Stinging Nettle

Urtica dioica

Stinging nettle

Stinging nettle is one of the most hated plants in North America, but I’m going to give you reason to seek this plant out instead of run at the sight of it. Not only is it edible, but I have also heard it be called the multivitamin of plants.

Identification

The stinging nettle is a perennial plant that is one of first to come up in the spring.   You can find them in moist, fertile soil in woods and beside rivers. The plant grows around 5 feet and has lanceolate shaped leaves in an opposite pattern. The margins are toothed and the veins are sunken.

Close up of leaves

Generally unbranched, this plant’s distinct stem is square and has four grooves.  It is hollow and composed of stringy fibers.

Stinging nettle stem

This plant is dioecious, which means that plants can either have male or female parts, but not both. Both male and female plants produce flowers, but they take different forms. Females have very small flowers clustered in spikes that droop from the leaf axis. Fruits eventually grow in these.

Female flowers

Males’ flowers also form in spikes at the leaf axis, but these are fewer and stand upwards.

Male flowers

The plant is covered in hairs that cause burning, redness, and slight swelling, giving the stinging nettle its name.

Stinging hairs

Nutrition and Medicinal Qualities

The plant’s strong defense should tell you something: it needs to protect itself from being eaten. This means it is tasty and nutritious! Stinging nettles are rich in iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, manganese, silica, iodine, sodium, and sulfur. They have lots of vitamin C and B, beta carotene, and quickly digested amino acids. The plant is 10% protein.

The plant is highly medicinal, and most people make nettle tea to gain these benefits. Like most spring plants, stinging nettle is detoxifying because it is a diuretic and increases the lymphatic system’s function of excretion. Many use it as a tonic because as it rids the body of toxins it also replenishes with its high nutrient levels.

Stinging nettle is an anti-histamine and helps with allergies and inflammation. This quality also helps stop bleeding and is useful for small cuts. The plant is an expectorant, relieving the symptoms of colds and asthma.

The nettle’s high mineral and vitamin levels, along with the fact that it is antiseptic and cleansing, cause it to be good for the skin and hair. Apparently many shampoos and face washes contain stinging nettle!

The most surprising medicinal use I have heard is the nettle’s sting. Applying the sting to bee stings or other burns reduces the the pain only to the level of a nettle sting. It also can help with arthritis and joint pain.

Harvesting and Preparation

The young stems and leaves are edible. Some people I know can pick nettles without being stung, but I usually wear gloves when handing the plant. Break off the plant above the node, where the meristem forms new growth, to encourage fast growth and branching.

Cooking the plant for a very short period of time eliminates the sting. It can be steamed, boiled, or sautéed.

In case you get stung by nettle, there are a few plants that relieve the sting: burdock, plantain, dock, and jewelweed. Simply chew or press the leaves and then rub them on the sting.

Recipes

Creamed Nettles (from The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook)

2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 1/2 tablespoons flour

1 cup drained silken tofu

1/2 cup vegetable stock or water

1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime or lemon juice

2 teaspoons tamari soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

4 cups stinging nettle leaves, chopped

1. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and flour and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, in a blender, combine the tofu, stock, lime juice, tamari, nutmeg, and pepper and process until smooth. Stir this mixture into the skillet ingredients and bring the mixture to a simmer over low heat, stirring often. Stir in the nettles and bring the skillet to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer, covered, until the nettles are just wilted, about 5 minutes. Serve Creamed Nettles hot over noodles or hot grains.

Nettle Pizza (found here: http://www.myrecipes.com/recipe/nettle-pizza-50400000112909/)

2 qts. (4 oz.) lightly packed stinging nettle leaves or baby spinach leaves

2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/4 to 1/2 tsp. red chile flakes

1 pound pizza dough

1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

Salt (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 450° with rack on bottom. Wearing long gloves, rinse nettles well. Drain.

2. Sizzle garlic a few seconds in 1 tbsp. oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add nettles and sauté until wilted, 2 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat. If nettles are wet, drain in a colander, pat dry, and return to pan. Gently mix nettles with 1 tbsp. more oil, the pepper, and chile flakes.

3. Roll dough on a floured board into a 9- by 14-in. rectangle. Ease dough onto an oiled baking sheet, fixing the shape if necessary. Using fingers, roll edges of dough over to make a 1/2-in. rim.

4. Scatter cheese, then nettles, over dough. Bake until crust is crisp, 15 minutes. Drizzle with remaining 1 tbsp. oil and cut into squares. Season with salt if you like.

 

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