It's a wonder anyone ever got past the nettle’s sting to find the wealth of protein, vitamins, and minerals within. But they did find many nettle benefits, and we’re fortunate. In various studies, dried nettles have been shown to contain between 25 and 42 percent protein—making them one of the best-known green vegetable sources of protein. They’re also rich in calcium, magnesium, and zinc, and contain high levels of potassium, selenium, and other minerals, as well as vitamins B, C, and A.
TRY THIS: Nettle Soup recipe
Ancient Health: Nettle History
Nettles have been used medicinally for centuries. The most ancient medical use of this prickly plant was for urtication—whipping paralyzed limbs with fresh nettles to bring muscles into action. Oldtime herbalists used to slap the flesh of arthritis sufferers with nettles to counter pain. In more recent times, hot poultices of nettle leaves have been used for this purpose.
Roman soldiers planted stinging nettles throughout Europe’s colder regions and rubbed the plants on their legs and arms to warm their blood. In commercial trade, mature nettle plants were an important source of fiber for making paper, rope, and cloth for fine table and bed linens. So versatile are nettles that the Scottish poet Thomas Campbell once reported, “In Scotland, I have eaten nettle, have slept in nettle sheets, and have dined off a nettle tablecloth.”
Modern Medicine: Nettle
Today, nettles are widely used in alternative medicine. Because of their diuretic action—once ingested, they encourage the flushing of the system—they are often included in cleansing diets. In Germany, a preparation of nettle roots is approved by authorities to relieve urinary problems associated with benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). And in many studies, nettles have been shown to alleviate the symptoms of hay fever; nettles can produce allergic reactions in some people though, so try small quantities at first to see how you’ll react.
Why do some nettles sting?
Three species of stinging nettle are common in the United States—Urtica dioica, U. chamaedryoides, and U. urens. U. urens and one variety of U. dioica were intentionally imported from Europe for food, medicine, and fiber, and they have since become naturalized throughout the United States. The rest are natives and equally useful. They all may be found growing along roadsides and ditches, in moist woods and thickets, in rubbish heaps, and in gardens and other places where the soil is moist and rich in nitrogen.
Nettles normally grow to three feet but can grow as high as six feet. The entire plant is covered with tiny hollow hairs with swollen bases. These bases are filled with the source of the nettle’s sting—formic acid, histamines, acetylcholine, serotonins, 5-hydroxytryptamine, and other unidentified compounds. If you accidentally rub up against stinging nettles, a centuries-old remedy says to soothe your pain with the juice of nettle itself. You can also ease the sting with juice from the crushed leaves of dock, burdock, mullein, plantain, or jewelweed. Each of these plants tends to grow near nettles, at least in North America. Additionally, drying, cooking, or steeping nettles will render the plants stingless.
If you think of nettles primarily in terms of their sting, it may be difficult to consider including them in your diet. But the stinging nettle, unusually rich as it is in protein, vitamins, and minerals, can make one of the most nutritious dishes I know.
Young nettle shoots are an excellent cooked vegetable when washed and then steamed in any water left clinging to the leaves. Cover the nettles and cook slowly until they are as tender as cooked spinach, then season with salt and pepper and serve (I like to add butter, too). These greens have a rich, strong, pleasant flavor that is enjoyed by Europeans, who add nettles to soups and casseroles and make them into fritters, beers, wines, puddings, and teas. They even make a stinging nettle cheese, which my wife and I fell in love with in England, and can occasionally find in U.S. cheese shops.
For cooking, stinging nettles need to be collected when the leaves are young, tender, and light green and the shoots no more than six to ten inches tall (the leaves of older plants are bitter and tough). Nettles can be mowed to the ground during the summer and new shoots will emerge and be as tasty as those found in spring. To avoid being stung, wear gloves to collect even young shoots.
Another way to enjoy nettles is to make an infusion from one-half teaspoon of dried nettle leaves steeped for eight minutes in two cups of boiling water. Strain the nettles out and sweeten the brew with honey. Natural healers recommend using this tea as a stimulant, a cure for head and chest colds and bronchitis, a tonic, a blood purifier, a mild laxative, and a diuretic, as well as to relieve asthma symptoms and jaundice. Nettle tea is also used to increase milk flow in nursing mothers, to bathe hemorrhoids, and to make an astringent gargle for a sore throat and bleeding gums.
A variation of this tea has also been used to stimulate hair growth, make hair thicker, and give it a nice sheen. Boil one teaspoon of dried leaves in two cups of water with two tablespoons of vinegar for thirty minutes, then use the tea as a rinse to reinvigorate the hair and restore color.
Peter A. Gail holds a doctorate in botany from Rutgers University and has spent his life researching traditional uses of backyard “weeds” for food and medicine. He is founder and director of Goosefoot Acres Center for Resourceful Living and Goosefoot Acres Press, and author of The Dandelion Celebration: A Guide to Unexpected Cuisine and 12 other books.