Notes on Nettles

by Jeanmarie Morelli

Stinging nettles, Urtica dioica, are commonly found in moist sites and can shock the unsuspecting hiker. Often forming large patches under alder trees, they also grow along streams and disturbed sites. This time of year, the young shoots thrust upward from underground rhizomes. Later in the season, nettle plants grow to several feet tall when they produce either male or female inconspicuous flowers. Although nutritious plants, the stinging hairs covering the leaves deter browsing except by insect larvae, including the Painted Lady and West Coast Lady butterflies.

Nettle shoots herald the arrival of spring and an opportunity for wildcrafting. Young plants can be mistaken for mint with pairs of dark green leaves growing in opposite pairs along the square stem. Wear gloves and use clippers. Steamed or boiled nettles can be a spinach substitute. It’s rich in iron. Try preparing a potato-leek soup with a stock of fresh nettle greens and miso. The nettle’s sting is contained in the hollow hairs filled with uric acid. The fresh foliage applied topically has an anti-inflammatory effect on sore joints. (I have found it quite effective on aching elbows.) The fresh plant includes an array of phytochemicals. A report from the NIH confirms: “… Urtica species exert excellent anti-rheumatoid arthritis, anti-gout, anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, and antioxidant activities, all of which contribute to the protection of joints.”