Family: Urticaceae, the Nettle Family
Description: Non-native to eastern North America, perennial herb up to 2.5 m tall. Leaves oppositely arranged with heart-shaped base, sharply toothed, stinging hairs covering leaves and stems. Very small green flowers.
Abundance: Occasional on Mt. Desert Island, frequently weedy elsewhere
Habitat: Coastal meadows, roadsides, field edges, sunny openings
Plant Parts Used: Leaves, seeds
Food: Very edible!
Medicine: Medicinal teas, high nutrition, arthritis, numb legs, kidney restorative, vitality, thyroid, anemia, capillary fragility, hemorrhoids, varicose veins, allergies, prostate problems, antihistamine
Nettles are another one of those weeds that is simply under-appreciated. Yes, it packs a significant sting, but the discomfort goes away quickly. Growing up, my parents and I would collect fiddleheads on the banks of a stream behind my house in early spring. Besides the persistent blackflies and the fiddleheads, there were two plants I was very aware of: the pungent skunk cabbage and the painful nettles. It was not until I turned 20 that I realized that we should have been collecting the nettles! When I arrived in England to start my apprenticeship with herbalist Anne McIntyre, my first task was to go around her garden collecting all the nettle tops I could find. I collected a huge basketful and made a variety of rich green soups and sauces, and with the excess I made tinctures and glycerites that Anne used in her practice. Nettles can be used just like spinach and also make a tasty pesto. I quickly became jealous of the profusion of nettles that grew in the U.K. Some Mainers I know plant their own nettle gardens because they just do not grow as commonly here!
Nettles are high in iron, vitamin C, and protein. Nancy suggests including nettles in any medicinal tea blend simply due to how nutritious they are. The effect of the stinging hairs disappears when briefly steamed, boiled, or even blended. But these formic acid-containing hairs are not useless: nettles have been used for treating arthritis by touching the arthritic region with the plant, similar to bee-sting therapy. Nancy also told me about a man whose legs were completely numb, though they still functioned. He walked through a nettle patch every day and successfully regained the feeling in his legs. The Nuu-chah-nulth rubbed nettles on the body to treat aches, pains, and backaches and applied a poultice of the steamed leaves and roots for arthritis. The Nitinaht and Nlaka’pamux peoples also used nettles for arthritis.
Nancy concluded, “If you didn’t have any other plant, that’d be the one you’d want to have around!”
Deb uses nettle seed tea or tincture as a kidney restorative; this effect is specifically helpful for people with fatigue, because it supports vitality and energy in the body. She told me that there is ongoing research into using nettle seed for low thyroid function. Deb uses the leaves as food or as tea. The leaves are high in iron and so are effective for treating anemia, even in pregnant or nursing mothers. For women who have heavy menstrual flows and are weak and anemic as a result, taking nettle leaf can revitalize the iron supply. Nettle leaf can also help with capillary fragility or papery skin, hemorrhoids, and varicose veins. For people who suffer from bad allergies, consuming the leaves regularly (as tea, food, or tincture, for example) at least one month before allergy season will help strengthen cells and decrease the histamine response due to its antihistamine properties. Nettle roots are also included in some herbal formulas for treating BPH—benign prostatic hyperplasia. Nettles are generally safe even if taken in addition to other medicines, but as always, it is important to talk to one’s doctor before mixing medicines.
Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.
- Michener, Martin C. Botany Everywhere: Woods, Field, Home, and Garden Plants of NE USA, Third Edition. Hollis, NH: MIST Software Associates, Inc., 2009. PDF.
- Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono, Me.: University of Maine, 2010. Print.
- Moerman, Daniel. “Native American Ethnobotany: A Database of Foods, Drugs, Dyes and Fibers of Native American Peoples, Derived from Plants.” UM-Dearborn College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters. Web. 14 Dec. 2010. <http://herb.umd.umich.edu/>.
- Reitze, Raymond and Nancy. Personal interview. 8, 15 Oct. 2010.
- Runyon, Linda. From Crabgrass Muffins to Pine Needle Tea: a National Wild Food Field Guide. Shiloh, NJ: Wild Food, 2002. Print.
- Soule, Deb. Personal interview. 4 Feb. 2011.