Common nettle (Urtica dioica) or stinging nettle (although not all plants of this species sting), is a herbaceous perennial flowering plant, native to Europe, Asia, northern Africa, and western North America, and is the best-known member of the nettle genus Urtica. The species is divided into six subspecies, five of which have many hollow stinging hairs called trichomes on the leaves and stems, which act like hypodermic needles, injecting histamine and other chemicals that produce a stinging sensation when contacted by humans and other animals. The plant has a long history of use as a medicine, as a food source and as a source of fibre.
Uses of Nettle as Food
Urtica dioica has a flavour similar to spinach and cucumber when cooked and is rich in vitamins A, C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium. Young plants were harvested by Native Americans and used as a cooked plant in spring when other food plants were scarce.
Soaking stinging nettles in water or cooking will remove the stinging chemicals from the plant, which allows them to be handled and eaten without injury. After the stinging nettle enters its flowering and seed setting stages the leaves develop gritty particles called cystoliths, which can irritate the urinary tract. In its peak season, nettle contains up to 25% protein, dry weight, which is high for a leafy green vegetable. The leaves are also dried and may then be used to make a herbal tea, as can also be done with the nettle’s flowers.
Nettles can be used in a variety of recipes, such as polenta, pesto and purée. Nettle soup is a common use of the plant, particularly in Northern and Eastern Europe. In Nepal (सिस्नो in Nepali) and the Kumaon & Gargwal region of Northern India, stinging nettle is known as sisnu, kandeli and bicchū-būṭī (Hindi: बिच्छू-बूटी) respectively. It is also found in abundance in Kashmir. There it is called soi. It is a very popular vegetable and cooked with Indian spices.
Nettles are used in Albania as part of the dough filling for the börek. Its name is byrek me hithra. The top baby leaves are selected and simmered, then mixed with other ingredients like herbs, rice, etc. before being used as a filling between dough layers.
In the UK, an annual World Nettle Eating Championship draws thousands of people to Dorset, where competitors attempt to eat as much of the raw plant as possible. Competitors are given 60 cm (20 in) stalks of the plant, from which they strip the leaves and eat them. Whoever strips and eats the most stinging nettle leaves in a fixed time is the winner. The competition dates back to 1986, when two neighbouring farmers attempted to settle a dispute about which had the worst infestation of nettles.
Nettle leaves are steeped in a concentrated sugar solution so the flavour is extracted into the sugar solution. The leaves are then removed and a source of citric acid (usually lemon juice) is added to help preserve the cordial and add a tart flavour.
Commercially produced cordials are generally quite concentrated and are usually diluted by one part cordial to ten parts water – thus a 0.5 litres (0.11 imp gal; 0.13 US gal) bottle of cordial would be enough for 5.5 litres (1.2 imp gal; 1.5 US gal) diluted. The high concentration of sugar in nettle cordial gives it a long shelf life.
There are also many recipes for alcoholic nettle beer, which is a countryside favourite in the British Isles.
Nettle leaf is a herb that has a long tradition of use as an adjuvant remedy in the treatment of arthritis in Germany.
Urtica dioica herb has been used in the traditional Austrian medicine internally (as tea or fresh leaves) for attempted treatment of disorders of the kidneys and urinary tract, gastrointestinal tract, locomotor system, skin, cardio-vascular system, hemorrhage, flu, rheumatism and gout.
As Old English stiðe, nettle is one of the nine plants invoked in the pagan Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm, recorded in the 10th century. Nettle is believed to be a galactagogue, a substance that promotes lactation.
Urtication, or flogging with nettles, is the process of deliberately applying stinging nettles to the skin in order to provoke inflammation. An agent thus used is known as a rubefacient (something that causes redness). This is done as a folk remedy in an attempt to treat rheumatism, providing temporary relief from pain.
Nettle Sting Treatment
Anti-itch drugs, usually in the form of creams containing antihistaminics or hydrocortisone may provide relief from the symptoms of being stung by nettles. But because of the combination of chemicals involved, other remedies may be required. Calamine lotion may be helpful, also urine – which has the advantage of usually being readily available. Many folk remedies exist for treating the itching, including Dandelion, horsetail (Equisetopsida spp.), leaf of dock (Rumex spp.), Greater Plantain, Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis and Impatiens pallida), the underside of a fern (the spores), mud, saliva, or baking soda, oil and onions, lemon juice, and topical use of milk of magnesia.