In Mother Nature’s Garden: Stinging Nettle

Stinging nettle and its bad reputation! It stings, it burns, it’s dangerous, it’s invasive… And yet, it’s also an absolutely incredible plant for your health and cooking. It’s undoubtedly one of the most interesting edible plants, and because it’s fairly invasive, it’s also virtually inexhaustible in nature!

The Plant

Native to Eurasia, the stinging nettle, or Urtica dioica, has made its home all over the world (except perhaps at the poles, because there’s not much growing there). It likes nitrogen-rich soil and part shade. That’s about all there is to know about this plant if you want to grow it.

To get rid of it, I’ve heard that planting a few potatoes at its feet it will be enough to starve it of nitrogen, but well, I read that on an unsourced website, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the information. Personally, I’d rather eat it to control it.

But… It Stings!

Yes and no.

Some people react very strongly to nettle, but these are rare. Nettle has tiny stinging hairs which, when broken, release a toxin that causes a burning sensation. Antihistamines may be effective in limiting pain in extreme cases, but I still recommend that you consult a health specialist before taking any cream or medication.

Personally, the plants that make me itch the most are brambles (raspberry and mulberry). I’m lucky enough to have very little reaction to nettles. It stings like wool and goes away when I wash with soap. My partner can pick young nettle leaves without stinging himself by gently grasping the leaves without slipping his fingers!

Stinging nettle hairs. Photo: Frank Vincentz

In any case, I recommend wearing gloves and not rolling around in it (it’s still nettle), but unless you have a very intense allergic reaction, there’s no real danger in handling nettle.

Benefits for nature

Many insects in Europe specialize in nettles. This means they absolutely need this plant to feed or reproduce. It’s a plant that attracts butterflies and beetles, but also smaller insects that are harmful in the field. It can therefore be used for biological control, diverting these pests from our crops.

As Urtica dioica is an introduced species, I wouldn’t recommend growing it. You can actually buy seeds in North America. I have read texts that claim it is considered invasive but couldn’t find any sources to back that statement. In any case, it is a weedy plant and a hassle for farmers. There is also a nettle which is native to North America, Urtica dioica subsp. gracilis. In short, feel free to harvest all the stinging nettle you want! – Ed.

European peacock caterpillar (Aglais io) and small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) on their favorite plant. Photo: Manfred Werner (Tsui)

Very rich in nitrogen, nettle is also a good composting material. And what about the famous nettle manure used as an organic fertilizer?

It’s definitely a very useful plant in nature, and an introduced variety that, for once, isn’t too much of a problem. It has found an interesting place in our environment.

Identifying Stinging Nettle

First of all, I’ve never seen a nettle plant by itself. It spreads by rhizome, forming dense bushes a little over a metre high.

As you approach, you can see that the bush is made up of dozens (hundreds?) of straight, unbranched stems. All along the stem, there are opposite leaves (one on each side of the main stem) and their petiole is quite long (the “stem” of the leaf).

If you look even more closely, you’ll see that the leaves are very serrated and that there are small, elongated clusters of pale green to pink flowers.

I’ve never seen a plant that looks enough like nettle to confuse it.

Responsible Harvesting

Ha ha ha! I dare you to pick too much nettle!

Cooking With Nettle

Once in the kitchen, cooking, drying and pestoing destroy the nettle’s stinging needles. There’s no danger of stinging your tongue. Some people even eat the young leaves in salads!

The first time I used nettle, I hated its taste, which I found too strong. I was looking at my nettle pesto pasta with discouragement when I decided to add tomatoes. BAM! I no longer use tomatoes in cooking without nettle: they’re made to go together!

I’ve learned to work with this plant and to tame its taste, and I love using it as a spice. I dry lots of it in the summer and have some on hand for the winter. I know, however, that it can also be eaten boiled or sautéed like spinach. Give it a try! And let me know how you like your nettles.

The advantage is that it can be hidden anywhere if you’ve mastered the kitchen! Photo : Silvia.

Health Benefits

Nettle is a MAGICAL plant. The witches and shamans of this world know it: it solves all problems!

Me, I’m a scientist, so I only believe scientific facts. And we’re in luck: a lot of studies have been done on nettle!

First of all, it’s a very rich plant from a nutritional point of view. It contains proteins, minerals and vitamins A and C in abundance.

It also contains a good deal of flavonoids, acid phenol and scopoletol.

According to studies, then, this plant has multiple virtues: it’s a truly effective anti-diabetic, an anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic, an antimicrobial, anticancer, antioxidant, analgesic, and an inhibitor of stomach ulcer development.

Pause to catch my breath

I insist that these virtues have all been proven by science, but just because you season your spaghetti with a pinch of nettle doesn’t mean you’ll live to be 100!

Talk to your health specialist if you want to use it “medicinally”, I’m not the right person to prescribe nettle tea or capsules.

Photo : Mareefe

What’s more, the anti-carcinogenic and anti-microbial properties have only been tested in a test tube, not in a living organism. So, yes, it kills some bacteria when in “controlled” contact (in vitro), but how effective would the effect be in a body? We don’t know.

Could we get rid of COVID by sprinkling a little nettle on THE bat before eating it? A mystery!

An Excellent Food

Nonetheless, it remains an excellent, rich food, and if you eat it regularly, you’re sure to benefit from certain virtues. For example, its anti-diabetic properties have been demonstrated in some twenty studies. Nettle has been tested “in human bodies” (in vivo), with excellent results. As they say, “a nettle a day keeps the doctor away forever!” Apples are out of fashion!

Many other virtues are associated with this plant in traditional medicine: it is said to tone, detoxify, relieve urinary disorders and joint pain associated with osteoarthritis, as well as having beneficial effects on skin, nails and hair.

Although I haven’t found any scientific studies attesting to its effectiveness for these uses, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible! And I have a great way of looking at traditional medicine: placebo effect or not, if it works, it works! The important thing is to feel better, right?

Enjoy picking your new favorite magic plant!

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

4 comments on “In Mother Nature’s Garden: Stinging Nettle

  1. Kerry Smith

    I think that such a hobby can improve mental health and even provide the opportunity to constantly eat healthy vegetables and greens. However, to treat stress, I still advise you to go here and learn more about natural and sugar-free cannabis edibles. These are great sweets that will help you get rid of stress and anxiety simply and safely.

  2. Roy L Whitaker

    I recall that the Germans use nettle for cheese, the French for soup, and the British, strangely, for nettle eating contests (I can’t vouch for that last one). Those of us just south of the border but in view of Victoria refer to our nettles as “Canadian thistle” (no offense intended), and as the article points out, is both a robust grower and great for the compost pile. Thanks to your tip, I plan to try adding it to my pasta sauce.

  3. I agree, but wear long gloves – I used my normal gloves, but got stung when the nettle bounced back and hit near my elbow. Still a bit uncomfortable, however, a little blob of hydrocortisone cream (1%) helped.

  4. Ib Andren

    I agree – wear gloves when weeding or harvesting. I have also found that you can pull the plant from the base without being stung. Just make sure you do not let the plant brush against the bare skin on your arms. I grew up in Denmark where the plant is very common, but it is only in the past few years that I have noticed it in my Laurentian garden.

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