Stinging Nettle Benefits: More Than a Pesky Weed

Rare is the herb that grows virtually unnoticed in a field yet makes itself conspicuous by contact. Such is the case with the humble stinging nettle, or Urtica dioica. Considered a weed by most, stinging nettle benefits are starting to get attention. This rising star can be used as a natural diuretic and as a treatment for benign prostatic hyperplasia.

| June/July 1996

  • If you can avoid contact with the stinging hairs of Urtica dioica (wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting the leaves), you will find a plethora of stinging nettle benefits.

Rare is the herb that grows virtually unnoticed in a field yet makes itself conspicuous by contact. Such is the case with the humble stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), considered a weed by most but now a rising star as stinging nettle benefits include its use as a natural diuretic and a treatment for benign prostatic hyperplasia.

Stinging nettle is a perennial­ member of the nettle family (Urticaceae). Two varieties of U. dioica are found in North America. The native variety, U. d. var. procera, has male and female flowers on the same plant, whereas those of the European variety, U. d. var. dioica, are on different plants. Plants grow from 2 to 6 feet tall from a creeping rootstock. The square stems of the European variety bear opposite ovate, sharp-pointed, toothed leaves with a heart-shaped base that may reach 6 inches in length. The leaves of the North American variety are narrower and may lack the heart-shaped base. Drooping from the leaf axils, racemes of inconspicuous greenish flowers bloom from June to September. Stinging nettle is found in fields, waste places, and moist thickets.

I learned to identify stinging nettle in a sheep pasture—the hard way. The sheep had left the stands of green, weedy plants alone, and while herding them one summer afternoon clad in shorts, I discovered why. Both the leaves and the fibrous stems are covered with tiny, hollow, silica-tipped hairs that when touched inject an irritant from their bladderlike base. A variety of compounds act in concert to produce the stinging, which usually lasts for about an hour but may persist for up to twelve hours in some individuals. Folk treatments for the sting include rubbing the affected area with either mashed jewelweed leaves (Impatiens pallida or I. biflora), yellow dock leaves (Rumex crispus), or juice from the stems of the nettle. The last treatment might be worth trying, given the obvious availability of the raw materials.

Traditional Stinging Nettle Benefits and Uses

If you can avoid contact with the stinging hairs (wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting the leaves), you will find stinging nettle to be a plant of many uses. The spring leaves make a tasty spinach substitute when boiled as a potherb and have been used to treat scurvy. They also provide dietary fiber. The dried herb may be sprinkled on salads, soups, vegetables, and other foods for a subtle salty flavor and a rich supply of iron, magnesium, potassium, calcium, vitamins A and C, and protein. (The sting is tamed by cooking or drying.)

European herbal practitioners consider nettle a diuretic, astringent, and treatment for anemia (due to its high iron content). It is also believed to purify the blood and stimulate milk flow. Both the powdered leaves and the fresh juice have been applied to cuts to stop bleeding and taken as a tea to lessen excessive menstrual flow as well as to treat nosebleeds, hemorrhoids, and diarrhea. Nettle tea has also been taken to stimulate blood circulation and to treat mild acne and eczema.

Even the sting has been utilized. Some people used to keep a pot of stinging nettle in the kitchen window in the belief that an occasional sting would alleviate their arthritis, and in King’s American Dispensatory, authors Harvey Wickes Felter and John Uri Lloyd write that paralysis “is said to have been cured by whipping the affected limbs” with fresh nettle leaves.

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