You’d be surprised how often I get asked questions like “what is your favorite plant” and “if you could take only one plant to the moon with you, which would it be?” I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these questions. As an ethnobotanist, a plant person, and a healer, I can’t say that I have a favorite plant, but if I had to choose…the first plant that comes to mind every single time, is the aptly named…stinging nettle.
Yes, I know the name sounds ominous, but in reality, nettles are an amazing source of food, medicine, and material.
I’ve often related stories of people I have treated with stinging nettles. There’s my friend Floris, who suffered from terrible back pain for years…tossing and turning for half the night in order to get comfortable. One year, she harvested some nettles while she was out walking with my ethnobotany class, and she used them on her back a couple of hours before bed. The next morning, she was practically in tears…pain free tears…after having the first good night’s sleep she had experienced in years. I think Floris was happy that she was finally pain-free, but I think she was even more ecstatic to have reclaimed another piece of her ancestor’s knowledge about this medicine.
I could relate at least 100 other stories about nettles successfully being used to treat pain due to inflammation and arthritis. What’s more, it will often treat these issues for the long term. Sciatica, pinched nerves, and postsurgical pain and inflammation will often be gone for good after using fresh nettles a few times. Those who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, neuropathy, or even inflamed joints and muscles due to exercise or an accident, will often see immediate and long term relief.
The stinging nettles must be harvested fresh, when their stinging power is at their peak. For this particular treatment, I prefer to cut them using scissors or clippers down at the ground. Use the entire nettle stem to “whip“ or “gently brush“ the affected area for 10 to 15 minutes, or as long as you can stand. Yes…it will sting, but the stinging effect should only last 15 to 20 minutes. If you have a lot of inflammation, you might find that the stinging lasts longer. If it gets to be too much, you can always wash the affected area with soap and water. Remember, the sting of nettles isn’t a long-term rash like poison ivy…instead, the tiny stinging hairs work like little needles that are delivering powerful medicine just underneath the surface of your skin. You can do this “whipping treatment“ about three times a day if you wish.
Nettle tea is also a wonderful medicine for allergies. In fact, I make an allergy elixir by heating 2 parts nettle with 1 part licorice root in a pot of water, boiling for 20-30 minutes, straining, and then adding raw honey. Nettles also make a beautiful shampoo that is very nourishing to the scalp…and it makes your hair super shiny.
With this long (but by no means complete!) discussion of the medicinal properties of nettles, it is easy to forget that they are a delicious, nutritious edible wild plant. Some of you are probably wondering why I would ask you to eat something that stings. But the fact is, the stinging effect is completely eliminated by blanching the nettles for about 20 seconds. One of my favorite nettle dishes is, of course, nettle pesto. We love to make a foraged pesto with blanched nettles, hazelnuts, wild onion, a little olive oil, and some toasted acorns. If you are not a purist, feel free to add some fresh basil, Parmesan cheese, and lemon juice. Fresh nettles are also wonderful in any soup or stew. They make a delectable ravioli filling with a bit of ricotta cheese, and let’s not forget my kids’ favorite: “nettle noodles“. Simply add puréed nettles to any pasta dough for beautiful color, flavor, and of course vitamins and minerals. Nettles contain more protein than almost any other green vegetable, so they are perfect for vegans. Bonus…most of their anti-inflammatory properties will make it through the cooking process, so you can basically have an anti-inflammatory pesto or pasta!
Nettle fibers make some of the strongest cordage around. I once visited a museum in the Northwestern United States that housed a collection of Salish fishing nets. The most impressive was a 100-year-old net made from nettle fibers…it was at least 9m wide and long, with tiny squares no larger than 7mm. Although it had obviously been used many times, it was still in perfect condition. Bodros et al (2008) found that nettle fibers possess a tensile strength of over 1594 MPa! In fact, nettle fiber is as strong as hemp!
Although nettles are much maligned due to their habit of causing us discomfort, you simply won’t find a more safe, useful plant that seems to grow almost universally around the world. Make a friend of your nettles. Get to know this relative…even if he can be a bit of a on pain. You won’t regret it.
By Linda Black Elk
Linda Black Elk Linda (Catawba Nation) is an ethnobotanist specializing in teaching about culturally important plants and their uses as food and medicine. Linda works to protect food sovereignty, traditional plant knowledge, and environmental quality as an extension of the fight against hydraulic fracturing and the fossil fuels industry. She has written for numerous publications, and is the author of “Watoto Unyutapi”, a field guide to edible wild plants of the Dakota people.