long fibers for hand spinning or shredded to make paper.
If you wait till after the first frost to harvest your nettle for fiber, you will find them much easier to work with.
Nettle can be burned to drive out negativity or unwanted spirits. It can also be used in protection bags, our ground into a powder and used in spells to break curses.
The long soft fibers from stinging nettle can be spun into thread or yarn and woven into fabric that is said to be as strong as hemp and as soft as cotton.
The stalks can be shredded and made into paper.
Cut and dry nettles to add to winter fodder for horses, cattle, goats, pigs, and sheep.
Nettle leaves make a lovely green dye. Add an iron mordant and the dye turns black, copper produces a lovely grey-green (like for camouflage). The roots can be boiled with alum for a nice yellow dye.
Stinging nettle tea is a great spring tonic and a good addition to the diet of anyone recovering from a long illness or who has chronic weakness, fatigue or anemia. Steep the dry or fresh leaves in boiled water for 10 minutes and strain. The steeping process will destroy the steam and what you have left is a delicious and nutritious green broth. It is also a great internal cleanser, useful for urinary tract problems and inflammatory conditions and is said to be helpful to and protective of the prostate.
Freeze-dried nettle tablets are useful for hayfever. Freeze-drying retains the sting chemicals which are helpful with allergic conditions.
Nettle tea, steamed nettles and other preparations containing nettle may be given to pregnant and lactating women and animals to keep them strong and healthy and to increase milk production.
A traditional remedy for rheumatism calls for smacking the affected area with fresh nettles, sting and all to relieve pain and inflammation.
Nettle leaves make a fabulous tea or soup stock.
Steamed nettles are a great side dish all their own. Try topping with vinegar, sesame seeds and sesame oil or almond slivers. Add them to any recipe calling for spinach or greens.
Nettles are high in protein, vitamin C & A and Iron.
Do not attempt to eat nettles without cooking them first.
While stinging nettles are generally perfectly safe to consume as food or tea, they can act as a diuretic and stimulate abdominal contractions in sufficient amounts. Those already taking diuretics, have low blood pressure, have problems with their blood sugar or are pregnant should approach nettle with caution. Nettles can also react with certain medications including, sedatives, lithium and blood pressure medications. Check with your doctor.
Nettle Profile at Mountain Rose Herbs
101 Uses for Stinging Nettles by Piers Warren