Nettles – The Taste of Spring

An invasive weed with a cruel sting that should be banished from our gardens, or an extraordinary wild plant that is a valuable medicine as well as a nourishing food …. what’s your view? I am a huge fan of nettles and look forward each spring to making a vibrant soup using the first of the year’s growth.

Nettle (Urtica dioica) is a veritable superfood, rich in micro-nutrients, phytochemicals, minerals and vitamins including vitamins A and C, and minerals particularly iron, silica and potassium. With their astringent, expectorant, diuretic, antihistamine, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, all parts of the nettle can be used as medicine and have been for countless generations.  Apparently, St Patrick blessed the nettle as the plant put to more varied and useful purposes than almost any other herb. Its fibrous leaves and stalks have been used to make paper, fishing nets, sails, sheets, tablecloths, ropes and textiles since the Neolithic times. In World War I, the Germans used nettles to make sail cloths, sacking and army uniforms. Nettles have also been used in beer and cheese making. Today the tough fibres from nettle stems are again being used to make cloth as they are eco-friendly and easy to grow. Apparently, nettle is stronger than cotton and finer than hemp. 

Nettle tops make a nourishing as well as detoxifying spring tonic, very useful after the rather clogging sedentary habits of the winter to prepare you for a healthy spring and summer. They stimulate the action of the liver, the main detoxifying organ of the body, and support the cleansing action of the kidneys through their diuretic action. This also helps to relieve fluid retention and can ease cystitis and urethritis. Nettle has a reputation for softening and expelling kidney stones and gravel, and as a remedy for bedwetting and incontinence. It enhances the excretion of uric acid through the kidneys so it is good for gout and other arthritic conditions. Through its cooling, anti-inflammatory and cleansing action, nettle can be used for inflammatory skin problems including eczema, psoriasis, acne, boils and abscesses. Nettle tea is an old cure for urticaria and eruptive infections such as chicken pox. 

In the digestive tract, the astringent action of nettles provided by the tannins helps protect the gut lining from irritation and infection and can be used to treat diarrhoea, inflammation and ulcers, as well as worms. Long-term use of nettle is also helpful in prevention and treatment of chronic inflammatory bowel problems including colitis and to reduce blood sugar. The seeds are anthelmintic and make a good remedy for worms and parasites.

A great remedy for the immune system, nettle leaves can soothe the histamine-mediated allergic response and ease allergies such as eczema, asthma and hay fever. They can be used to reduce fevers when taken as a hot tea and have antimicrobial activity against a wide range of infections including bacteria Staph. aureus and Staph albus. It may well be the flavonoids in nettle that have immune-stimulatory effects. The lectins (UDA) also have immunomodulatory effects with anti-viral and anti-fungal effects. All parts of nettle can be used for respiratory problems. Their cleansing and astringent properties help to clear catarrhal congestion. A tincture of the seeds is a traditional remedy for fevers and lung disorders; a decoction of the root has been used for sore throats, asthma, inflammatory chest conditions and pleurisy.

Studies have demonstrated that nettle has powerful antioxidant activities which explain its reputation as a rejuvenative. The leaf and root have anti-inflammatory actions by preventing prostaglandin formation. They also have immuno-modulating effects and may inhibit the inflammatory cascade in inflammatory and autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Its analgesic effect contributes to its positive effects here. Studies have found that nettles can decrease free radical concentrations in both the cerebellum and frontal lobe of the brain which could prove beneficial in preventing cognitive decline as we age. Nettle could also be helpful in prevention of other immune and endocrine problems including low thyroid function and cancer.

The root has long been used in treatment of urinary problems, prostatitis and benign enlargement of the prostate. It contains lectins and certain types of complex sugars which, according to much modern research, are probably the major components contributing its benefits which come about through their ability to affect hormones and proteins that carry sex hormones in the body. The anti-proliferative effect of stinging nettle roots extracts has been observed with an inhibitory effect on the growth of the lymph node carcinoma of the prostate.

Nettle seeds make an excellent kidney and adrenal tonic, increasing energy and vitality, improving resilience to stress whether physiological or mento/emotional. They help regulate thyroid function and make an excellent medicine for the reproductive system. They have a reputation for regulating periods and enhancing fertility, and have long been used to stimulate milk production in nursing mothers.  Dried nettles have been added to cattle and poultry feeds to increase milk and egg output. With their astringent effect, nettles make a good remedy for stemming bleeding; they can lessen heavy menstrual bleeding and help raise haemoglobin levels by their rich iron level. They have also been used as a restorative and rejuvenative remedy during the menopause and beyond. 

From an Ayurvedic perspective nettle has light, dry and penetrating qualities with astringent, bitter, sweet and salty tastes. It is considered particularly useful at this time of year for removing excess kapha after winter and reducing pitta in preparation for the increased heat of spring and summer. It is an excellent rejuvenative and nourishing tonic, increasing ojas, clearing ama and excess pitta and kapha from the rasa and rakta dhatus.

Externally the fresh juice or tea can be applied to cuts and wounds, bites and stings (including nettle sting), haemorrhoids, burns and scalds, to stop bleeding and speed healing. Made into an ointment, nettle can help to relieve irritating skin conditions such as eczema. A compress of nettles has been used traditionally for arthritis and muscular pain, as well as sciatica. A poultice used to be applied to the chest in pleurisy. In World War II nettles were gathered for their high chlorophyll content and used as a dressing to reduce the odour and speed healing of badly infected wounds. An infusion of nettles makes an excellent mouthwash and gargle for a sore mouth or sore throat and a stimulating hair tonic. A bunch of fresh nettles is said to keep flies off food. Nettles are often used in shampoos as they are said to reduce dandruff and hair loss. 

Fresh nettles are still used today in the same way as they were used by the Romans, to stimulate the circulation by stinging the skin. ‘Urtication’ as this treatment is called, is a rather painful therapy involving stinging the skin with fresh nettles to produce a counter-irritant effect. This rather drastic form of treatment has been used to good effect in arthritis. By increasing the flow of blood to the surface of the skin and inducing inflammation over an already chronically inflamed joint, urtication will take the fluid and toxins away from the area and help to relieve the pain and swelling. I have seen this in South America where urtication has been used to stimulate the circulation even in serious conditions such as gangrene and threatened amputations. In Russia urtication has been part of their folk tradition for centuries. Stinging the skin for a minute or more a few times daily was recommended for coughs, paralysis, loss of muscle power and muscle wasting, sciatica, arthritis and to stimulate menstruation.

Nettle leaves are also  great for biodiversity in your garden. They are the food source for the red admiral, small tortoiseshell, painted lady and comma butterflies, when they are in the caterpillar stage.

To grow nettles for food – or for wildlife – they need regular cutting to encourage delicate new growth. Once the plant sets seed the leaves are tough and undigestible, but they new leaves will regrow almost indefinitely when cut. The leaves, seeds and roots can be prepared as teas, tinctures and powders.

Here are some delicious recipes for inspiration:

River Cottage Nettle Soup

Riverford Field Kitchen Nettle Pesto & Nettle Cordial

BBC Good Food Nettle Spanakopita

How do you add nettles to your diet – let me know if you have any favourite dishes I’ve missed!