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Gillian's Fieldwork Notes: Stinging Nettle ~ 101 Uses

(photo: the stinging nettle plant)

Stinging Nettle: A Favourite Among Herbal Healers

I enjoyed living for a time on Galiano Island, one of the Gulf Islands that lie between Vancouver and Vancouver Island. The arrival of spring on Galiano was always a festive occasion. Lushness abounded just about everywhere; this abundance is a great source of envy for both my B.C. Interior and Eastern relatives.

Most of the newer greenery that Mother Nature produced alongside our roads and sprinkled throughout Galiano every spring is provided by one of my favourite herbs, Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica).

(By the way, if you get stung by this plant, try rubbing crushed dock leaves onto the sting. There's a reason why they grow so closely together.)

Herbalists are often asked the silly question: what herb would they bring if they were left on a deserted island?  Nettle is very often the answer, and definitely my top choice (hoping there'd be other herbs on the island to make a nice tea blend while awaiting the rescue boat). One could survive on Nettles alone if need be, at least for a while.

Early spring is the best time to harvest and eat Nettle, often considered to be the "great spring cleanser".

 Nettle is reported to contain a lovely substance called secretin,  that helps "cleanse the bowels" of its heavy mucous lining from a winter of couch sitting and holiday debauchery. Nettle is a "super food", containing a significant amount of plant protein, chlorophyll, vitamins A, C and D, and minerals Iron, Calcium, Potassium and Manganese. Most of us have seen a recipe for "Nesto" (pesto with Nettles instead of basil); there's also Nettle lasagna, Nettle soup, creamed Nettles on toast, Nettle juice (a new one for the juice bar? - freeze it in ice cube trays for later), even Nettle ice cream.

Herbalist Janice Schofield talks about the Dena'ina Athabascans cooking fish with nettles, and she also reminds us to save any of Nettles' cooking water for soup stock. Nettle tea is a spring standby here, as is Nettle in stirfriess, casseroles...need i go on!

Medicinally, Nettle is used in cases of mild anemia since it is said to be one of the highest sources of plant-digestible iron.

For this reason, women are encouraged to take in as much nettles as possible during menstruation, postpartum recovery, and lactation.  (Take it easy during pregnancy).  The roots are even used, with good data showing its usefulness in treating incontinence and male urinary tract problems.

I use Nettle in so many of my tincture formulas, including ones for arthritis, allergies, skin disorders, the lungs, and in just about every one of my tea blends.  Powdered, it also makes a star appearance in our Mineral Mix alongside kelp and spirulina.

Herbal enthusiasts should read Michael Moore's hilarious take on ‘green powders'; he goes on to say " can add it to smoothies and salad dressings; put it in bread; add it to your tea, home beer and so forth.  It is a green food your body recognizes and can help build blood, tissue, and self-empowerment."  Sold on it yet? (There are even more uses, medically and cosmetically, but this is becoming a novel).

I'm considered to be a picky picker when it comes to harvesting Nettle - one should take great care in choosing non-polluted sites to harvest from (ie.: your source should lie at least 100 feet from the road and power lines).  Make sure you use gloves to collect them, and be comforted by the fact that, when steamed or dried, the stinging is eliminated.  (Did you know that some people actually go for the sting, even whipping themselves with nettle bundles to relieve their arthritis?).

Choose plants that are still in their dark green or reddish green phase; older plants and plants in bloom can cause irritation in the kidneys.

I usually only pick the top 4-6", which allows the plant to continue to grow and make new shoots for later. Leave some behind for wildlife and for the soil.

(photo: Galiano Island)