Native to North America and Eurasia, nettle is a 5-foot-tall perennial widely naturalized in fields and woodland edges of temperate areas worldwide. The genus name comes from the Latin urere, which means “to burn.”
Like other plants in its family, nettle is well known for the burning sensation that occurs if you come in contact with the plant’s hairy, toothed leaves. Interestingly, you can relieve the stinging by rubbing the affected area with the leaves of yellow dock (Rumex crispus) or jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), which often grow near nettle.
Ancient Greeks used nettle juice medicinally to treat many conditions, ranging from snakebites to coughs, and Roman soldiers rubbed nettle on their skin — a practice known as urtication — to improve their tolerance of cold temperatures. From the Bronze Age through the early 20th century, people used the strong fibers of nettle stems to make cloth and paper.
Common Names: Nettle, Stinging Nettle
Description: Single-stemmed perennial up to 5-feet tall; clusters of tiny, greenish flowers; heart-shaped leaves with toothed edges, covered with tiny, bristly hairs
Hardiness: To Zone 3
Parts Used: Leaves, stems, and root
Range/Habitat: Native to North America and Eurasia, widely naturalized in temperate areas
Nettle leaves are a favorite spring green. Cooking (and drying, for use in winter) destroys the plant’s sting. To prepare the leaves, you can steam, sauté, or stir-fry them; puree them and add them to soups; or substitute them for spinach in recipes. In Scotland, people make a traditional pudding with nettle, leeks, broccoli, and rice. The herb is also used in Russian and Italian dishes, such as Russian nettle soup and risotto with wild greens.
Nettle leaves — which contain vitamins A and C, as well as the mineral iron — have antihistamine, anti-inflammatory, astringent, and diuretic properties. Practitioners use nettle to treat anemia and poor circulation; to relieve arthritis, seasonal allergies, heavy menstrual bleeding, and inflammatory skin conditions; and to ease and prevent urinary tract infections and kidney stones.
Impressive research supports the ability of nettle root to ease the symptoms of enlarged prostate, including frequent and nighttime urination. The condition, known as benign prostatic hyperplasia, affects many men older than 50.
Herbalists frequently recommend nettle tea for its nutritive value and as a general tonic and “blood builder.” To make nettle leaf tea, steep 2 teaspoons of the herb in 1 cup of hot water for 10 minutes. Strain, then sweeten the tea, if desired. Drink up to 3 cups per day. Wear gloves when handling the fresh herb; heat deactivates the plant’s sting.
Other nettle preparations include extracts, tinctures, and fresh juice. The fresh leaves can be applied externally as a poultice to relieve joint pain and inflammation.
Shampoos and other commercial hair-care products often contain nettle. The herb is thought to thicken hair and make it shiny. You can use a nettle infusion as a hair rinse or facial steam. Some gardeners use nettle tea as a fertilizer for garden plants.
How to grow it
Nettle grows easily in moist, nitrogen-rich soil in full sun or partial shade. Plant seeds or root divisions in spring; to prevent unwanted spread, grow nettle in a large container. For medicinal use, wear gloves and harvest the whole plants in late spring or summer, just before the plants flower. For culinary use, pick young leaf tips from plants less than 4 inches tall.
IN THE KITCHEN: THE SOFTER SIDE OF NETTLE
Nettle can be a wonderfully nutritious and tasty spring green — if you learn to handle this prickly plant with care. To protect yourself from the herb’s notorious sting, be sure to wear gloves when harvesting and preparing nettle.
For cooking, choose young plants, ideally no more than 4 to 6-inches tall. If the plants are older, use only the younger (top) leaves and discard the stems. While wearing rubber gloves, gently rinse the nettle and then chop it. Cooking nettle deactivates the sting. Steam it alone or with other vegetables, cooking the greens just until they wilt — 3 or 4-minutes. Serve cooked nettle as a side dish, or add it to risotto, pasta sauces, or quiches. Here’s another way to make the most of this springtime tonic and treat.
Spring Nettle Soup
1–2 tablespoons olive oil
2 shallots, chopped
1 stalk celery, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups young nettle leaves, finely chopped
1 cup arugula, coarsely chopped
2 cups milk
2 cups vegetable stock
2 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
2–3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons chopped parsley
In a 3- or 4-quart pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Cook the shallots and celery in the oil for about 5-minutes or until soft. Add the garlic and cook for 1-minute, then add the nettle leaves and arugula. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and cook the greens just until they wilt, about 3 minutes.
Add the milk and stock, then raise the heat just until the liquid comes to a boil. Add the potatoes. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, and cook for 30 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat. In a blender or food processor, puree the soup in batches to thicken it. (When pureeing hot soup, take care to avoid splashing yourself.) Return the soup to the pot and reheat over low heat. Season with salt and pepper, if using; add the grated cheese and garnish with the parsley just before serving. Serves 4.