Nettles

by Pat Mettler

Visitors to my garden have questioned me - "is that stinging nettle growing by your door?  Do you really want it there?"  My answer is - "Yes" and "Yes".

I was introduced to stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) as a nutritious herb while studying herbs with Rosemary Gladstar, a well-known herbalist.  Nettle leaf is a nutritious herb appreciated and utilized by many herbalists.  Indeed, herbalists love it because it can be prepared as a nutritious green tea that blends well with other tonifying herbs.

But what is a "nutritious herb"?  Plant substances can be placed into three main categories: nutrient, medicinal-nutrient, and medicinal.  Some plants are thought of as foods for routine consumption while others are strictly medicinal and can be toxic if used without caution.  Western medicine recognizes plants as foods and plants as medicine (medicine meaning used to correct specific problems) but frequently fails to recognize that some plants fall into a third grouping and are used both as food and medicine (such as garlic, ginger, and capsicum).  In contrast, traditional systems of medicine recognize that nutrition and medicine are two ends of a long continuum of plant substances that we can use to keep us healthy or aid us in regaining our health.

Nettle leaf has a long history of folk use.  Nettle greens are wonderfully nutritious, containing large portions of minerals, vitamins A and C, chlorophyll, and protein.  Nettle leaf has the ability to increase the production of urine and to increase the efficiency of liver and kidney function.  It is used for anemia, has shown antiallergenic properties in hay fever, is taken for urinary problems such as cystitis and stones, and because it increases the excretion of uric acid, it is also used for arthritis and rheumatism.  In Europe, nettle rhizomes are used to reduce the inflammation and improve the painful urination that can be part of non-cancerous prostate enlargement.  This plant is quite safe.  No side effects or contraindications have been reported for nettle products.  Nettle leaf is considered to be safe during pregnancy.

Nettle is commonly used as fresh leaf (must be cooked to deactivate the sting), dried leaf, tea, tincture, capsule, tablet and ointment.  I like to use nettle leaves in a number of ways.  A particular favorite is as a mixture of chopped and lightly steamed nettle leaf, ricotta cheese, tofu and/or egg, and seasonings which I use as a layer in a lasagna dish or use to fill pasta such as manicotti.  Nettle leaves are a tasty addition to some soups and stews and can be added to other cooked greens such as spinach, collards, or kale.  In the summer, I make sun tea using fresh nettle leaves and fresh mint leaves - adding a touch of lemon makes a refreshing tea.  I also dry nettle leaves and use them for tea, in soups, or as a substitute for parsley.  Freezing nettles works well for use during the winter months.  I chop the fresh leaves and then lightly steam before freezing.  Frozen nettle is easily added to soups and stews or cooked as a green.  And then there is the tincture I make with the fresh (or dried) leaves and use as a tonic.  Oh, by the way, I have read that dried nettle leaf is also useful as animal feed.

So, not only is this marvelous plant safe to use, it is also readily available.  It is a hardy perennial that grows in thick patches along stream banks and in shaded areas of most temperate climates.  The nettle in by back yard arrived without my help, thrives without a stream, and spends a good portion of the day in direct sunlight.  When harvesting nettle, one must pay attention.   Nettle can and does sting.  Be sure to wear gloves, long sleeves, and long pants when harvesting.  The plant's benefits more than outweigh the occasional sting.  For your health, try this plant.  Blessings of the green ones be upon you.

Pat Mettler is a member of the NSAS Board of Directors.  She is most familiar to NSAS members for her annual herbal presentations at the Healthy Farms Conference.

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