Edible Weeds 101: The Health Benefits of Stinging Nettles

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Stinging nettles (Urtica diocia) may sound intimidating, but once you get past their prickly exterior this classic spring weed is packed with good stuff that offers many health benefits.

stinging nettles 
The leaves and stem of a stinging nettle plant are lined with fine hairs containing formic acid, which gives the plant its sting (and thus its name). Photo By Annie & John/Courtesy Flickr. 

Vitamins and minerals: Nettles are an excellent source of protein. They also contain high amounts of vitamins A, B and C, as well as calcium, magnesium, potassium and zinc. 

Arthritis: Nettles have been used for centuries to treat arthritis. When applied to fingers and other affected areas, nettles can reduce arthritic pain—so much so that 85 percent of participants in a study at the University of Plymouth in England reported that the pain relief from applying nettles was significant enough to endure the sting and welts caused by the leaves. Nettles contain the neuro-transmitters serotonin and histamine, which may be responsible for the weed’s pain relieving qualities. Nettles can also be used to treat other types of pain, such as sore muscles.

Allergies: Tired of sniffling and suffering through allergy season? Studies have shown stinging nettles to be effective at combating hay fever. Anti-inflammatory compounds and flavonoids found in this weed reduce the amount of histamine produced in an allergic response, meaning you’ll sneeze and itch a lot less than normal.

Detox: Because stinging nettles are a diuretic, they can be useful in cleansing and detox diets.

cooked stinging nettle 
Nettles lose their sting once cooked. Add this edible weed to soups, pastas and other dishes. Photo By Olga Massov/Courtesy Flickr.

Collection and Cooking 

Stinging nettles are covered with fine hairs containing formic acid. Brush bare skin against this plant’s leaves or stem, and it will release that acid, causing a sting and welt that may last for an hour. For this reason, it’s necessary to wear gloves when collecting and handling nettles. Collect nettles in the spring when the leaves are young and tender.

Fortunately, cooking, steaming or drying the nettles takes the bite out of this weed. Cooked nettles taste excellent with just salt, pepper and butter, or they can be incorporated into more extravagant dishes, such as this Potato Nettle Soup. Nettles can also be steeped as a tea.